21 years ago I was hired to be the “Minister of Music” at Spirit Garage, the Church With The Really Big Door.  There was a real excitement around the startup team, but also a big blind spot.  We had never done this; we didn’t know what would happen.  We flailed, punted, improvised, and carried on even though we were writing our job descriptions as we went.

Here’s the short story: Pastor Pam Fickenscher was hired by Bethlehem Lutheran Church to start a church ministry in Uptown, Minneapolis in early 1997.  Through random connections, she found and hired me to lead music.  We started worship in October of that year at the Comedy Sportz Theater, at 28thSt. & Hennepin Ave.

Here’s more of the longer story: The meetings that led up to that moment were full of brainstorming with a team of people from Bethlehem, the mama-church.  Catchphrases and mission jargon peppered the conversations.  Reading books and articles became part of our homework, and eventually, we settled on a name, Spirit Garage, and someone blurted out “The church with the really big door!”  And just like that, we had a name that even the senior pastor liked.

My mom was thrilled.  Not only was I working in a church, but planting a church with friends and neighbors [something my family had helped a pastor do in our small town—Lord of Glory Lutheran Church, Big Lake/Elk River] but also, I was using my music degree from Gustavus Adolphus College and employed full-time. Honestly, I was thrilled too, but mainly thrilled to be able to tell people confidently that I was a professional musician [and to be able to write the word MUSICIAN on any medical chart, application, tax form, or bank loan] and feel good about it.  People are genuinely intrigued when you tell them you are a full-time musician.

Worship service #1 was, um, well, it happened.  I can’t say it went well, but it went. While Pam and I had discussed and agreed on an order of worship, neither of us had practiced it, and certainly didn’t have it memorized.  There was a bit of back-and-forth awkwardness and obvious “y’all-ain’t-got-yer-act-together” happening.

Leading up to that point, I had a solid setlist, had a few band rehearsals, but clearly had grandiose visions of what would be happening on a regular basis.  My initial vision was to have a guest artist each week, playing half of the worship service. Then, taking them out for pizza or burritos would be enough of a thanks for the work.  What I realized quickly was that there weren’t nearly enough guest artists willing to play, willing to play for free, or music stylistically appropriate for our thing.  Guest artists quickly disappeared.  We would settle for guests playing in our regular worship band.

I naively assumed that all of my musician friends would be thrilled to jam, play churchy songs, and rock-out on Sunday mornings.  Heh.  This quickly morphed into me calling everyone and their dog that owned an instrument and welcoming them to play at worship.  It was good and bad, but many times good, and new friends quickly replaced old friends who were in the throes of their own career changes and choices.

I also had envisioned everyone free-form jamming as a prelude and postlude.  On that first Sunday in October were still setting up equipment and getting people situated when that prelude jam should have been happening, so jamming also quickly disappeared.

We needed someone to serve coffee and treats! Yikes!  How could we miss this?  Thank you, Erin Walton [Kerns], for making that happen.  And thank you, Carl Holmquist, for bringing said treats.

Pam had all these plastic bins of stuff [what the heck could we possibly need?] and a small altar stuffed into her car.  I had two big Sunn speakers and a Peavey powered mixer and a duffle bag of cables, mics, and stands for a sound system. Bethlehem had given us a keyboard and an amp, and wow, did those two get a lot of mileage.

Wait, now we have to do all this again, NEXT WEEK?!?!?!

And that’s how Spirit Garage started.  In the weeks that followed Pam and I did several things.  We revised the worship order, contacted Old Chicago and struck an all-you-can-eat-pizza-for-$10 deal for post worship musician lunch, tried to organize those plastic bins, tried to write/adapt/arrange some relevant worship songs, and keep on truckin’.  It was not easy.

We attended a few churchy conferences and led worship at a few churchy pastor gatherings, but there was a lot of trial and error. Church planting was not easy.  There was no “MODEL” for us to follow that didn’t involve a big worship hall and an expensive sound system.  Believe me, those were out there and working.

One week a guitarist introduced himself and he became our longest-running band member.  Thank you, John Lawyer.  He brought a co-worker to church who said to Pam, “Let me take this stuff home for you. I’ll bring it back next week.” And the Pit Crew was born.  Thank you, Tim Olin.  Both of them became part of our first leadership team, ACTS.

We started to get some press in that first year. KARE 11, WCCO 9, The Lutheran Magazine, the Star & Tribune all had pieces on us as the new crazy thing.  The New York Times picked us up in about 2004 and I remember being so concerned with how the band was playing and how worship was going, I could have cared less about my interview!

I still look at it like this: church with a rock band. What’s so amazing about that? Makes perfect sense to me.

At 5 years in I made the joke “Hey, this is the longest I’ve ever held a job!” which was true then, as it is now.  I’m still proud to call myself a professional musician and I’m even more proud that the IRS knows that too.  All my life I’ve been part of groups, 4-H, church youth group, bands of all kinds, choirs, plays, The Land of Lake Boys Choir, the Omega Kappa Fraternity, and I love being around people and parties.  When I realized that I have a passion for community, and in this case, spiritual community, it made all the work seem worth it.

A pastor once asked me “Man, 18 years.  What keeps you going?”

“People.” I said.  “I like people.  Music is great, but better with more people.”