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Pastor Sonya Williams-Giersch stands inside the sanctuary of Gravel Springs Lutheran Church in Star Tannery. She also leads services at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Star Tannery. — Rich Cooley/Daily

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Rev. Michael Dettmer stands inside the sanctuary of Mt. Jackson United Methodist Church. Dettmer also pastors at Quicksburg United Methodist Church. — Rich Cooley/Daily

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Sonya Williams-Giersch sits in Gravel Springs Lutheran Church in Star Tannery. She plans to attend seminary in Gettysburg, Pa., beginning in July, with some help from her former congregation at St. Paul Lutheran in Strasburg. — Rich Cooley/Daily

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Williams-Giersch stands inside the doorway of the Gravel Springs Lutheran Church. — Rich Cooley/Daily

Two local pastors split time between two church families

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

Sonya Williams-Giersch and Michael Dettmer still are fairly new to their chosen careers, but both have whole communities that rely on them and look to them for guidance.

Williams-Giersch, pastor at Gravel Springs Lutheran in Star Tannery and St. John's Lutheran in Frederick County, and Dettmer, pastor at Mt. Jackson United Methodist and Quicksburg United Methodist, have their work cut out for them splitting their time between two churches. They love the work and their communities and hope their presence will be powerful.

"It does help that I've been here before," said Dettmer, 30, who previously had ministered at Otterbein United Methodist in Harrisonburg after graduating from Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

While he served in Harrisonburg, he and his wife, Gabriella Mirabilo, lived in Strasburg, where she taught chemistry at Strasburg High School.

It also helps that he's served two churches before, for three years in Waynesboro.

"Each church has kind of its own unique ecosystem," he said. Each has its own council and own history. They have separate families who long have attended one church or the other.

It's like "Never the twain shall meet, sometimes," he said.

Williams-Giersch, 45, is much newer to the job, having started officially in January. She plans to attend seminary in Gettysburg, Pa., beginning in July.

For now, she's licensed and did some work as an associate minister to become rostered as an Associate in Ministry.

"I did supply [at Gravel Springs] last Christmas, and we had good attendance on Christmas morning," she said. She started unofficially on Dec. 18, with her bishop's permission.

But she wasn't alone. Her husband, Richard Giersch, who plays music for the contemporary worship service at Strasburg United Methodist and at St. John's, helped out, and her daughter Gabrielle "Gabe" Giersch contributed her singing voice.

"It was a family effort," Williams-Giersch said. When the church hired her, "I said, we are a package deal. You get me, you get them."

For Dettmer too, his family helps with his job.

"If I weren't the minister's wife, I would be active anyway," said Mirabilio, 30, and that's the approach she takes when considering her role in the church community.

"I consider ministry a serious aspect of my life," she said. "... I view it as a partnership. We're in it together."


Leading a community of worshippers isn't all give, as Dettmer and Williams-Giersch are quick to point out.

When the members of St. Paul learned of Williams-Giersch's desire to go to seminary, they turned to the Acts of Grace program to help fund her education, "and off they went," she said. "And it was, I just want to say, that was a huge burden off of me. ... And I still am humbled and touched."

"They just showed me a lot of grace in all of that and I really would like to thank them," she said. "I really, really do appreciate everyone's support."

For Dettmer, part of what guides him in his ministry is what he recites from the Great Thanksgiving during communion: "By your spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world."

"And to me that represents the unity of the church," he said.

"We are united and that's something that we should take very seriously [to] support one another," he said.


The life of a minister leading two churches sometimes means double the love and double the support, but it also can lead to confusion, Dettmer and Williams-Giersch said.

"It's a struggle," Dettmer said. Because he's still new to the career path and isn't ordained yet, the church sends him to smaller areas. The churches he has been serving are going through a shift of wanting to grow but also maintain their history.

"I have never been at a church that said 'We want to be smaller,'" Dettmer said. "For the church, how do you show that the church matters?" is a big concern for him, as a mentor.

When thinking about how to lead a church, Dettmer considers its place in the community.

"If we disappear tomorrow, what would the community miss?" he said. Asking himself this question helps with perspective.

When Dettmer and his wife returned to Shenandoah County last year in July, they were only weeks from becoming new parents to daughter Hannah.

"Both churches want to have Hannah as their family," Dettmer said. There's an interest there, he said. "There's two distinct groups that you're intimate with."

"It's kind of human nature for each church to think of me as their pastor," Dettmer said. "There's this sense of 'you're ours.'"

But feeling like a part of the church community and being a part of it are different.

It gets confusing, Dettmer said, "Especially since moving." He said he still consciously has to think about which church he's in, which congregation he's about to address, when he begins his welcome each Sunday morning.

"Figuring that out, and I have to write out a script for myself, it is a balance," he said.
For Williams-Giersch, moving to a new church from the one in which she spent her entire life before, was a big change.

"One, it's new, so you have to [adjust] as you do any job, if you will ... but I think the other challenge is trying to keep it part-time," she said. The number of hours she works is up to the church.

She's thankful that being a woman minister wasn't the challenge that it might have been, she said.

"Actually, pleasantly, I have not had a problem with that yet."

She remembered a recent day when a visitor to a funeral she officiated told her, "It was such a nice service, and it was so refreshing to see a woman pastor."

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