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New pastor joins Immanuel Lutheran Church

By Carter Howe
howethom@grinnell.edu

The Rev. Dr. Joel Koepp has been settling into his new job as pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church here in Grinnell, a job he began in late August. A Minnesota native, Koepp arrived in Grinnell after serving seven years as pastor in Wood Lake, Minn.

Being a pastor was something Koepp dreamed of since childhood. “It’s something that I’d thought about ever since I was a little kid. I was about five years old, and I would play church … reading the bible and talking about the scriptures is something that’s always interested me,” he said.

Koepp graduated from Southwest Minnesota State University with a B.S. in social work and a minor in psychology. During college, he also taught tae kwon do. He then headed right to seminary at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN. After his time at the seminary, Koepp spent his vicarage year in Brooking, SD doing campus ministry.

“Talking about the Bible and God’s word on college campuses I think is something that is important, something that is near and dear to my heart,” he said. “That’s what I did on my vicarage.”

In his education and ministry, Koepp has often focused on understanding mental health. In addition to studying social work and psychology in college, in 2014 Koepp earned his Doctorate of Ministry from Sioux Falls Seminary in South Dakota, writing his dissertation on how Christians can understand and combat self-harm practices. This dedication to understanding self-harm was brought about by experiences he had talking to parishioners of his Minnesota congregation.

“After the first couple months of serving in Minnesota, I started to have many conversations with people that were engaged in self-harm behaviors, and so that spurned me on to get my doctorate of ministry focusing on mental health and self-harm,” Koepp said. “So I wrote my dissertation and published a book based on what does God’s word have to say, or how do we as Christians understand that whole area of self-harm. There was many who would come in and ask questions … the church hasn’t really been engaged in that conversation, so I thought it was kind of a way to start that.”

Koepp hopes to use this experience to be a resource for people who might be struggling with mental health issues. “Creating a safe space for people … to be a resource more or less. I guess on a city level, you know, I understand there isn’t a whole lot of mental health resources in Grinnell, and so if opportunity presents itself to be a resource in that way too, I’m open to that.”

Concerning his congregation, Koepp hopes to make Immanuel Lutheran more visible and get his parishioners more involved in the community though he recognizes the challenges of doing this with a congregation where many drive in from outside Grinnell. “The understanding that I had in coming here was that the people are well catechized — they’re well taught — but they’re paralyzed from the knees down,” he said. “A large group of the congregation that drives in from other towns, so the city of the Grinnell really doesn’t know the church exists, and so I guess the biggest goal is just getting the community to know that we’re here and to reach the unchurched, those that don’t have a church home … how do we speak to them, how do we help them, how do we bear one another’s burdens in love, as Galatians tells us.”

For any Grinnellians who are looking for a new spiritual home, Koepp says he is always available to talk. “Call me anytime … I’m always open to questions. I love just sitting down and visiting.”

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