Karl Anders Ellingsen is passionate about sharing the stories of the church he loves. As the editor of Brobyggeren, the magazine of the United Methodist Church in Norway, this child of a United Methodist pastor, travels around the country listening to the stories of United Methodist congregations, leaders, and members.
In our conversation, Ellingsen talks about his love of the church, the message of grace, and the way he keeps in constant conversation with God.
Karl Anders Ellingsen
- Brobyggeren (Bridge Builder), the magazine of The United Methodist Church in Norway, is edited by Ellingsen.
- Explore the Norway Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
- Learn more about our Central Conferences.
- Ellingsen is a frequent contributor to United Methodist News and serves on the Commission of United Methodist Communications.
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This episode posted on November 2, 2018.
Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as health as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
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In this episode, I get to introduce you to Karl Anders Ellingsen, the editor of the magazine of The United Methodist Church in Norway. I met Karl over lunch when he was visiting United Methodist Communications here in Nashville, Tennessee. I quickly knew I wanted to have him on the podcast to talk about United Methodism in Norway and was so glad he agreed. Along with way we talk about grace, evangelism, why he’s proud to be United Methodist, and how he stays in constant conversation with God.
I loved meeting Karl and you will too.
Joe: I am in the studio today with Karl Anders Ellingsen of the United Methodist Church in Norway. Karl, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Karl: Thank you.
Joe: How’d I do with your name?
Karl: Very good. I’m impressed.
Joe: Thank you. Tell me about your job, the things that you do for the United Methodist Church in Norway.
Karl: I’m the editor of the Annual Conference magazine, which is called in Norwegian, “The Bridge Builder.” That’s in English. Then I’m the editor for the website and the social media, which is mainly Facebook. We use that a lot in Norway. And I’m the only one. So I’m the journalist, photographer and I do the design Photoshop job and everything. So everything.
Joe: Wow. You’re a one-man show.
Karl: We’re not that many in Norway. So that’s how it is.
Joe: Tell me what is the name of the magazine if you’re saying it in Norwegian.
Joe: Okay. I’m not gonna try that. Bridge Builder.
Karl: It’s from our identity, trying to be…. The church sees itself as a bridge builder, bridge builder between people, between people and, God and between also, in the ecumenical sense, between churches. We’re very ecumenical-minded in Norway. So we try to participate everywhere.
Joe: I don’t know a lot about the church in Norway. Can you help me kind of understand what the landscape is like as an ecumenical body?
Karl: Norway is like a lot of Europe, especially northern Europe where there are atheist community. So it’s gotten stronger and stronger. And we have a state church from the old times when the king was the head of the Lutheran. Church. But that’s been loosened a lot, but they still…we live in the shadow of the Lutheran Church. The Methodists came from the United States, not from England. So that’s why we also have the connection to United States.
Joe: Where is the United Methodist Church kind of find its…?
Karl: All along the coast mainly, in towns. So we have 46 congregations. And we have a total, I think, it’s 12,000 now. But that’s also with baptisms and you know. Active full members is around 5 thousand.
Joe: As the person who does some of the reporting and gets things on the web and in the magazine, you must run into some really exciting stories of things that are happening in churches in Norway. Any come to mind?
Karl: You know, I used to say that I have the best job in the Methodist Church in Norway because whenever something’s happening I’m there. You know, whether it was a festival or the Annual Conference or anything, I’m there. And if people are excited and they want to share something, who do they call? They call me. So I get to meet people that’s fired up and have something they want to tell. And that’s a privilege. And when you are able to give them a voice to be seen, that’s, yeah, that’s a blessing. And you get to meet those people and they confide in you and they trust you to deliver their story in a respectful and good manner. That means a lot. I had a 5-page article from one of our hospitals, the Bethany Hospitals. They’re still connected to the Methodists, but they’re a foundation. So they’re on their own. So I had …I met a lot of people, and talked to them. I was there a whole day. And then you write so much of them. When you come back and you send it to them, and you tell them this is not a hostile. I want to tell your story the best I can. I will send you the pdf for everything so that you can see it how I present it. I will treat it with respect. And then when they send it back, and you know, they have two little facts that they straighten up. Everything else is okay. And they just like, Wow, that was amazing.
Joe: You’re hearing a lot of the good news, right? You hear a lot of the good things that are happening. Where is the church? Where do you see places of growth? Of excitement?
Karl: Oh, we have several places with growth. We have some congregations in the southern part of the country and also in the northern part of the country. There was one story that we shared on the UMC news about a congregation in Hammerfest, which is the northern most United Methodist congregation in the world. And that’s far north. And they were, for like 15 years ago, 10-15 years ago, they were like just a handful. Almost nobody left. And they were discussion if it’s time to close it down and, yeah, give it a rest, not trying anymore. And there was one guy stood up, a professor. He said, We can’t do this. He held this fiery speech in the Annual Conference. And, okay, we’ll give it another year. And then the people that were left, Well, we want to give it a try, too, again. And then there was a couple of people moving there. And today there something happened. They started to attract new people to the work, especially for young people and families with children. And now they’re a vibrant church. Of course there’s not many people there. You know, these are small places. So they won’t be, you know, Kansas City style congregations in Norway.
Joe: Mega church, yeah.
Karl: So they’re small congregations, but there’s a lot of life. And the people are blessed and meeting God’s true congregation. And I think that’s amazing. So…. I’m going up there again, to meet them again and make a new story about them. They’re moving forward. So we have some of those also. Of course they are a small congregation that’s struggling. And they’ve had to close down some of them. But I think we’re going to live on and continue to be a witness to God.
Joe: You and I spoke at lunch the other day. And you were talking about how in Norway the government provides a really strong social safety net. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Karl: Well, we have a very strong social network in Norway. So, if you, let’s say, you lose your job, you get from the government the same pay that you had for one year, until you can get another job. And we have a full healthcare and social security. So you don’t pay anything almost, maybe like, if you’re in heavy cancer treatment, like a hundred dollars or something. It’s not much. And that’s for everybody.
Joe: And so lots of churches reach out and meet those needs. I mean, in the United States and elsewhere they’re really concerned about the health issue and they’re really concerned about…. How does the church in Norway kind of connect with people? Are there different kind of ministries that you guys are involved in?
Karl: I think that traditionally, before we had several, you know, the small Norwegian Methodist Church, they started 3 Bethany hospitals in Norway because there was such a need for it. That was before universal healthcare. But then the state came in and took care of it. And for some homeless people, they will get…there are programs to get them homes. You know, that kind of thing. Maybe for a while we got a little bit lulled in because we lost some of that need to attend to these people. Maybe we got a little bit too introvert as churches. And we have had to rediscover how we’re going to make a difference in our local societies. And I think there’s several new arenas. A lot of churches are connecting with the twelve-step people, the AA. And we’ve got something called, in Norwegian ‘sinnsro’—peace of mind services, which is kind of a mixture of service and AA meeting. So it’s especially for AA people and people with dependencies, whether it’s gambling or alcohol or drugs. And one of our congregations… That’s another interesting story. …from Hofsta, which is also in the northern part of Norway. They were down to three people, three adults. And what are we going to do? And they decided also, we’re not going to give up. They were so close. And they reached out to the AA community and started this ‘peace of mind’ services. And they slowly built a new congregation, in fact. There’s a lot of people there, people that really need a foothold in life and new social arena. And I think that’s one of the things that we can be of importance in society. Many of the material things are taken care of. But the human resources is really needed. There’s a lot of lonely people, people with addictions, that kind of things. So we’re working on that.
Joe: I like hearing that because a lot of times we think as one, two or three people, there’s not a lot we can do. But I’ve heard you say a couple of times you’ve had churches that are down to a handful of people and they regain their vibrancy by finding places to meet people where they are.
Karl: I think a key here is that these people, they kind of see that we’ve got nothing to lose. You know, and they’re willing to use their whole life, you know. They’re not normal people outside of the church or jobs, and Methodists in the churches. But they use their social networks and they invite people, and they, you know, I want to be a Methodist in church. You know, use every part of my life. And those people are really making a difference. You can’t do this halfway. When you’re just down to 2, 3, 4 people you have to go in with everything.
Joe: And something about that whole life thing that really makes a huge difference. It really changes the way we approach our faith. What do you think… when you have the state church that you were talking about, that I imagine draws people because they’re used to it because it’s part of the culture. Is that correct?
Karl: Yeah, they’ve had kind of a monopoly on the life rituals, baptism and confirmation and weddings and burials.
Joe: Yeah, so what does it look like to be a United Methodist in Norway?
Karl: Maybe I shouldn’t say, but we’re kind of proud of Methodists. We feel that we have something in our lived theology. When they talk about it to other people, you know, they’re, “Hmm, that sounds really interesting.” And it’s kind of fresh. It’s not like in England or in the United States where there’s a Methodist on every corner. Everybody kind of competing against each other. You know, our thing is that Methodism, what is that? They don’t know so they have to ask. And they often ask, “What’s the difference between the state church and Methodism?” So you kind of live in, as they say, in the shadows. These days it’s not a negative thing. Kind of gives us a…we’re kind of an alternative. I know that a lot of Lutherans, you know, they would like to…really like to kind of merge with the Methodist Church because they see themselves, that’s really what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling.
Joe: If someone were to ask you what’s the difference between the state church and the Methodist Church, how would you introduce them to Methodism?
Karl: First thing, the Methodist Church could never be a state church. You know, it has to have its own master. Jesus is the head of the church, not a king or government or politicians. So it could never be that. And of course, the state church is a Lutheran Church. And we’re in a different tradition from the Anglican Church. So we have a lot more in common with, for example, the Catholic Church, and I think from the East Orthodox Church. You know, there’s some really exciting things going on there. When you listen to John Wesley’s preaching you know there’s some really radical stuff in there, even for today. When you talk to young people today and tell them about salvation for the entire creation, for the animals and everything, you know. And they kind of, Whoa, you know, that sounds kind of green.
Karl: So we’ve got something there. And of course you have the baptism. In the old days we said that the Lutheran Church they baptized people to let them become God’s children. We baptize them because they are God’s children. And of course it’s oversimplified.
Joe: No, but I really like that.
Karl: And then of course we never have emergency baptism for infants because, well, unless the parents wants it. And it gives them a peace of mind. And of course we will do it. But it’s not because we’re afraid the child will be out of God’s grace. And prevenient grace (if that’s the right term) is amazing. The more you learn about that principle it’s just fills you with gratefulness to God, and gives you an aspect of your faith and the life that I think the others haven’t seen that part as strongly.
Joe: That’s an attractive piece, I think, to people who are given to AA before or the twelve-step groups. That’s an attractive piece to say, You haven’t messed up so badly that you’re outside of God’s love for you. And the way we understand prevenient grace or the grace of God is that all of us are under God’s grace and God’s love. And God’s always calling us and drawing us out. So, what a great witness to the work of God in the world.
Karl: I love those kind of questions. So when you get to talk to people you very quickly get into…after a very short while you feel like your brain kind of lets loose, and then it’s your heart that speaks. You know what I mean? You can feel that you have this fire in you. And it’s just…it’s amazing. So, you kind of talk with just somebody about my faith, you know, because you want to experience that. And I think that’s…. When I see other people I think that shines through you. And then they feel that this something that you really experience.
Joe: So clearly your work in the United Methodist Church is not just a job for you.
Karl: Oh no. For me it’s a calling. I grew up in the Methodist Church. My father is a minister and he was a DS. And he’s retired now, but my parents gave me such a wonderful gift of faith. They were never afraid of letting me doubt or have questions. Nothing was out of bounds. So I could ask questions about everything. Of course, I rebelled at sometimes, you know. But that also meant that when I became a Christian, it was a decision at a youth camp when I think I was like 14 or 15. So that was my own decision. And it gave me…. Since I’ve been allowed to question everything I’m not afraid of questions at all. You know, it’s…. I find often questions interesting, exciting. When people question my faith or doctrines and things, I say, “How interesting. Let’s talk.” And so there’s room for growth. And when you meet people and when you interview people you always learn something.
Joe: You’re always learning something. I’ve learned that doing this, getting to talk to so many people. And I get to learn so many things, like learning about the church in Norway that I knew very, very little about before talking to you today. What’s something that you do…? Like, how do you maintain your spiritual walk? What are some of the things that you do that help you grow as a person of faith?
Karl: I’m so privileged. You know, that’s the main thing. I work…my work is within the church. So I kind of live my faith. In my office it’s okay, if there’s something we pray together. We have an open, very good relationship. So it’s very much a part of my everyday life. And of course when I go I’ll visit a lot of congregations. And when I’m able I’m always taking part in their services to experience how they have their services. And I get to take part with the whole heart. I’m not the kind of person who goes into a room and kneels and pray aloud for myself for 8 hours. But I have this…I call it conversation with God almost constantly. You know, he’s there. He’s always there. And you know, that’s very important to me. And then, of course, if I’m down I have a couple of things that always set me straight. There are places where I meet God, and that’s in the blessing when the minister…what you call it, when he…
Joe: At the end of service? The benediction?
Karl: Yeah, and the Holy Communion. Those two places. When I listen to the words, the text “on the night when Jesus was betrayed…” Those places …however far away I’ve been and down, God kind of takes me off and says, “Hello, this is for you.” And that’s amazing. So, you get to kind of resting in the promises that God has given you and that you’ve seen through your life that it works.
Joe: Can we talk a little bit about prayer, because I really like what you just said. I run into so many people who would say, I’m not very good at prayer, because they can’t do 8 hours on their knees. We have these wild expectations of what prayer is. But I really like the way you just described it as this constant conversation, this constant awareness, of God. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Karl: Yes. How can I say it? You know, we’ve all been created by God. And we’re so different. I say that there’s a reason why there’s a Pentecostal Church and Lutherans and Methodist Church and all the things they do. Sometimes you need to stand on the tip of your toes on the chair and you just, whoa, swing, you know. And then other people, they like to sit and fold their hands and, you know, ‘thank you, God,’ in a more quiet way. So I think there’s not a way to do it, one thing that’s correct, because God has put something in you, a way to connect with him. So, for me it’s always been this sighs to God. It’s some ‘ahhh, please help me.’ Or a kind of a conversation. Of course it’s not like all the time. That would be quite disturbing, when you’re in the shop trying to pay. You’re there when you do something. But in between sometimes there’s a calm conversation with God. And maybe it sounds strange. But I’ve always felt that he’s present. I’m not trying to make myself…I’m not a special person at all. Those moments are my time with God.
Joe: I don’t hear you saying that it’s like a special thing, but I hear you saying that it helps makes you aware of God’s presence, kind of, in the everyday life stuff. And I so like that. There are two quick scriptures that came to mind really quickly, as you were talking. One was, you talk about the sighs. And there’s that Scripture that I know one of the translations says that when we don’t have the words to pray the Spirit prays for us in sighs that are too deep for words. How comforting is that! When we can’t even figure out how to put it into words? And the other was where Paul says, ‘pray without ceasing’ and that mindfulness, that part you were talking about of just being aware of God’s presence, where it doesn’t distract you from a conversation with a shopkeeper. But it also makes you aware that God’s present even when buying your groceries or whatever it is.
Karl: And then, of course, other people won’t notice it, but there’s…. If you’re having a semi loud conversation with God, they will look at you pretty crazy. So it’s something between me and God. Of course, in the church or at the office or something, we pray aloud.
Joe: Thank you for allowing me to ask you these questions about….
Karl: Oh, it was a pleasure.
That was Karl Anders Ellingsen of The United Methodist Church in Norway. To learn more go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. As always, we’ve put several links on the episode page for you to explore.
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Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help keep our souls as health as our bodies.
I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.