Monday, April 15, 2024

Retiring pastor recalls journey leading Kalispell’s First Presbyterian Church

Daily Inter Lake | April 2, 2024 12:00 AM

Raised in Rochester, Minnesota, as the second youngest of six boys, Glenn Burfeind says the religious dedication of his parents started him on the path toward church leadership. 

“They would pile us all into the back of an Impala every Sunday. I remember my mother fussing over our hair,” he says with a laugh.  

Burfeind also credits his father with giving him a strong work ethic, and while his father had no college degree he taught his sons to build houses, which were sold to pay for their education. 

After serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kalispell for 25 years, Burfeind is retiring.

His final sermon is Sunday, April 7 with a fellowship hour to follow the service. An open house retirement party in his honor will also take place a few days prior. 

Burfeind is looking forward to the gatherings, saying that 25 years “builds quite a relationship, and it doesn’t happen just by chance.” 

He praised the community and church leadership core for all the effort put forth by both sides over the years, saying “it’s a time to celebrate our partnership — between the congregation, the organization, and the community.”

In his office full of books and photos, along with posters of Glacier National Park, Burfeind recalls the path that first led him to Montana. After graduating high school, he wanted to venture away from his hometown.

“I boarded an Amtrak train and rode it to West Glacier,” he said. 

There he worked two summers as a busboy, then a waiter, for Glacier Park Inc. He also grew a deep appreciation for hiking and climbing, and the forests of western Montana, which remains with him always. 

Burfeind decided to study forestry and began working with Lewis and Clark National Forest as he studied at the University of Montana. 

“I went in studying conservation and came out with timber management,” he said. 

He fell in love with a fellow coordinator of the university ski club named Debora Struthers, and they led group trips all over the west. 

“It was nothing too formal, just a good way to get some cheap skiing in because they gave us a group discount,” he said. 

He also attained a minor in fire science, and began working for Sawtooth National Forest on the hotshot crew. 

He proposed to Deb, fought fires for one more year, and then it became obvious to him that the long hours and travel did not mesh with his new married life. 

“There was a tug-of-war going on in my heart,” Burfeind said of the pull between his forestry work and his new marriage. The couple had just become involved with a local Presbyterian Church, both to serve the community and to get past personal hardships. 

THEN BURFEIND received the spiritual “sense of call”, which he says is hard to describe but something deeply felt. He entered the San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1986 and afterward, the couple had their first child.  

Seminary training missions took him to Medford, Oregon, where his mentor J.D. Conrad had a great impact on him.  

Over the next 10 years, Burfeind moved from Oregon to Idaho and Washington, experiencing different communities and entering them at times of transition. 

In Idaho Falls, he worked under a new head pastor, brought into the community from outside, as is common practice. The city is home to the Idaho National Laboratory and Burfeind describes it as “this huge population of engineer-minded, Ph. D. people who were scientific.” 

“To bring the mystery of faith into that mix was a clash,” he said. “It was a challenging church for me.” 

Later Burfeind relocated his family to Moses Lake in Washington, where he helped modernize the First Presbyterian Church there, restructuring the sanctuary from a sermon space to more of a community gathering place — a value he would soon bring to Kalispell as the pull of Glacier National Park continued to work inside him. 

In the summers the Burfeind family visited the Flathead Valley and noted the Presbyterian Church in Kalispell. Burfeind applied with the church in 1993 without success but later was brought on at the church in 1998.  

Burfeind recalls staying at the KOA and explaining to his children that he was going to meet some people for a job interview. 

“We were camping, and there I was all dressed up. They didn’t understand what I was doing,” he said. 

By October the family was laying down roots in the Flathead Valley.

“It’s been 25 years now — it was meant to be,” he said. 

COMMUNITY IS one of Burfeind’s most important themes. He notes it contains the word “unity” which also drives his ministry. 

He describes the building that houses First Presbyterian Church as a community hub, for “all people, workers,” that dates back to 1926, although the church occupied other quarters before then. 

“Many people come to this church to share their life struggles — and joy — and show how faith has seen them through it. We have the opportunity to guide them through, and we are strengthened to live our story.”  

The church has carried overarching missions: For Burfeind’s first 12 years it was “Learn, live, love, and share the power of Christ.”  

Sacred JuJu, a ministry of skateboarding, brought spirituality new forms which Burfeind remembers as having great impact on Kalispell youth. 

“We’d have up to 100 children skateboarding in a warehouse while we offered food and help to the families,” Burfeind says. “We were caring for the marginalized people in Kalispell.” 

One of the most powerful moments Burfeind can remember came out of that ministry, when a member of Sacred Juju spoke to the congregation about struggles with alcoholism, “because everyone was so open to it. They accepted him and you could feel it.”

During the church’s second thematic mission, “transformed by Christ to transform the world,” Burfeind and others performed reconstruction in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The current mission is “Called by Christ to joyfully serve and expand the kingdom of God,” which saw First Presbyterian face the shake-ups of the pandemic. 

In place of on-site services, Burfeind expanded the church’s radio worship services.

Comunidad Cristiana de Kalispell, a small worshiping community that struggled to find Spanish language services closer than Spokane, also began building a regular service within the church. Burfeind is thrilled to see them grow with the help of pastors Alvaro and Leslie Gomez as the group draws more attention from the community at large. 

Parish Pastor Brenna Stanfield came on board during the pandemic and is taking over after Burfeind’s retirement in April. 

While pastors are usually appointed from outside the local area, Burfeind felt he knew that “she would be the bridge” as the congregation worshiping at 540 South Main Street expands to include Comunidad de Cristiana.

A new long-term pastor may be appointed in the next year or two, as part of the practice known as “calling” within the Presbyterian Church.

After his final sermon, Burfeind will return with his wife to the rocky trails and serenity of nature found there, as he says, “letting things happen” for a year or so while Stanfield leads the church. 

“As the Flathead Valley continues to grow and diversify, it is really easy for our community to divide into partisanship with a mine and yours mindset,” he said. “Over the past 25 years it has been a privilege to work with community and church leaders who seek the middle ground, the ‘we’ for our community.  My hope and prayer for our community is that we can grow together as we do what is right for the all.”

An open house retirement party for First Presbyterian Church Pastor Glenn Burfeind is Friday, April 5 from 5-8 p.m. at the Northwest Montana History Museum, 124 Second Ave. E., Kalispell. 

Reporter Carl Foster can be reached at 758-4407 or