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Ann Gonyea, pastor at Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church in Munising, is a Superior Woman. Gonyea, who has lived most of her life in Michigan and other nearby Midwestern states, found that all roads lead back to the Upper Peninsula, especially when guided by some divine intervention.
By Dale Hemmila
“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” Proverbs 19:21
Ann Gonyea may not have been thinking about the Book of Proverbs during the decades that lead to her current position in life, but looking back it could be a good explanation of how she happens to be where she is today.
Gonyea, pastor of Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church in the city of Munising in Alger County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, didn’t follow what anyone would call a traditional path to the ministry. But, hindsight offers clues that she was meant to minister to a congregation whose sanctuary sits just steps from Lake Superior.
It didn’t begin that way. Born in the Chicago area, Gonyea’s faith journey commenced differently.
Sitting in the pastor’s office at her church recently, she recalled her early religious teachings. “I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition,” she explained. “I wanted to be a nun.”
By the time she was 12, however, she was dissuaded of the idea of becoming a sister and felt at that point, “there was no real way to continue my religious path.”
Little did she know there would be a way and a will, and that it would just take time for it to present itself.
Meanwhile, she continued a different journey, one that found her travelling numerous other paths.
Gonyea had moved to the Upper Peninsula by the time she was 14 and graduated from Manistique High School.
What followed involved a number of moves that sent her back and forth between lower Michigan and the U.P.
Ultimately, she decided to pursue an education at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, despite being a bit older than her contemporaries.
“I received the non-traditional student award, we called it the retread award,” she laughed.
While at NMU, she held a work/study position in the communications office of the administration. She graduated in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in journalism. Commencement was on a Saturday and she began working as a reporter at the Marquette Mining Journal the following week.
Her stint at the Journal lasted a year and a half. Soon after she left, she began doing freelance work as editor and contributor to local publications such as Marquette Monthly Magazine, the Action Shopper, the U.P. Catholic and Upper Peninsula Business Today.
Eventually, she moved on to a full-time position in the communications department at Marquette General Hospital, but it wasn’t long before she and her husband, Larry, returned to lower Michigan.
She worked in communications and training from 1995 to 2005 in the Detroit and Coldwater areas. Finally, in 2005, when an effort to open a dog kennel in Kalkaska, Michigan didn’t work out, the next move was back to the U.P.
“All roads lead to the U.P., preferably near Lake Superior,” she said. That thought would prove prophetic years later.
Meanwhile, Gonyea landed a job with the Great Lakes Center for Youth Development (GLCYD) in Marquette as director of marketing.
“That was very challenging,” she said. “I did more than marketing, including training, curriculum development and youth development.
“The youth development was fascinating to me. I was so used to hearing in the mainstream where kids are failing, and we talked about where kids were thriving. We were listening to the kids and their passions and stories came out that they, too, had gifts and skills. I appreciated hearing that (and) seeing things from the kids’ perspective, not the adults.”
While her work at GLCYD was fulfilling, she still had a desire for something bigger, more transcendent.
“I was always seeking,” she said. “I think what it boils down to is, ‘Why the heck am I here?’ I had seen too many things that just couldn’t be random pieces of energy.”
Not affiliated with any structured religion, Gonyea had not been inside a church in 20 years.
“I didn’t attend services,” she recalled. “I call it my time in the wilderness. I still had a strong sense of spirituality. I started meditating, following Native American spirituality and New Age spirituality. I learned, but it didn’t feed me. I needed the faith community more centered around what it means to have eternal life.”
An invitation from a friend to attend Easter services at Bethany Lutheran Church in nearby Ishpeming led Gonyea back inside a sanctuary for the first time in two decades and began a journey that led to an outcome she could never have predicted.
Having left the Catholic Church years before in what she calls a “mutual decision,” she still recalled a strong sense of spiritual purpose she had felt since she was five years old.
“I knew I was a child of God,” she said, “despite the dogma that said otherwise.”
As she continued to attend services regularly, she also began to feel a pull toward another purpose in her life.
“This call wouldn’t let go, it wouldn’t go away, and I thought at one point ‘Holy ____,’ I could be a pastor.”
Gonyea said there were some “gates to pass through” before jumping off the cliff to the ministry, and the first was talking to her pastor at the time in Ishpeming, the Rev.Warren Geier.
“I fully expected him to say, go back to work, but he said: ‘You could be a great pastor,’” she said. “So we made a plan to keep feeding the interest and the theology.”
Armed with that encouragement, her next “gate” to pass through was discussion with her family. Most important was to talk to her mother.
“She is a devout Roman Catholic,” Gonyea said. “She loves her Roman Catholic faith as much as Martin Luther did. I was afraid to tell her because it meant that I would never go back to the Roman Catholic Church.”
On a mother/daughter trip to Boston, she finally got up the nerve to tell her mother her plan.
“For a moment, she just looked at me,” Gonyea recalled. “And then she was just so happy, so supportive and so proud of me. That was what I needed to take the steps of visiting the seminary and looking for scholarships.”
Next came enrollment in the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Following her three years of study she interned for a year, serving at five congregations in Southwest Minnesota and preaching every week.
It finally came time to accept whatever call came her way. Initially she didn’t want to restrict where that would happen.
“You shouldn’t have to fence God in that way,” she said.
But, eventually, she did offer a preference during the process, to return to the U.P.
She told husband Larry: “I said to God to send me back to the U.P. and make sure it’s on Lake Superior.”
As it turned out, she couldn’t have come any closer.
“We had been keeping our eye on Munising,” she said “and they love me very well here and I love them. We have to commit to the first three years. I am hoping I can stay here for a good long time, but that’s up to God. That’s unpredictable, but I love Munising.”
As for all the twists and turns in life on her journey?
“I think it happened the way it needed to happen,” she said. “It all makes sense why God would give me all those experiences. It all makes me a stronger pastor.
All of which might lead Pastor Ann, as she is known to her congregation, back to the Book of Proverbs.
“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” Proverbs 16:9