Taking the reins of a large church is never easy, but it's something that Salem Lutheran Church's new senior pastor, Tim Niekerk has spent the last two years preparing for.
Two years ago, Niekerk was promoted to executive pastor in an effort to learn the ropes and to ensure a smooth transition once longtime senior pastor Wayne Graumann retired.
"The history here is amazing," Niekerk said. "I feel humbled and honored to be on the shoulders of giants like Wayne."
That effort paid off, as Graumann officially handed the reins over to Niekerk on Jan. 20 of this year, the same day that Presidential inaugurations are traditionally held. Still, despite the preparation, Niekerk admitted the moment was bittersweet.
"It was a little bit weird to come in and realize that Wayne was no longer in the office next to me," he said. "To know that the mantle of leadership passed weighed a bit heavy."
Niekerk came to Salem in 2006 and has served in numerous capacities at the church. He started his pastoral career in 1997, after graduating from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo. His route to the pulpit didn't come automatically, however.
Niekerk said he had a bit of a rebellious streak in him following high school and when friends and family tried guiding him towards a career in the ministry, he didn't listen at first.
"I had determined at one point that I wasn't going into the ministry and I was going to go into business," he said. "It was about halfway through college that I started to get pulled back towards the ministry and I had friends asking me if I had ever considered becoming a pastor."
By that time he was a couple of years behind others his age who had already chosen that course.
"I started taking different biblical language courses and I asked God to help me catch up if this is really what he wanted me to do," Niekerk said. "He helped me to excel and catch up and the decision was made."
A few years after graduating seminary school, Niekerk ended up starting a church that shared its space with a funeral home in Milwaukee.
"It was a challenge and I almost decided to quit the ministry altogether then," he said. "I had it lined up where I was going to work in my father-in-law's business. I came home and my wife was sitting at the table and said to me 'I firmly believe you were meant to be in the ministry'."
A decade-and-a-half later, as Niekerk sits in his new office, he says he knows the decision that God, his family and friends guided him towards was the right one.
"I absolutely love what I do," he said. "Sure, there can be some days where it is extremely challenging like in any job, but it's so rewarding."
Niekerk said he has some very specific and lofty goals for himself.
"My own personal mission in life is to do whatever it takes to make Jesus real for people," he said. "Part of that includes wanting to encourage men and fathers to be the true spiritual leaders they were called by God to be."
Niekerk also said he hopes to build on the 160-plus year legacy of Salem Lutheran Church.
"I take very seriously what this church means to the community," he said. "We want to have a compelling message of grace – not by just talking about it, but we want to live it. Any way this congregation can leverage what we have been blessed with to help the community, we will do."