By Margaret L. Farnham
Anna Madsen’s new venture, the OMG: Center for Theological Conversation, might sound like an invitation to exchange “tweets” on a complex theological query, but the 1996 Trinity alum prefers to meet with her clients F2F.
“Theology is contextual, and what people think cannot be isolated from who they are. Although I love the rich questions I get submitted on my website, when we’re able to meet face-to-face we can better think through the questions along with their context, and with what gave rise to them,” she said.
Madsen is not a counselor or a spiritual director, though she has great admiration for both. “When people come in here I don’t intend to make them stronger in their faith—or weaker! I just want to provide a space that is open and free, where they can ask questions even over a period of time if necessary,” she said.
That space is a book-lined study in a quaint old building in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She opened the office and launched her new vocation last January, three years after leaving behind a teaching career at Augustana College and nearly six years after a tragic accident killed her husband, Bill Coning (’96), and severely injured the couple’s son, Karl.
Bill died June 19, 2004, when he was struck by a car while crossing a street in Regensburg, Germany, where the family lived while Anna completed her doctoral work at the University of Regensburg. Karl, then almost 3, sustained a brain injury and spent weeks in rehabilitation. Though doctors predicted he would never walk or talk, he manages to do both, though with difficulty. He entered the third grade this fall and daughter Else, 7, entered the first.
The accident and Madsen’s experiences in the years following ultimately led to the development of OMG. She said, in hindsight, she probably shouldn’t have started teaching so soon after her husband’s death and her move to Sioux Falls from Germany.
“I was dealing with the death of a spouse, a traumatic injury to my child, and moving to a new home,” she said. She commends Augustana for their support while she made the adjustment, but the demands of teaching in the midst of grief and childcare took its toll.
“Nothing bad had ever happened to me before. Suddenly, that context of grief and exhaustion and isolation began to catch up with me,” she said. She reduced her teaching load to adjunct status until 2007, when she left Augustana to work for her synod as "resident theologian." While working for the synod she found that people often sought her out with questions about God and grief and the meaning of faith.
“I think because of the tragedy and the way it took shape, and because I was a theologian, people gravitated to me. They wondered about things, and felt that I was a safe person to wonder with,” she said.
“Christians aren’t sure about what to do with wondering. We tend to worry (whether we realize it or not) that questions might lead to doubt which might lead to disbelief—and then what if you die? At the very least, wondering might confuse everything we thought to be ‘true.’ But still, people were coming to me with questions, sometimes apprehensively, sometimes excitedly…but they came. That got me thinking, something is going on here…There is no place for people to go without an agenda to promote the faith or the denomination,” she said.
She initially thought about making OMG a non-profit center, but did not want to compete for grants with other important ministries in her area. Instead, she became a corporation of sorts that provides space for theological conversation or ‘mentoring,’ as her website explains, and workshops.
Madsen’s marketers came up with the OMG moniker. “They figured out after listening to me that it is possible to have humor and whimsy and still think seriously about theology,” she said. In addition, she created a website and joined Facebook and Twitter, where entries ruminate about things like the meaning of hope and the care of creation.
Since moving into her new office in January she has met with local pastors to explain her purpose. Most importantly, she wants them to know she is not out to steal their “sheep” or “screw up” their parishioners. She merely wants to serve as another resource for them.
“One pastor said, ‘When I first heard about OMG I was a little annoyed. I thought, this is what I should be doing.’ I said, ‘You should, and write sermons and make hospital visits. But here is a way to say, I value this so much that I am going to give you the name of someone,’” she said.
“There are pastors who are really good at this, and there are pastors who are good and just overwhelmed. There are others who are not so good at it, but are better at other things.”
The realization for such a service came to light in the months following Bill’s death and Karl’s need for constant, specialized care. Madsen said that prior to the accident, she understood pain intellectually. She would offer Easter words of hope, and then return to “Easter,” her home with Bill. But she didn’t realize that these people whom she visited still sat in Good Friday, and sometimes for a long, long time.
Then she found herself in the midst of real pain, not as a pastor, but as a parishioner in need of consolation and answers and room to lament. OMG started from that perspective of the parishioner, from the realization that there are people who need persistent presence, lasting long after the well-intentioned hotdishes and pastoral home visits.
Her conversation is infused with quotes and comments from mentors like former Trinity professors Don Luck, who referred to pastors as “resident rabbis”; the late Walter Bouman, who helped her to understand Easter as “an announcement that death doesn’t win, based on an event of an empty tomb”; and the late Leland Elhard, of whom she said, “I now ‘get’ so much more than I ever could have realized in his classroom.”
“Trinity helped me figure out that there was this conversation between the disciplines, and to recognize relevance, reverence and renewal, which is now OMG’s tagline! Trinity did a good job of demonstrating that what we’re doing here has relevance,” she said.
The clients have trickled in to OMG. “One woman came and said, ‘I believe in God, but I don’t feel like I have a relationship or affection for God.’ We were able to trace it back to her reading the Left Behind series. She was an intellectual, and so I gave her books and other commentaries to help her think differently about Revelation,” Madsen said.
Another woman spoke of yearning for clarity about God’s plan for her life, and Madsen shifted the conversation about God’s vision instead, leading to a conversation about the nature of God. Other conversations tackle what it means to be Lutheran or faithful or divorced or political or rich, and so on.
She is slated to be the keynote speaker at the South Dakota Spring Pastor’s Retreat, and she looks forward to the possibility of more opportunities like that.
In another turn of events, last spring Madsen married Reynold Nesiba, a professor of economics at Augustana. In July, the family returned to Germany where 9-year-old Karl underwent experimental stem cell therapy to hopefully improve his mobility. The doctors harvested 11 million of Karl’s stem cells, and using his MRI as a map, implanted them in the wounded parts of his brain. Almost immediately, the stiffness as a result of the brain injury lessened. His speech is improving too.
The greatest advantage of OMG is the time it now allows Madsen to spend with her children.
“When you’re sitting in Easter with healthy kids and a good job it is so easy to believe. But my world was turned upside down: personally, vocationally, and theologically. I get disbelief. For those who want to think about things from the perspective of disbelief or unbelief, I hope they find a resonant and non-judgmental ear. For those who do have a robust faith, I hope to invite them into the fun that one has being a Christian who thinks.”
For more information about Madsen’s work, go to www.omgcenter.com.