LEBANON — Mike Miller had no intention of becoming a pastor. He didn't even go to church. He was studying theater lighting design and that was to be his career.
God, however, had other plans.
Miller, now 34, became the new pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Lebanon as of Aug. 21. He succeeds the Rev. Edwin Rumerfield, who lost his battle with cancer in 2014 after 23 years at the church.
Miller said he's hoping both to help longtime parishioners grow in their faith as well as reach out to people like himself, who might not understand, believe, or even be familiar with the concept of Jesus Christ as a personal savior.
"It meant so much for me, coming from no church background, and living what I can now see as a life that pushed God out — I can see what a gift it is that Jesus loves me. And not just me. He loves every single one of us," Miller said.
Despite all the rebellion in the world, all the pain, all the evil mankind does against one another, Jesus went to the cross for all of it, he went on.
"I still have this heartfelt desire to share that, and God has equipped me to do that in the public ministry, as being a pastor."
Being a pastor was the last thing on Miller's mind when he first began making career plans, however.
Miller's mother had a Lutheran background. But growing up in Oakland, California, Miller never went to church and wasn't familiar with any sort of structured belief.
The closest he'd ever come to experiencing the notion of a higher power came in his 20s when he joined an Al-Anon 12-step group to help him cope with alcoholism in a family member. For the first time, he started thinking about what a "higher power" might mean in his own life.
He got into spirituality, he said, by "dipping my toe in ... and kind of fell headlong into following God."
Miller was living in Bellingham, Washington, by then, studying theater lighting design at Western Washington University. In 2005, he went with his mother to a Christmas service at the church nearest to his home — it happened to be Lutheran — but even then, he wasn't completely swayed.
Still, Miller continued to read the Bible and go to church, visiting a different Lutheran church with a friend. Before long, people started asking him when he would be becoming a pastor himself.
Theater takes a full-time commitment, something Miller found, increasingly, he wasn't able to give. "I felt pulled to something more," he said. "My heart was in my new faith."
So between his junior and senior years, he spoke with his pastor and dared to broach the question: Were his friends right? Should he think about becoming a pastor himself?
Yes, the pastor said: Based on everything he'd come to learn about Miller, that sounded like the right path.
So in 2008, Miller enrolled in Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He spent a year in Billings, Montana, doing an internship known as a vicarage, then accepted a call at a church in Clovis, New Mexico.
Four years later, however, he was looking forward to moving back to the Pacific Northwest. And he felt he was a person who met Bethlehem Lutheran's goal: to find a pastor who teaches from the Bible and wants an "authentic faith," and to do community outreach to bring that faith to others.
At Bethlehem Lutheran, he said, "We really focus on God's power to bring people to faith in Christ and enrich our lives."
Lutherans in general draw everything from Scripture and rest their teachings on what the Scriptures say, Miller said. Particularly, he said, "We are saved by grace, not by anything that we've done."
Bethlehem Lutheran is part of the Missouri Synod, which he said believes the entire Bible is God's word, in contrast to churches that may say the Bible contains God's word but also has room for debate on which parts are just human opinion.
"The division is something that deeply saddens me, because whenever people are taught that you can't trust the Bible as God's word, how can we know what God thinks of us or really be sure of our salvation?" he said.
That said, he stressed Bethlehem Lutheran is a place where all are welcome and accepted. Christians, as he preached on a recent Sunday, should not judge one another.
"All of us are together in humanity as being fallen into sin and needing Jesus to rescue us from hell by the shedding of His blood," he said.
"This is a welcoming place for every person."
Miller and his wife, Rebecca, have two children, Ian, 5, and Claire, 3.
In addition to continuing to get to know his parishioners and the community, he's planning to develop a website to help link the church more closely to the community
Both Miller and his wife said they've found the church and the community to be very welcoming, and they're ready to share that welcome with others.
"It comes out of the love that God shows us in Christ as a father," he said.