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Obituary: Rev. John Charles Soderberg

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Posted at 10:49 AM, Mar 05, 2024

The Rev. John Charles Soderberg, recently of Virginia Beach, VA, passed away on Monday, February 26 at the age of 83. John was a retired pastor, a husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. By many accounts, he also was a loyal and compassionate friend. John had a sly and sophisticated wit, but he could never resist an opening for a groan-inducing dad joke. For example, John would obviously enjoy a holiday feast and laughter with his family and then – when finished – announce, “Well, that’s over!” He often suggested we could use that as his epitaph.

John was born on September 28, 1940, in Two Harbors, MN. While he had a mischievous side (we’ll not mention those shenanigans here) he felt called to the ministry from an early age. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Rocky Mountain College (a church-affiliated school in Billings, MT) where he met the love of his life, Donna Mae Schell. He proposed to her on May Day with a dime store ring – just in case – and they chose something better when she said yes. They were married for 62 years.

Shortly after their wedding, John and Donna moved to New Jersey where he earned a Master of Divinity from Drew Theological School in Madison. While wrapping up his degree, John went to Rikers Island – as a chaplain. He often reflected on the tremendous impact this experience had on his passion for helping people living on the margins of society and people who were struggling in myriad ways. Upon graduation, he returned to Montana as a minister in the Yellowstone Conference of the United Methodist Church. He spent nearly 30 years serving increasingly larger parishes that included Roundup, Grass Range and Winnett; Fort Benton and Carter; Bozeman; and Billings.

John held unabashedly liberal views of scripture which impelled him to act on issues of social justice and environmental stewardship. Despite his strong personal views, colleagues found him to also be so considerate of all viewpoints that his superiors in the Yellowstone Conference would dispatch him to other churches to help fellow ministers heal rifts among their flocks. John was active in community affairs as well. One of his proudest achievements was helping lead a battle to move Deaconess Hospital from downtown Bozeman to a location where it could easily expand. He also raised funds to consolidate YMCA facilities in Montana’s Gallatin Valley into a new building between Bozeman and Belgrade. Additionally, he was a stalwart leader and supporter of Luccock Park Church Camp, a rustic camp in the Paradise Valley, just up the road from Yellowstone National Park.

During his final years as a Montana minister, John attended a chaplaincy training program at St. Paul School for Theology in Leawood, KS. Upon completing a Doctorate in Ministry degree in 1988, John temporarily retired from serving churches in 1989 and became a hospital chaplain at Abbot-Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, MN.

He later became an employee assistance counselor and a financial counselor for Ceridian while also returning to ministry at River Hills United Methodist Church in Burnsville, MN.

Everywhere John went, he maintained a workshop that was the envy of friends and neighbors. He was a builder and tinkerer with a natural sense of how things worked. As a young man, he once bought the hulk of a car for next to nothing and rebuilt the engine himself, only to be forced to sell the vehicle because he could not afford to keep gas in it. As an adult, he built additions to houses, finished basements and climbed to rooftops to replace shingles. He also built fine furniture and refinished antiques which still grace the homes of his children.

Throughout his life, John embraced the outdoor life. This was especially true when raising his family in Big Sky Country. He was an avid hiker, camper, and pheasant hunter – with help from the family’s high-strung Irish Setter, Berry. John also was a fine trout fisherman. He took time to teach his kids how to “hold their mouths right” so fish would bite, and then helped those kids reel in their catches. His fondest childhood memory was a Christmas Eve stroll with his parents under a dazzling canopy of stars and he would revisit the feelings this memory evoked when stargazing in the Luccock Park meadow. Although John traveled extensively, his favorite place on earth was a hike up to the falls at Crazy Creek near Cooke City, MT. John’s rambling through the backcountry became increasingly difficult in the late 1980s and he was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Although John fought it, MS gradually stole his mobility and ultimately required him to become an adroit wheelchair driver. Even then, he took advantage of every opportunity for physical therapy and exercise in attempt to maintain mobility and strength. As his body faltered, his mind still worked overtime. He was intensely curious and delighted in finding new ways to grow and evolve and think creatively about theology and life. He politely rebuffed any expressions of sympathy about his MS. “By all measurements, my life has been both long and rich,” he wrote.

John was predeceased by his son Marc Soderberg; his brother Jim Soderberg; and his parents Vernon and Dorothy Soderberg. He is survived by his wife, Donna Soderberg; daughters Kema Geroux (husband Bill Geroux) and Janet Soderberg (partner Jeremy Bjerke); his daughter-in-law Frieda Soderberg; his grandchildren Sarah Geroux, Nicholas Geroux, Cody Geroux, Collin Soderberg, and Ethan Soderberg; and his great-granddaughter Emmalynn Soderberg.

John wrote before his death that his family and friends “have provided the sacred in my life. More important than all the ‘things’ I leave behind, they are the ‘thous’ who have given my life meaning. For their infusion and invasion of my life, I give thanks. They have been and are my ‘eternity.’ I am not leaving for ‘a better place,’ or to be with loved ones on some ‘heavenly shore.’ I expect to stay in this good, earthly place and hope to live in the life-giving spaces of your hearts and minds.”

He surely will.

Plans for a celebration of John’s life will be announced soon.

Arrangements are in the care of Dokken-Nelson Funeral Service. www.dokkennelson.com