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Phil Arndt is the new lead pastor at Perham Community Alliance Church. Marie Nitke/FOCUS

Perham Community Alliance Church gets new pastor

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There's a new lead pastor at Perham Community Alliance Church, and he's hoping to be here for the long haul.

Pastor Phil Arndt, who has spent 12 years in Russia doing missionary work, chose to come to Perham because he and his wife Melissa were, "looking for somewhere to really invest some time in the people, and that's what Perham wanted. It was a good fit."

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The couple has been in town for less than three weeks, but so far, "we love it," Phil said in an interview. "The pace is slower, and we've been very welcomed."

It's a big change from their previous residence in Moscow, a busy city of more than 11 million people - but it's a change the Arndts were looking for. They were ready to find a church of their own back home in the U.S., Phil said. They also wanted to get back to small town living, where they could get to know everybody in their community.

The couple met while attending Crown College near Minneapolis. They both felt they were meant to be missionaries, Phil said. After spending some time in Asia, they decided to travel to Russia, as it was the mid-1990s and the country was "just opening up as a missionary destination."

They never intended to stay there forever; Phil said their mission was to remain for as long as they were needed - until the people were ready to lead themselves.

Phil was involved in theological education, training in new pastors to lead churches in their own communities. When he first arrived in Russia, he found "a lot of desire and a lot of zeal, but no experience."

The men there were excited to pastor, but had never received a formal education on how best to do it. That's where Phil came in. He helped tailor the student's schooling to best fit their lifestyles. Since most couldn't afford to stop working to attend school, coursework was designed in a distance-learning style, mixed with some practical observation and advice.

Meanwhile, Phil said, Melissa trained women - primarily pastor's wives - to work with other women (it was generally unacceptable for men to educate women).

Eventually, Phil worked his way up into field administrative work, helping people obtain visas and find places to live. By the time the Arndts left Russia, it was no longer North Americans with all the training and experience; the Russians were teaching themselves.

The couple and their three children (two of the kids are now grown and out of the house) returned to the U.S. about two years ago. Phil took an interim position at a church in Fort Wayne, Ind., giving the family time to readjust to American life and to think about finding a more permanent home.

"We don't use the word 'adventure' in my house anymore," Phil laughed, "because we've had more adventure than one family can handle."

Yet putting down new roots in Perham and leading the Community Alliance Church is sure to bring new adventures for the Arndts. Phil said the 22-year-old church has steadily grown over the years, now averaging about 250 people each Sunday and offering two weekly services.

One of the things Phil would like to do is take the church from a "smaller to a larger church mentality," he said. "We're not expecting growth to stop, so we want to continue preparing for that. It's a good problem to have."

Phil said he considers the church a training ground for good works - a place that equips people to help meet the needs of others. He hopes those in his congregation will take what they've learned out to others within their "circles of influence."

"For us, it's not just what happens inside these four walls," Phil said, pointing to the inner walls of the church. "It's what happens outside of these four walls... We measure success in transformed lives, through people and ministries of the church."

Originally from Wisconsin, Phil spent 11 years in the Army, where he studied Korean and served as a linguist. He now speaks four languages.

Melissa is originally from Indiana. The couple is temporarily living in a house on Rush Lake while they look for a permanent home of their own.

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