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Pastor Openly Discusses Personal Tragedies

FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- Sitting in a Fargo coffee shop, Matt Valan speaks with an assurance that's part counselor, part salesman.

What he's selling is a message of hope and faith.

Valan's actual occupation is pastor at the Lutheran Church of Christ the King in Moorhead, but for several Sundays, he's delivering that message in special services called "Surviving the Unfathomable."

At the pulpit and in the coffee shop, Valan opens up about his own experiences with hardships, doubt and despair. From contemplating suicide more than 30 years ago to coming to grips with his little sister murdering her husband four years ago, he can talk the talk because he's walked the walk.

"By honestly and publicly talking about the struggles I've been through, I hope to help people survive and thrive," he says.

"I'm not going to try to explain what I don't know or don't understand," he says, referring to the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? "But I can try to explain what I know to be true, what helped me."

As a Lutheran pastor, Valan says he was taught to avoid bringing too much of himself into services. But he decided to share more about his own life because he felt others would listen and relate to his struggles.

"I've lived here for 30 years. Everyone knows my history," he says.

And if they don't, his recent sermons have filled them in on a personal story that's punctuated by pain and tragedy.

Valan has opened up about contemplating suicide in the early 1980s when he was failing as a rural Moorhead farmer.

"I had mistakenly tied my self-worth and self-esteem to my farming outcomes," he explains. "That beauty emerged in my darkest hour when I realized that God and my amazing wife loved me not for what I owned or what I could accomplish, but rather for who I was."

He's talked about the grief and doubts he and his wife, the Rev. Kathy Valan, felt after the death of their daughter, Katie Anne, from sudden infant death syndrome in 1982.

Those feelings were publicly magnified two decades later when his younger sister, Elizabeth, died in a car crash, returning home from a 2005 Fourth of July celebration. She had just gone through a bitter divorce and lost custody of her children.

Valan's son was also injured in that crash.

Then, one year later, his youngest sister, Cordee Jo Tungseth, murdered her husband, Steven Tungseth, in their Fergus Falls, Minn., home.

Those incidents pained Valan's father, who had been the rock of the family, Valan says. His father, Merlyn Valan, died last December.

"For the past six years, our family has had more than its share of tragedy," Valan says.

"People ask, 'How do you deal with that as a pastor?' " he says.

One way is through keeping a journal. Valan regularly chronicles his days and reflections, says his friend of over 30 years, Jeff Krause.

"He's been inspired to share something of his own life," Krause says, calling Valan "a very giving man."

"Matt has found meaning in his suffering," says Krause, a psychologist in the Twin Cities. "Any time you can do that, it's a great thing. It goes from taking energy away to giving energy back."

Recently Valan has turned the journals into a pair of books.

One, a survivor's guide, "Surviving the Unfathomable," acts as the basis for his series of 11 a.m. Sunday services. Another, "Two Sisters: A Journey from Retribution to Restoration," is more of a family history, looking particularly at what happened with his two younger sisters and trying to figure out answers to questions he's asked himself.

"How does a wonderful Christian woman of faith wake up one morning and decide she's going to put a shotgun to her husband's chest and kill him?" Valan says of his sister, Cordee Jo.

He also examines how a number of men let both of his sisters down. Valan considers himself one of them, wondering what he could've done differently to avoid the tragic outcomes.

Both of Valan's sisters struggled with manic depression, and both had been in unhealthy relationships.

He recalls visiting Cordee the morning after the murder.

"The moment I saw her in (jail), I'd seen that look before in one of her manic episodes. She was in such a far-off place and stayed there for a few weeks," he recalls. "I realized that wasn't my sister that pulled the trigger."

Since Liz's death, Cordee Jo's struggles grew and Valan learned that Cordee Jo felt she'd lost her protector.

And for good reason. Liz sacrificed herself to save Cordee Jo from being assaulted.

Valan says when his sisters were kids, a hired farm hand snuck into the girls' bedroom one night. Liz, sharing a bed with Cordee Jo, watched as the man crept closer to Cordee Jo's side. Pretending she was still asleep, Liz rolled over her little sister, saving Cordee Jo from being sexually assaulted.

Valan says Cordee Jo never forgot that.

Hearing that and seeing how Cordee Jo has accepted the consequences for the murder helped Valan forgive his sister. She is serving a 28-year sentence at the women's Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee. She will be eligible for parole in 15 years.

"Love the sinner, hate the sin," he says.

But Valan now lives with the fact that after he discovered this secret, he was too busy caring for his son and parents to give enough attention to Cordee Jo.

"One of my major regrets is that I never found the courage to talk to Cordee about it," he says. "I guess that I am a better pastoral counselor than a brother."

Valan repeated that tragic story of his sister's assault, in some graphic detail, and other stories, during one of his 11 a.m. services.

He felt coinciding with the Lenten season made sense for services about coping with suffering.

"By sharing little tidbits of what happened and why, you see people who might be asleep suddenly come alive," he says.

These gatherings are less formal than standard services, with Valan wearing a sport coat or jeans. Members of the congregation can submit prayers to be read aloud or privately by the pastor couple. Valan has also adopted an extended moment of silence during the service for quiet reflection.

He adds that the new services have brought in some new faces as well as people who haven't regularly attended church.

Each week has a different theme and a corresponding Bible passage. March 13 was marked with the phrase "Jesus wept" (John 11:35), paired with thoughts on surviving the death of a loved one. The services end April 17 and the verse "All flesh would perish together and humankind would return to dust" (Job 34:15) dovetails into Valan's "surviving the end of the world as we know it."

The response has been positive, he says. Some parishioners have thanked him as they leave services. Over the past weeks, some have come in to talk and opened up about their own trials.

"You go home with the feeling you made an impact," he says, adding that while the process has been rewarding, it didn't come without difficulty.

"It's hard emotional work working on revisiting every moment, recovering every dark spot," he says of writing about his own dark times. "It knocks the crap out of you writing it, speaking it. But for the first time in 30 years of ministry, we're naming it."

He doesn't have firm plans for the unfinished books and isn't concerned about getting a publishing deal as much as he is sharing his experiences and trying to help others open up and ask questions.

"It's not about publishing. It's about seeking the truth. For me, I already accomplished what I wanted."

The Forum

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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