Juneau Color: Juneau pastor goes 'from grace to law to grace'

Posted: Monday, March 08, 2004

As he makes the rounds at the Lenten luncheon Thursdays at McPhetres Hall during the Christian season of Lent, Tom Dahl fits the role of a spiritual leader to a tee.

He greets Juneau Christians with a smile, hug or handshake, and stands before them to give thanks and pray for guidance during the Lenten season. He acts much like he did 40 years ago, when he started the weekly lunch and prayer sessions.

But though the lunches have been a presence in Juneau since Dahl started them, the pastor himself has gone in and out of his role as the shepherd for a spiritual flock.

"I tell people that I went from grace to law to grace," Dahl said.

In the early 1970s, he left his position as pastor of the United Methodist Church, then located where the Dimond Courthouse stands today, to attend law school.

Dahl had been a pastor in Alaska since 1964, and in Juneau since 1966. It was a time of great social change, during which the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were a major influence in people's lives, he said.

Dahl, who was 27 when he first came to Juneau, knew that he had a mission. But soon he decided that mission did not lie entirely in being a pastor.

"There were many things I thought I could do for people (as a lawyer)," Dahl said. "Many people who came to me for counseling didn't really need a pastor, they needed a compassionate lawyer."

So Dahl earned a master's degree in public administration in Colorado, then a law degree in California. He returned to Anchorage in 1977 and began practicing law.

"There wasn't any hurt, any great strife in my change in vocation," he said. "I truly think God was leading me to do these things. I felt that."

Dahl practiced family law - "a lot of divorces," he said - and he represented the United Methodist Church of Alaska in his years as a lawyer. In 1994, he moved to Juneau to work in the Alaska Attorney General's office.

In 2000, he decided to retire as a lawyer. Around the same time, Aldersgate United Methodist Church was in search of a pastor, and Dahl agreed to serve a four-year term as pastor of the church. The term ends this May, when Dahl will begin spending more time on his boat and traveling to be with his wife, Gail.

"I just really thought that it was a wonderful thing that he had gone back into the ministry," said Lucy Hudson, a member of Aldersgate who was a parishioner of Dahl in Homer in the 1960s.

"I think he is a very special person," Hudson said. "He's very caring and very kind, he's not afraid to say what he thinks. He's brave sometimes, in the stands that he takes, and he's very passionate in his beliefs."

The chance to serve Juneau Christians once again as a pastor was "a wonderful gift," Dahl said.

"They put up with me and were willing to welcome me back after being away for 30 years," he said.

When he returned to his work as a pastor, Dahl found that his years as an attorney served to make him a better spiritual leader.

"In the '60s I was very young and very idealistic," he said. "Now I'm more of a realist. I've seen things more globally."

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