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2020 In-House Counsel Awards: Nate Berneking

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Director of Finance and Administrative Ministries, Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

Nate BernekingNate Berneking’s path to becoming in-house counsel for the United Methodist Church in Missouri had its twists and turns. It’s almost as if a higher power guided him there.

Berneking went to Saint Louis University School of Law without a particular legal career in mind. He thought he might do public interest work. But during a summer associateship with the firm Ziercher & Hocker in his second year of law school, the firm voted to merge with Husch & Eppenberger. That turned into a permanent job after graduation in 2001 with the firm that became today’s Husch Blackwell.

After four years as an associate practicing corporate and securities law, Berneking knew it wasn’t for him.

“Honestly, one day in church it just dawned on me that I really needed to be a pastor,” he said. “That was really what my vocation was, what I was made to be.”

Berneking was raised Southern Baptist and attended Jesuit-founded SLU for both his undergraduate and law school degrees. But during college, he found the Methodist church suited him best. In 2004, he left the law to attend Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia, trading his juris doctorate for a master of divinity in 2007.

“I really believed I would never do legal work again,” he said.

Berneking went on to serve as an associate pastor at a church in St. Louis and a senior pastor at a church in Chesterfield. Then in 2013, he was asked to become the director of finance and administrative ministries for the Annual Conference, the governing body for the more than 700 United Methodist Church congregations in Missouri. His legal and theological careers had merged.

Berneking now oversees everything from litigation to employment matters to legal documentation. Much of his former practice at Husch involved contracts, real estate and finance matters, which “perfectly developed me for what I do now,” he said.

Legal matters range from real estate transactions for local churches to a globe-spanning dispute within the United Methodist Church about its stance on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ pastors. Berneking said he is an alternate delegate in a vote, originally scheduled for earlier this year but delayed due to the pandemic, that could result in the denomination splitting apart.

“Nobody quite knows when or if all that proposal is going to be voted upon, but that definitely shapes a lot of my work,” he said.

If Berneking’s legal training serves him well in his current job, so does his time as a pastor. He is the author of “The Vile Practices of Church Leadership,” which guides church officials through financial and administrative matters. The title comes from a quote by Methodist Church founder John Wesley, who described the distasteful but necessary work of public preaching as having “submitted to be more vile.”

Berneking knows local pastors don’t like to deal with payroll taxes and pension benefits, but it’s a lot better for them to hear such advice from a lawyer turned pastor turned lawyer again.

“I have an insight that somebody who hasn’t served in that role, I don’t know how they would get it,” he said. “It’s just different when you’re the pastor.”