Pageant Winner Trades Crown for Campus Ministry

Unanticipated pageant victory takes North Dakota native to a difficult crossroads.

  • by Sarah Martin

Holding her competitor's hand, Bethany Nesheim heard the unexpected. Her own name.

As last year's pageant winner placed the rhinestone crown on top of her golden blonde hair, Bethany realized she had just won the Miss North Dakota USA pageant in her final year of eligibility.

The Lord knows what He's doing, Bethany remembers thinking, but there are going to be some after-effects to this.

Pageant Win Creates Dilemma

This surprising moment of triumph had brought the 26-year old to a crossroads, where she felt she must choose between the dream of using her crown to tell others about God and the passion to personally reach college students with the gospel.

Newly reported as a staff member with the Campus Ministry of Cru just 3 months earlier, Bethany had begun working with college freshmen in Milwaukee, Wis. However, her title as Miss North Dakota meant that the 5 months in between her state pageant victory and the upcoming national pageant would require her to move back to North Dakota.

"I had not really checked into it deep enough [before the pageant]," she says. "I just didn't expect that I would win."

Then, after 18 days of mulling over her decision, Bethany made her choice. To many, it just didn't make sense.

The Dream

Bethany began competing in pageants during college to develop her singing talent and possibly earn scholarships. It might have seemed like an odd fit for this small town farm girl and former barrel-racer, but the "beauty" side of pageantry was never the original draw.

"I have an aunt who is really into our Scandinavian heritage," Bethany says. "Each year they crown a princess of a big festival in North Dakota." The pageant was a way to spend more time with her aunt. To Bethany's surprise, she won Miss Hostfest 2003.

Others suggested she move up to the Miss North Dakota pageants. First in the Miss America circuit and later with Miss USA, Bethany's awareness of how God might use her involvement grew.

At first, she saw how her example and openness about her faith encouraged other pageant participants to seek God. One even began teaching Sunday school. Then Bethany's vision expanded.

"I would think, Lord, if You had somebody in that position who was really committed to You, how many people could You reach?" she says. She even prayed that God would give her that privilege to represent Him by winning a pageant.

The Passion

At the same time, the Lord had been developing a passion within Bethany to introduce college students to Jesus and help Christian students grow in their faith.

When she began her freshman year at Dickenson State University in western North Dakota, she had many questions about God. "I was confused and frustrated and didn't know what I believed," Bethany says.

She soon became involved with Cru, sparking a change in her heart. "The Lord pulled me back into a relationship with Him," she says.

Her participation in activities like weekly meetings, Bible studies and outreaches helped her mature in her faith and develop a desire to tell others about Jesus. She went on a summer mission trip and made a commitment to the Lord to serve Him with her life, whatever that might mean.

For Bethany, it meant becoming a staff member of Cru in 2006. Her own experiences on campus motivated her to be involved in the lives of college students, particularly the freshmen that had questions like she once did.

"Bethany is a freshman magnet," says Tammy Papez, Bethany's lead trainer in Milwaukee and 21-year Cru staff member. "They're attracted to her life and who she is. She's having a great influence among freshmen women."

One of those women is Amanda Mullins. "I've become a much more open person in the last 5 months because of her," she says. "Helping me decide that I can open up and be loved is one of the biggest ways that she's impacted me."

The Crossroads

Both her dream and her passion collided last November on a North Dakota stage. Home during the Thanksgiving break, Bethany had decided to participate in one last pageant before passing the age limit. This was her last chance to have a platform for ministry within the pageant world.

Standing in front of a cheering crowd in a sparkling white evening gown, Bethany began to consider her next move. Almost immediately, she believed that she needed to focus on one or the other.

On one hand, she knew that winning a title created opportunities for her to talk about God. "I saw repeatedly how as soon as that rhinestone crown was placed on the winner's head, people would want to know what she had to say," says Bethany.

On the other, Bethany had just laid a firm foundation for her ministry on campus in Milwaukee. Leaving for almost the entire spring semester and then being away for a summer assignment might break the momentum of what God was doing through her.

Bethany also realized competing on the national level would mean more than being away from her students on campus. She wrestled with the idea of her freshman girls questioning the message of modesty she had imparted to them.

Her title would have required her to pose for the Miss USA Web site. "No matter what I would preach about modesty, those pictures and video clips would be there," she says.

Wavering, one Scripture verse reminded her of Who was ultimately in charge. "Proverbs 19:21 says, 'Many are the plans of a man's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails,'" quotes Bethany. "We can have visions of using things for the Lord, but He's got bigger purposes. We really need to listen to Him and try not to hold onto things too tightly."

Bethany's Decision

Bethany had both the dream to use a crown as a platform for ministry and the passion to personally help college women grow in their faith. Neither was innately better than the other. But she didn't want to follow her own plans. She wanted to follow God's purpose.

So she prayed. She sought wise counsel. Either way, she would be sacrificing something she had hoped for. Either way, she had to take a step of faith.

After 18 days of feeling conflicted and unsure, Bethany chose to resign as Miss North Dakota, forfeiting her title and giving her crown and sash to the first runner-up. "It became evident what the Lord wanted me to do next, which was give [the crown] up," she says.

And even though many were confused by her decision, Bethany walked away having learned a great lesson about trust and obedience. "Winning a crown or not, I need to remember that the Lord has my best interest in mind," she says. "Trusting where He wants me-and what platforms He wants me to have-is best."

The unexpected taste of fulfilling a dream led to an even deeper commitment to a passion. Even though Bethany doesn't wear a crown, she's still a winner just the same.