Faithfulness in Ministry Awards

Established in 1991 by the Luther Seminary Alumni Council, the Faithfulness in Ministry Cross Award recognizes individual alumni who have demonstrated exemplary ministries as a symbol of the multitudes of Luther Seminary graduates who serve faithfully through the years wherever they are called. The council presents awards to individuals nominated by their peers who graduated within the past 10 years, the past 25 years or more than 25 years ago.

It is with thanksgiving that Luther Seminary and its Alumni Council honor the honorees for 2014:

  • The Rev. Bruce Benson, '72
  • The Rev. Ronald Nelson, '65

2014 Award Recipients

More than 25 years of ministry: Bruce Benson, ‘72

St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. 

The role of campus pastor is wide-ranging. It takes a leader who is able to relate to students from varied backgrounds in order to provide support and guidance. It involves preaching to a diverse audience of students, faculty and staff. It requires balancing and integrating organizational priorities with the day-to-day realities of pastoral care. A campus pastor is uniquely situated to support students, particularly in terms of vocation—helping them discern their individual callings in the world. 

In his 30 years as college pastor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., the Rev. Bruce Benson has connected with some 21,000 students. With amazing ease and much humility, he not only gained students' respect, but their admiration as well. In the words of one student, "Extending God’s love and grace to all is as much a natural part of Bruce Benson as his iconic beard and deep voice." Benson showed great loyalty to students, engaging in their lives and struggles through conversation, preaching and even cheerfully serving them midnight breakfast the night before final exams. Through his work, he helped to shape not only the lives of individual students, but the path of an entire academic institution. 

Benson is a highly admired preacher. Former students recall him as a masterful speaker and story teller who proclaimed the gospel in ways that transformed lives. A deep engagement with the biblical text is evident in his preaching; he invites people to see what he sees and find what he discovered in both profound and humorous ways. 

Benson is also a skilled worship leader. He was determined that the college chapel be a place where faith and learning could meet and where questions and discoveries were welcomed alongside the proclamation of the gospel. Benson was keenly aware of the diverse religious backgrounds and beliefs of St. Olaf students and he embodied the welcome of the gospel in his interactions and his leadership role. He was a resource for countless individual students who sought an understanding of their calling in the world. He possesses a gift for spotting the word of God in the searching, questioning lives of college students and for identifying and cultivating strengths in others. 

Benson was able to make such a significant impact because he was genuine. He put his best gifts forward: humor, humility, patience and love. In the words of his students, "He lived into his vocation so engagingly that he inspired others to do the same." Perhaps his ability to connect so well in his calling as campus pastor is best summarized in the following description: "Because he relies on grace, and lives in grace, he is free to share God’s unconditional love and acceptance with others. He is also free to call others to be their best selves."

 

More than 25 years of ministry: Ronald Nelson, ‘65

Trinity Lutheran Church, Winnipeg, Manitoba

The Rev. Ron Nelson has experience with God's unexpected callings and the blessings that come from thinking outside the box when it comes to ministry.

After his retirement as a full-time pastor, Nelson was presented with a part-time call to work with Trinity Lutheran Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Trinity was once a busy and active congregation, founded by and for immigrants from German speaking regions of Europe. As the demographics of the congregation and surrounding community began to change, Trinity saw a significant decrease in membership and had to face the reality that they may not be able to sustain their building, or their ministry, much longer.

Nelson knew the importance of this ministry, and accepted the call to work with the congregation of Trinity Lutheran to continue to worship together and create a vision for the future.

The reality of potential closure was inescapable. In 2010, approximately 30 people, most of them older, attended worship on Sunday mornings. In Nelson's own words, "I'm 70 and I'm one of the younger ones."

"Still Ron continued to believe that, marginal or not, his ministry at Trinity was important if not for others, then for himself and those who looked to an old Swede to proclaim the message of God’s grace found in Jesus Christ and those who follow in faith," said Pastor Mark Koenker, one of Nelson's nominators.

With dwindling numbers, the congregation was still somewhat hesitant to fling wide their doors to the surrounding community. The church was already an important player in the community—hosting a monthly food bank and community lunch, and lending space to a local refugee organization. Under the leadership of Nelson, the congregation moved to respond to the emerging needs of the community and address their own financial struggles by sharing their facility with a number of other groups. While there were struggles: schedules to be coordinated, spaces shared and storage areas created, the congregation learned to accommodate and even enjoy the increased traffic in the building.

"Maintaining the climate of sharing and scheduling day by day was a gift that came quite naturally to Pastor Ron," said Johann F. Kunkel, a retired pastor and Trinity member.

Eventually, Trinity made the move to change the name of its building. They were no longer the only congregation worshipping there. The vast ministry and mission taking place in the building was represented with the name of Good Shepherd Place. For Trinity Lutheran, the definition of church had changed. They moved from being a church for German Lutherans to being a church for the community. Nelson was quoted in the local newspaper as saying, "We've been learning what the Gospels are talking about."

"Good Shepherd Place was clearly an ecumenical venture, but it was also a community center where harmony and respect were essential for its health," said Norris Nordin, a retired pastor who attended Trinity. "That demanded a servant mentality and Pastor Ron modeled this so very well that the Trinity congregation cheerfully supported what he was doing and participated as fully as they were physically able. That spoke loudly of his conviction that the good news of God's love in Jesus Christ is proclaimed in both Word and deed."

Then, in 2013 Trinity Lutheran ceased to exist as a congregation. And "the last act of Winnipeg's first German-speaking Lutheran church was to give away their building so community groups could continue to use it."

A statement from the synod office affirmed the decision of Trinity Lutheran: "We're losing a congregation, but we're proud of the legacy they leave.

"Just months after marking its 125th anniversary, Trinity Lutheran Church handed over the keys—and the deed—to Aberdeen Mennonite Church, already a tenant in the building." Nelson spoke of the decision as a natural one: "We kept sharing it because, in the end, we wanted it to continue."

Demonstrating a unique balance of patience and persistence, Nelson led a faithful community in asking "How might God be at work in our midst?" Together, they transformed an inevitable church closure into new opportunities for the benefit of a much larger community.

As wife and nominator Dina Kingma said, "Ron never gave up on his vision."

 

Nominate an alum

Think of your friends, colleagues and classmates. Is there someone whose ministry has been particularly inspiring to you? Whose story should be shared?

Download a nomination form or completed your nomination online.

Nominations are due Aug. 30.

To have a form mailed to you, e-mail Mary Steeber at msteeber@luthersem.edu or call 888-358-8437. Thank you for helping lift up the faithful ministries of Luther Seminary graduates!

Questions? Contact Mary Steeber, msteeber@luthersem.edu or 651-641-3596.