by Shelley Cunningham, '98
Denny Everson, B.D. '66, M.Th. '72, was serving as a parish pastor in Erskine, Minn, when he got a call from former Luther Seminary and Northwestern Seminary director of contextual education, Dick Vangerud, asking him to consider interviewing for a new faculty position in contextual education. "I told him no," Everson said. "I'd only been at my congregation for three years, and it didn't feel right to leave that soon. [Vangerud] was disappointed, but he said he understood." Shortly afterwards, Everson shared about the phone call with his bishop. "He told me, 'You have no choice. You must go.' I asked him why. He said, 'If the seminary can't get who they want,where will the church be then?'"
For 26 years, Everson put the church's need for strong teachers and leaders in their seminaries ahead of his love for parish ministry. He served as assistant director for contextual education at Luther Seminary from 1979 until he retired in June 2004. "My call is to the ministry of the church," he said. "You go where the call takes you.
"Over the years, I had several opportunities to return to the parish. But each time the seminary asked me to stay. And I am glad I did."
In many ways, he discovered, being on the Luther Seminary faculty gave him a bigger perspective of the church at large than simply working in one congregation. Much of his job involved relating to students during their internship year, and then processing that year with seniors once they returned to campus.
"You could see such a change in those seniors--in their sense of call, their focus on theological study. Internship was such a watershed experience for so many of them," he said. "I gained great satisfaction of working with students, of trying to be their pastor while they were away on internship. It was a privilege to travel to their congregations and visit them."
Everson's heart for bringing the gospel to God's people has led him across the globe. Fresh out of seminary, he spent nine years as a missionary in Ethiopia for the American Lutheran Church, where he served as a pastor, taught at Mekane Yesus Seminary, and managed the mass-media program for the American Lutheran Church's Division for World Missions. He has also been a visiting professor in Tanzania and Papua New Guinea, and a visiting pastor in Poland and Switzerland.
His connection with students on internship underscores his belief that the church needs to intentionally train leaders in how to share Christ's story.
Earlier this year, he taught practical missiology at the seven-year-old seminary of the Ingrian Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg, Russia. "Under the former Soviet system, there was no church. The faith was passed along by women who would gather in cemeteries to honor their dead, and secretly baptize babies and pray and share scripture. It wasn't until 1990 that they were able to start worshipping openly. But God has been at work there, and now they need to train leaders. It was a privilege and great experience for me to do some of that training," he said. "There are very powerful stories of faith there."
Everson's own story of faith includes an incredible love for the parish, something he tried to offer his students during his tenure at Luther Seminary.
"There is nothing like tending a flock, having the privilege to walk with them, bringing the word to bear in their lives, having that sacramental touch," he said. "It is a combination that is overwhelming for anyone who has some sense of what the Lord is calling them to."
It was most apparent, he said, when he would make site visits. "Sometimes students would be feeling so far away from the seminary--out in Idaho, or South Dakota, or northwestern Minnesota, and I would just show up in those little places where they were serving. And the simple act of my coming to them showed that the seminary cared. I tried to be their pastor then, to listen carefully, to respond to their concerns, to offer encouragement, to share my own experience."
Though he is enjoying time in Park Rapids, Minn.--where he has moved with his wife Joanne--Everson also relishes the opportunities that will present themselves over the next few years. He already has invitations to return to the seminaries in Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, and Russia.
"I'm enjoying the freedom right now," he said. "But there is always this sense that as a pastor, another opportunity to share the gospel is just around the corner."
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