Story Magazine

First Quarter, 2005

The Prodigal Pastor

by Shelley Cunningham, '98

This year's alum-in-residence almost wasn't.

You wouldn't have guessed it watching Steve Wigdahl, '84, grow up. He appeared destined for parish ministry: His family church--Zion Lutheran in Ruthven, Iowa--had been founded by his great-grandfather in 1886. In high school, he was active in Luther League, serving as president of the Iowa Luther League, and on the national Luther League board. "In my family, I was the one who had the mantle dropped on me," he said. "It seemed like I was set to follow that call."

Wigdahl came to Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary straight from Luther College in 1975, but quit after seven weeks. "It just wasn't what I expected. I left with the intent of never coming back." Instead, he moved to Wyoming and northern Minnesota and spent four years in radio and TV broadcasting. Ultimately, though, God kept prodding him until he reenrolled in 1980.

"Those years were what I call the 'dark night of the soul' time of my life. I wasn't so much called back as crawled back--with a sense of believing that God was still shaping me," he said. "I had much more of a sense of the need for change in my life. I really needed to be shaped."

Some of his shaping came on internship, which he spent in the shadow of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, and in his first call to Ascension Lutheran Church in Ogden, Utah.

In Utah, he met his wife Keri, who had been raised in the Mormon church. ("We had plenty of interesting conversations about faith along the way," he said.) He came to understand the challenges that come with helping a church grow.

One of the biggest accomplishments: relocating the congregation from a side street to a space on the main drag in town. He also began to wrestle with a concept that has formed a cornerstone of his ministry: that of authentic faith. He sees 'authentic faith' as coming through Paul's description in Ephesians 1. "When 'the eyes of the heart are enlightened,' the gospel begins to transform us," Wigdahl said. "I really believe that the longest journey anybody makes is from the head to the heart, or perhaps conversely at times, from the heart to the head, informing better decision making! We can't--and shouldn't--witness to something unless it is genuinely rooted in our lives. People can pick up when we're just playing a role."

One of his favorite passages of scripture, Romans 4:20, echoes this idea. "We grow strong in our faith as we give glory to God. God is convinced that God can accomplish through us what God purposes,"Wigdahl said. "I get real convicted by that. I've seen too many of my shortcomings. It's like Frederick Buechner said, 'You look in the mirror and realize you are at least eight parts chicken, phony and slob. But then you realize that God loves you, God claims you, God makes the extraordinary out of the ordinary.' It's powerful stuff."

It's a concept that resonates with the members of his current congregation, Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Naples, Florida. The church, which has about 1,000, members, worships an astonishing 800 or so each week. Why? In part, because of the demographics. "A lot of people who come down to Florida on a seasonal basis are already connected with churches 'back home,'" he said. "They want to stay connected. But they're also discovering that retired life just spent on the golf course brings nominal reward."

The congregation is discerning how to reach out to a growing number of immigrants in the area, and a blossoming younger unchurched population. It's poised to make some major decisions on how to reach out into the community. Wigdahl compares the challenges of facing growth with a lesson he learned growing up:

"My dad ran a hardware store in Iowa for many years. When the larger companies came, he lost his business in retirement. He just shut it down. His business simply couldn't survive. So many small churches are feeling the same squeeze--as churches become larger and larger, and offer more and more, the small churches just can't survive. Furthermore, the larger churches grow in complexity in terms of how you manage and minister. There's no doubt that the lives of the people you minister to--and want to minister to--are filled with lots of distractions. The challenge is being patient to see how God wants you to respond."

During his week at Luther Seminary, Wigdahl visited with students, attended class, met with faculty and staff leaders, and had the opportunity to preach in chapel.Was it hard for him to return to a place he quit more than 25 years ago? No, he says, but it was--like so many things he's realized about ministry--a reminder that a bigger God is at work in the world.

"These students come to Luther Seminary with the expectation that it will be a place worth journeying to, a real conviction that their education will equip them to serve faithfully. They bring such breadth of experience, such depth of commitment, such enthusiasm. It increases my optimism for the future of the church. I have a greater appreciation for places like Luther Seminary, a place on the front line of bringing people into ministry. The Holy Spirit is birthing authentic faith here!"

And as for the family mantle? He smiles when he thinks of it. "In my office, there is an old stately chair, with a high back and a hard seat. It was my great-grandfather's chair in the front of the church. I like to sit in it when I pray. It keeps me connected to that family line of preaching the gospel. And it reminds me that God is still at work in me, too."

Do you know an alum with an exciting ministry to share with the seminary?

Nominate her or him for Alum in Residence The Luther Seminary Alumni/ae Council is receiving nominations for the 2005-2006 Alum in Residence Program at Luther Seminary. All Luther Seminary graduates are eligible.

The alum in residence stays on campus for approximately one week, preaches in chapel, speaks in classes, meets with faculty, visits formally and informally with students, and eats meals in the dining room. All expenses are covered by the Office of Seminary Relations. The schedule is flexible to meet the needs of the seminary and the alum.

To nominate someone, send a letter of submission by August 31, 2005, to:

Office of Seminary Relations
Luther Seminary
2481 Como Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55108

For more information, call 651-641-3448, or toll free at 888-358-8437.