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Story Magazine

Second Quarter 2005

A Heart for Mission: President Richard Bliese Sees the Mission Field All Around Us

by Sheri Booms Holm, Director of Publications

2004: Bliese addresses guests at a Called & Sent event.

On July 1, Dr. Richard Bliese officially became the president of Luther Seminary. But he is no stranger to the community. Bliese served as academic dean from 2003-2005. In that time he distinguished himself as an enthusiastic learner and a pastoral presence with an eye for detail that also sees the big picture. He is a tireless proponent and scholar of mission, which for him must incorporate more than one definition. Mission is the church being sent into the world to love, serve, preach, teach, heal and liberate. It is "deliverance and emanicipatory action" in the power of the Spirit. And, ultimately, it is "the triune God's action in the world and in the church to which we are called as servants," he says.

Perhaps you have met Richard and Nina Bliese. In the past year, Bliese has been a part of the Called & Sent campaign events across the U.S. In the coming year, he will be touring again, holding listening sessions with congregations and individuals across the country. We will let you know where he will be visiting soon. In the meantime, meet Dr. Richard Bliese.

Richard Bliese is at heart a missionary and a pastor. He served in parishes for 23 years, 11 of those as a missionary in Germany and Africa.

But he will tell you his heart for mission started long before he became a pastor or moved overseas. Mission has been at the heart of every place he's lived, and every call he and his family have answered.

It All Started at Home

"I grew up in a family that really passed on a vision for mission," Bliese said of his youth. "Like any pastor, my father [Bill Bliese, a pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod (LCMS)] started his evangelism programs by recruiting his kids and family, so we started off at a very early age. It was wonderful. It's really something how my father took me out and mentored me by saying, 'Now, watch me do it.'"

Bliese's mother, Shirley, also provided a strong role model through her commitment to congregational and spiritual renewal.

At Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Dayton, Ohio, the whole family thrived on the congregation's openness and interest in reshaping its ideas of mission.

"We had seen evangelical churches around us thrive and grow, so the question was, why was God blessing all these other congregations and not ours? That started the ball rolling. We started asking questions about mission, not just exterior outreach, but interior transformation of the congregation." The congregation organized Bible studies, small groups, praise groups, coffeehouses and theatre groups that reached out to both members and nonmembers alike. "Those really were heady days," Bliese recalled.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

By the time he enrolled at Wright State University in Dayton, Bliese was already running the coffeehouses and theatre groups at Emmanuel. The Fish House--the name given to the church's Christian music venue of which Bliese was the founder and director--became one of the premier Midwest stops for well-known Christian artists. "And it became the place for young people in Dayton to go to on a Saturday night--100 to 1,000 people attended the concerts!"

Bliese is quick to credit Emmanuel Lutheran with this opportunity for unique evangelism at such a young age. "They were incredibly permissiongiving," he said of the congregation. They even assigned two council members, local business people, to provide counsel and advice to the young entrepreneur.

Seminary Days

As a student at Christ Seminary-Seminex, St. Louis, Mo., mission meant being open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and living a life of faith when seminary finances were iffy from day to day, and students had no guarantee for placement.

Seminex was born out of a 1974 schism between the LCMS and most of the faculty and students of Concordia Seminary, the Missouri Synod's school of theology. That meant no support--financial or otherwise--from a denomination. Both faculty and students had to work hard just to keep the seminary afloat.

Church placement for the students proved difficult, too. But Bliese and his wife, Nina, never imagined that their first call would come from as far away as Europe. Pastor Bernd Schlottoff of St. Stephanus Kirche, Westphalia, Germany, was in the U.S. looking for a Lutheran pastor committed to and trained in evangelism. A mutual acquaintance, Pastor Jack Kennedy of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., gave Schlottoff Bliese's number. Soon, the Blieses were on their way.

Overseas Mission

Bliese's experiences in Europe and Africa taught him a whole new vision for mission that he and his family have embraced--a little twist on an adage: Listen before you leap.

It's a good thing to take the time to listen when you're in a culture completely new to you and you are a fish out of water, he explained. "You learn how to listen, because you really don't know what you should be doing.

"Any place you go, even if you come to St. Paul, you need to read the culture," Bliese said. To do this, he learned to ask basic questions: What's going on here? What is God up to? How do you set up a strategy?

"The temptation here in the States is to right off the bat have a couple of programs you want to do, and not listen as well. In-depth listening, and how to be a missionary presence in place, is great learning."

At St. Stephanus Kirche in Herne, West Germany, the Bliese family, which now included children Aaron and Stephanie, became part of a congregation that considered all of its members missionaries. The church felt called to a mission venture that included a missionary exchange between Germany and Zaire.

The congregation called the Blieses to be a part of the exchange.

The Blieses' move to Bukavu, Zaire became an eye-opening, life-changing experience for them. "Africa just burst my whole notion of mission," Bliese said. "There you saw a huge need. There was no functioning infrastructure." The Blieses learned quickly that it was up to the church to provide almost everything. It meant using one's whole imagination for what mission could be, and learning how to rally the people as a whole.

Bliese's initial job was to train the evangelists who covered an immense area that included Zaire and neighboring Rwanda. "They were working under horrible conditions, and they only had about 10 texts to preach from," he said of the itinerant preachers.

Bliese's entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. He realized that there were ways to set up an infrastructure that would completely pay for itself. The church set up a language school for expatriates, offered development aides to visiting dignitaries, created housing and meeting space for conferences, and more. In this way they were able to wholly support themselves without gift aid, and created much needed jobs. The profits went directly to the churches.

The Bliese family left Zaire right when the genocide in Rwanda broke out. Despite the devastating repercussions to border towns like Bukavu, some of the businesses the Blieses helped found survived and are still operating today.

Back in the U.S.

When the Bliese family returned to the U.S., Bliese's call incorporated many different roles: graduate student at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, the school's director of graduate studies, the Augustana Heritage associate professor of global mission and evangelism, and part-time ELCA pastor of a small struggling congregation on the south side of Chicago, St. Andrew's Lutheran. There, he learned how empowered members could turn around the life of the congregation and its mission to the community.

With only limited time to spend at the church, Bliese called on the members to become ministers themselves. But they were burned out, their energy used up in the demands of daily life--and they let their pastor know this in no uncertain terms.

"It became apparent that our own congregational renewal was increasingly being fueled by assisting our people to live out their callings in their homes, communities and workplaces, instead of focusing on our immediate churchly need to keep our programs well run," Bliese said.

St. Andrew's instituted Sunday LIFT (Living in Faith Together) forums to discuss ministry in daily life, and held Wednesday community nights to grow in their faith and witness. their vocations, their gifts and how "God has wired you, and having the confidence that what you do every day is part of God's mission for the world," Bliese said. Through this intentional nurturing the congregants were caught up in a sort of centrifugal force, "drawn to the word of God and to Jesus" that centered and informed them, and then sent them out in new and dynamic ways, Bliese continued.

"Once you've experienced a vibrant congregation it's the best thing. There's nothing better. You're spoiled for anything else, in a blessed sort of way," he said.

Luther Seminary Spoke Bliese's Language

Bliese was not interested in coming to Luther Seminary until he was encouraged to read its 2000-2005 strategic plan, "Serving the Promise of Our Mission." He was galvanized by what he read. Here was the mission language he was committed to that the whole school embraced--in fact, had input in its creation.

Just as exciting for him: "It actually had a business plan and action steps!"

Although his first year as president begins as the strategic plan's five-year span concludes, Bliese still sees it as the guiding document for the next five years. First, however, comes a time of "depth learning." Using the lessons learned as a missionary, Bliese proposes a period of listening, both internally and externally, to determine why the strategic plan has "really caught our imaginations" and why it has been so successful.

Only then can Luther build upon the strategic plan's successes, he said.

One of Bliese's main objectives is to go back to the congregations that were surveyed prior to the creation of the current strategic plan and find out if "we've done it right."

"Centered Life, biblical preaching--are we fulfilling the promises we've made? Our sense is we're on the right track, but I think we've got to go back and check," he said.

1987: Richard and Nina Bliese with church members in Bukavu, Zaire.

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