by Shelley Cunningham Harber, '98
Paul Berge has a servant's heart. The first glimpses of it come from the warmth of his smile. The inviting way he engages students and faculty alike in conversation shows he truly cares about the lives of the people around him.
It becomes more evident when you see him talking about his career at Luther Seminary--a career both in the classroom, as professor of New Testament, and as an administrator. Berge has been coordinator of the Master of Arts program since 1984. It has been one of his greatest passions at the seminary.
"What has drawn me both to the classroom and to the administrative work [of the program] has been the one-on-one relationships. The M.A. program is so individualized. I've been able to sit with students, help them define what they're looking to gain from their studies and walk through their writing projects," he said.
The program has grown exponentially, from 56 students in 1984, to 143 currently enrolled--and countless graduates in between. Berge feels the program's focus on tying faith to vocation has been invaluable to its growth.
"People feel called in certain areas--youth and family ministry, for example, or music, or work with the senior population, or Christian education--and they want to work in those areas while they serve the church. In any given year there are many students who move from M.A. to M.Div., and vice versa, as their vocational identity becomes clarified. I see part of my call as helping them clarify that identity."
Berge's own vocational identity has developed in unexpected ways. He always anticipated being a parish pastor, and spent two years at a congregation after graduating from seminary. But as the United States became more involved in the Vietnam War he felt God calling him to serve his country, too. He joined the Air Force and for four years served as a chaplain.
"While in the Air Force I spent 10 months stationed in Turkey," he said. "During that time I had the opportunity to travel throughout Turkey, Greece, Israel and Palestine. That drew me back to the Scriptures as my first love. After I left the Air Force, that call brought me to graduate school to spend more time studying the Bible."
Even while in graduate school at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., Berge still intended to return to the parish, spending the weekends serving as a supply preacher for mostly Presbyterian congregations in the counties surrounding Richmond. But Luther Seminary, from which he earned the bachelor of divinity degree in 1963, needed someone to teach New Testament during a professor's sabbatical. And 29 years later, Berge is still part of the faculty.
During his tenure, he has been instrumental in bringing about progressive change in the focus of education and its emphasis on preparing both lay and ordained persons for ministry in the world. In addition to his work with the M.A. program, he has been an active participant in the seminary's recent return to a focus on individual discipleship.
"I see it not as a class, a requirement to be filled, but as a way of life," he said. "It's important for all of us, as we live together in this community, to see how essential it is that we work together, live together, and develop supportive, nurturing relationships."
Berge's emphasis on discipleship at the seminary spills over into his own life; he truly embodies the spirit of study and service that he sees at the heart of the Christian faith. A long-time volunteer in the community and through his congregation, Berge is active with the boards of Lyngblomsten (a comprehensive senior care facility in St. Paul), the Plymouth Christian Youth Center in Minneapolis (where he is currently serving as co-chair of their $8.1 million capital campaign), his townhome association, and the parish nurse training program coordinated by Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. It's also evident through the energy he has given to helping St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minn., develop the Bible School in Martin, Slovakia. "It's an exciting ministry that is taking place there--equipping lay people to lead Bible studies and prayer groups, to work in Christian education with parents and with youth."
Berge has traveled to Martin to work side-by-side with the school's leaders, and has helped develop 27 courses for a Master of Arts program that was launched last fall, in cooperation with a neighboring university. There are currently 13 students enrolled in the program, with hopes of reaching out to many more gifted lay leaders.
"This [M.A. program] will give students at the university who are preparing to be public school teachers in Slovakia a place to develop a 'second major' in Christian education--they will be able to teach not only in their discipline, but also to help spread the gospel through their work," he said. "It is just wonderful, and so exciting to watch it unfold."
And Berge isn't just offering his time and scholastic knowledge to support the school. Last fall, he shipped more than 1,200 volumes of his personal library to Martin via the LILAP (Lutheran International Library Assistance Program). And he is working with a bookseller in Stillwater, Minn., to raise funds to build up the library at the Bible School and at the seminary in Brataslava.
"It's kind of overwhelming to think of all the ways I'm going to spend my time in retirement," he said. "At first you wonder, 'Is this the right time? Should I be leaving?' But then I look at all the needs in the world, and I think about the privilege and opportunity to help meet those needs. And it feels right."
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