by Andrew Behrendt, M.Div. Jr.
One of faculty member Randy Nelson's priorities after retiring this year is a long-neglected stamp collection. "I've got baskets and bags full of stamps that could probably occupy me for two years," he said with a laugh. Collecting items used to send letters worldwide will be a fitting hobby for a man who has helped send Luther Seminary students on internships around the globe.
Nelson, 65, Director of Contextual Education and Melvin A. Hammarberg Professor of Contextual Education, has been the seminary's foremost figure in preparing students for ministry through practical experience in the church and world, particularly through internships. He looks back on his career as a tight-rope walk that has required balancing the church's needs with those of the many students he has served. "My role has been both to represent the church and yet to say, 'I want to be an advocate for you as a student,'" said Nelson. It's an effort that's appreciated by decades of students.
"What makes Randy so incredibly great at his job is his refusal to let the policies and systems of the internship process and life at Luther Seminary overshadow the importance of knowing a student personally," says Leslie Williamson, '06, a pastor in Des Plaines, Ill. "During my internship in Mexico City, Randy listened to my concerns, frustrations, dreams and desires," said Williamson. Raised in rural South Dakota, Nelson found encouragement and a sense of call while filling in as preacher at several congregations the summer before his senior year of high school. He received his Master of Divinity degree from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in 1968 and remained in the Windy City to assist part-time at a north-side congregation, while working toward further degrees at the University of Chicago Divinity School and serving LSTC as a teacher, acting dean of students and assistant to the director of field education. In 1975, he received a call to Luther Seminary.
"I just followed open doors," Nelson says. "In some ways, my whole journey as a called person has been to respond to opportunities that surface, and I've been affirmed in doing that." He began his work with Luther Seminary as Associate Director of Contextual Education in an early joint initiative between Luther Theological and Northwestern Seminaries that would ultimately form Luther. During the 32 years he worked at Luther, he made up to 60 internship-site visits a year, establishing a career that included nationwide and global travel. Nelson also served on the faculty and in 1982 became Director of Contextual Education. Three years ago, his role expanded to include the role of Director of the Western Mission Cluster's Contextual Leadership Initiative, serving both Luther Seminary and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.
Overseeing Contextual Leadership, Clinical Pastoral Education and Cross-Cultural Education as well as internships, Nelson is grateful to his small but reliable staff. He notes an interest in social justice and liberation theology, stemming largely from the movements that surrounded him while in Chicago. Most deeply, he considers his work at Luther Seminary to be pastoral and defined by relationships.
Randy cares deeply about students and their families and about the kind of pastors Luther Seminary is training," says Master of Divinity senior Marc Ostlie-Olson. "He will always be an asset in your corner."
"Although Randy is nationally known for his career in contextual education--offering new and innovative ways to bring the gospel into the world--I must say, to me, Randy's greatest gift is his theological depth and perspective," says Michael Anderson, '84, for whom Nelson was a mentor while he was a Master of Divinity student and later a Master of Theology student. "I know with retirement, Randy will find new ways to continue living his faith in the world, seeking to challenge injustice and promote peace."
Nelson will retire at the same time as his wife Joy, a public school social worker. The Nelsons have three grown children, who, along with their families, all live in the Twin Cities area. In addition to spending time with family and doing some traveling with his wife, Nelson says he'll keep busy in the community and on his church's council while picking up an occasional project at Luther, if requested. Retirement promises to be a bit more easygoing for a man who long ago realized the importance of taking things easy while working hard.
"When I first started here, I thought I could control the process, and after about two or three years, I realized, 'We can't control this, so go with the flow,'" said Nelson, noting how even big shortages in internship sites have worked themselves out somehow. "We find a way, or better said, the Spirit finds a way to work through us. And it works."
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