Story Magazine - First Quarter, 2007

Gifted Preaching Teacher Retires

by Andrew Behrendt, M.Div. Jr.

Michael Rogness' latest students at Luther Seminary learned how long the professor of preaching has been telling the biblical story--and telling it well. After the preachers-to-be had practiced the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, Rogness pulled out his sermon on the story from 1965. Despite references to 60's icons such as Art Linkletter, Doris Day and Nikita Khrushchev, it was still a powerful example.

Rogness, 72, has been a teacher of preachers at Luther since 1985. He's retiring as the Alvin N. Rogness Professor of Preaching, a position bearing the name of his father, who served as the seminary's president from 1954 to 1974. Rogness knows the importance of good preaching. "It's what congregations look for the most," he says. "I think everybody on this faculty actually teaches homiletics. I'm just the little hole at the end of the funnel, and it all comes through at the pulpit."

Raised mostly in Iowa and South Dakota, Rogness received his call while a Fulbright scholar in 1956-57 in post-World War II Germany, then heavy with theological questions. A fifth-generation pastor (counting both sides of his family), he received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Luther Seminary in 1960 and his Doctorate in Theology degree in Reformation history from Erlangen/N৘rnberg University, Germany, in 1963 after beginning his study there as a Fulbright Scholar. He passed up the chance years later to upgrade his degree to a Master of Divinity for about $25. (He's most proud of a diploma he received in 1984 from a three-day Hungarian cooking school.)

Rogness spent much of the 1960s in Europe, as a student in Germany, Assistant Professor in Strasbourg, France, and Civilian Chaplain at U.S. Army bases in Germany. It was in 1983, while pastor at his father's former parish in Duluth, Minn., that he received a letter informing him that he had been nominated to teach at Luther Seminary. Uninterested, he threw it away. But the next year, with his parish in more capable hands, he was more easily persuaded when he learned the position had never been filled.

"They sent me a questionnaire that they sent to all the people nominated," Rogness recalls. "One of the questions was, 'How would you plan on teaching homiletics?' And I answered, 'I haven't a clue because I never tried it.' I figured, 'Well, that would eliminate me now.' But one thing led to another, and here I am."

The adjustment to teaching after 20 years of preaching wasn't easy. He had to play catch-up with homiletics literature and had to learn how to stretch out his lectures beyond the comfortable length of a sermon by adding more "fluff and stories."

"Michael is an extremely gifted preacher, and what's more is that he is equally equipped to teach the craft of preaching, which is no easy task," says John Bjorge, '90, who first studied under Rogness as a Master of Divinity student and is now among the first to graduate from  Luther's Doctor of Ministry in Biblical Preaching program. "He understands the need to preach in ways that are compelling and relevant without giving ourselves over to being market-driven and cute."

Christopher Smith, '93, likewise a student of Rogness in both his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry studies, says he'll always be grateful for the opportunity to learn from Rogness. "Michael always had the knack of being able to offer feedback on our preaching in a way that was honest and direct but also encouraging and very constructive, even if our initial attempts at preaching may not have been all that successful," says Smith. "He is a real ally of just plain effective preaching."

Rogness, who with Eva, his wife of 49 years, has three children and three grandchildren, says he'd be happy to continue teaching part-time at Luther, assuming someone tells him when he becomes senile.

In the meantime, retirement won't stop Rogness from telling stories. Asked what he would like included in this article, he shared several tales, such as how he and Eva became the best dancers on the faculty, how he salvaged and rebuilt a pipe organ in his basement and how he built an iceboat at his first parish and sailed it at breakneck speeds until a Presbyterian minister broke it.

As for telling the greatest story ever told, "I would say the best hope would be preaching that has theological depth and integrity and is still interesting and well-delivered. You have to have good theology," he says. "Preaching is the gospel."