Story Magazine

Second Quarter, 2003

Peter Sethre: Bridging Academic and Congregational Life

by Nancy Giguere,
Special to Luther Seminary Story

Peter Sethre (at right) chats with KAIROS participant Robert Possehl, '78, during a class break.

Ask Peter Sethre about the importance of continuing education, and he replies by quoting Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler: "It does no good to undertake our witness to Christ with a full heart and an empty head."

Sethre, who is retiring as Luther's director of continuing education, understands the heavy demands faced by clergy and rostered church leaders. "Sometimes your tank drains out," he says. "You can end up running on empty with nothing to say. Continuing education can help renew your sense of vocation and ministry. It can challenge you to rethink your faith."

But Sethre is quick to point out that lifelong learning is not just for clergy and rostered leaders. He notes that over 500 lay people participate annually in Luther's Lay School of Theology. "Our professors really enjoy teaching lay people because they read, they think, and they ask good questions," Sethre says.

A Natural Career Progression

Sethre did not intend to go into education. He had always planned to be a parish pastor, and after completing his seminary training and graduate school, he spent 16 years serving congregations in Wyoming and Montana. But even then, he was involved in education, teaching courses at the Northern Rockies Institute of Theology and writing curriculum for Augsburg Fortress.

When he was invited to create a continuing education program for the American Lutheran Church and Lutheran Church in America at Wartburg College, he accepted. Eight years later in 1991, he was named director of continuing education at Luther Seminary. "Moving into education was a natural progression for me, and it broadened my sense of ministry," he says. "It's a path that has made a lot of sense. The pieces have fit together well."

An Ongoing Challenge

During the last dozen years, Sethre has enjoyed seeing Luther's continuing education program grow and flourish. It draws clergy from all over the country and lay people from throughout the Midwest. Several clergy from overseas have enrolled after seeing the course offering on the seminary's Web page. "People tell me that we're providing a valuable service that energizes them and enriches their understanding of the faith," Sethre says. "It's very satisfying to know that people really do appreciate what we're doing here."

Planning courses and events that people will want to attend is an ongoing challenge. Sethre constantly asks for suggestions and "keeps his ear to the ground" for ideas. He has found that classes on biblical topics are consistently popular with clergy, rostered leaders, and lay people.

Preaching is also a popular subject, and over the years, Sethre has arranged for well-known preachers like Barbara Brown Taylor, Thomas Long and William Willimon to lead seminars at Luther. Right now, Sethre is excited about this year's "The Best Of..." series, which began after Easter. It showcased 12 Luther professors who each gave the one lecture they want everyone to hear. Response was enthusiastic, and a similar series featuring 12 more faculty members is planned for next year.

Looking Toward the Future

Sethre believes that continuing education should be a bridge between the seminary and congregational life. "We need to strike a balance between being too academic and too watered down. Our goal is to present programs of substance and depth that deal with issues people really care about," he says.

He predicts that the concept of lifelong learning will continue to broaden. Programs will focus on theology as it relates to life, and there will be a wider range of providers as various church groups, offices and regions begin offering continuing education opportunities.

Online and distance offerings will remain popular. But they won't eliminate the need for on-site, person-to-person programs. "Not everyone wants to sit and do online learning at their computer," he says.

Led by God

Sethre has made no long-term plans for his retirement. He has, however, made two promises to his wife, Lynne: "That I will not take on extra assignments or duties for the first couple of years and that she will not have to spend another complete winter in Minnesota."

His short-term plans include lots of reading; camping and hiking on the North Shore; a visit to Boston to see daughter Christina, her husband, and their new baby; and a trip to Norway where his daughter Lisa, a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, will be spending a sabbatical year with her husband and two children. He and Lynne also look forward to spending part of the winter in Arizona.

As Sethre prepares for new adventures, he looks back on his time at Luther with satisfaction. "I've enjoyed my work here," he says. "I'm glad God led me this way."