Story Magazine

Fall, 2011

The Rev. Paul Youngdahl leaves a lasting impact

by Christine Hallenback, M.A. Junior

On June 24, nearly 50 ELCA pastors gathered in the library of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. They were preparing to process into the first of two memorial services honoring the Rev. Paul Youngdahl, their colleague, mentor and friend.

Among the clergy was the Rev. Mollie (Peterson) Dvorak, '10, her presence a personification of Youngdahl's ministry. In that very library exactly one month prior, clergy friends—including Youngdahl— had gathered for Dvorak's ordination.

"We miss his presence greatly," said Dvorak, who grew up at Mount Olivet and was first introduced to seminary through Youngdahl. "But (Mount Olivet) is going to flourish and do great service because of his leadership. He taught others to lead, to love, to worship."

With his signature combination of visionary ministry and attention to detail, Youngdahl spent more than three decades leading Mount Olivet, the ELCA's largest congregation, until his death on June 20. He was 73.

"Paul Youngdahl was a giant in ministry, in vision, in leadership and in love for the gospel," said President Richard Bliese.

"He was a stunning leader," said the Rev. Craig Johnson, '73, who left his call as bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod to serve at Mount Olivet in Youngdahl's place. "This church—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—has lost a really great leader who was committed to the work of the church. He will be missed."

Throughout his ministry, Youngdahl encouraged deep relationships among his parishioners. Every year, Youngdahl sent a birthday card to each member of his congregation, despite there being 13,000 of them. Among those 13,000, Youngdahl placed an unwavering priority on Mount Olivet's youth.

"He was intensely interested in youth ministry," said Johnson, who served under Youngdahl's leadership at Mount Olivet for 14 years as an associate pastor. "It was one of his great priorities all throughout his life (at Mount Olivet), even when he was senior pastor."

Youngdahl's impact on the future of the church can still be seen at Luther Seminary in Previews, an event he helped create that encourages youth to explore their calls to ministry.

Since its inception in 1996, Previews has welcomed more than 3,000 students from the Midwest and beyond to Luther Seminary's campus for worship, class visits and small-group conversations.

"We've had students indicate that they got serious about their call from coming to Previews," said Lynne Moratzka, donor relations coordinator. Dvorak was one of those students.

"All your stereotypes about seminary are broken down on that day," said Dvorak, whose Previews experience marked her introduction to seminary. "[I learned that] your gifts are going to be used to the full extent if you listen to God's call, whatever that may be."

Youngdahl also spent 10 weeks of each summer at Mount Olivet's Cathedral of the Pines youth camp in northeastern Minnesota.

"I don't know of any other senior pastor who commits that much time and energy to young people," said the Rev. Michael Zacher, '69, associate pastor at Mount Olivet and philanthropic adviser at Luther Seminary.

Now pastor of youth and young adults at Zion Lutheran Church in Anoka, Minn., Dvorak credits Youngdahl with empowering her call to ordained ministry. As she grapples with the loss of Youngdahl, Dvorak sees his influence in her ministry.

Once in a while she'll think, "I said that because he taught it to me."


The 2011 Previews event, co-sponsored by Luther Seminary and Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, will be held Thursday, Nov. 10. For more information, visit www.luthersem.edu/previews.