A legacy of leadership: Minnesota church claims 14 Luther Seminary graduates
by Kelly O'Hara Dyer, Correspondent
In the small town of Virginia, Minn., population roughly 8,700, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church has quietly achieved several milestones that many larger churches can’t claim.
Since its founding by Norwegian immigrants in 1897, the church, located in the heart of Minnesota’s economically buffeted Mesabi Iron Range, has seen at least 14 sons and daughters of its congregation pursue higher levels of theological education and ordination. Of those, 13 attended Luther Seminary.
In addition, the congregation at Our Savior’s has also had a number of members complete lay programs through the Northeastern Minnesota Synod's School of Lay Ministry. One such individual, Judy Peliska, is currently serving as a synodically authorized minister at First Lutheran Church in Buhl, Minn.
According to Brenda Tibbetts, associate in ministry at Our Savior’s, the church has proved a fertile ground for growing future church leaders for a number of reasons.
“A lot of it is having pastoral staff and members of the congregation recognizing those gifts and encouraging people to explore using those gifts,” she says about identifying and guiding individuals into advanced theological education. “We utilize our youth a lot in our worship services, so they are very comfortable doing readings and with communion and prayers. It gives them a taste for something they may not have thought about, which I think is really important. Particularly after confirmation, we want to keep our kids plugged in.”
As for other avenues of higher learning, Tibbetts notes that nine people from the congregation have gone through the lay school program.
“I’m a rostered layperson myself,” she says. “Previously [Our Savior’s] always had a full-time senior pastor and a three-quarter-time ordained pastor as an associate, so they were willing to try something new in having me, an associate in ministry. I think that has opened eyes as to different avenues for serving.”
Another program Tibbetts is quick to credit for Our Savior’s track record of producing church leaders is rooted in the region’s reputation as a tourist destination and area of rugged beauty.
“Our Savior's has had a long relationship with Camp Vermilion, an ALC Bible Camp on Lake Vermilion, and that partnership continues through Voyageurs Lutheran Ministry, which also includes Camp Hiawatha in Deer River, Minn.,” she says. “Many folks here credit outdoor camping ministry as instrumental in our young men and women discerning a call into ordained ministry. It’s just a marvelous way to encounter God in a different setting and I think it plays a huge role in developing leaders of all kinds for the church.”
Finally, Our Savior’s has also forged a rich and ongoing relationship with Luther Seminary itself, regularly introducing high school students to various programs on campus and giving them an early taste of what seminary life might be like.
“Our students hear a lot about what’s offered at Luther Seminary, through KAIROS [continuing education classes for pastors] and Lifelong Learning [courses],” Tibbetts says. “With the Lifelong Learning Program, the purpose is not necessarily a route to ordination, but it’s developing leadership of all kinds for the church, which is really important. They have enough fun and enjoy the classes so much that they all want to come back.”
Elizabeth Cheney, the most recent graduate of Luther Seminary to come from the Our Savior’s congregation, concurs.
“Our Savior’s does a really good job of connecting with youth,” says Cheney, who is currently serving at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Tower, Minn. “Our Savior’s was really a faith-forming community for me, and now being able to do ministry on the Iron Range where I grew up, that’s been really important to me.”
As for the future, Tibbetts is confident that the Holy Spirit will continue to call more generations of church leaders from the congregation at Our Savior’s.
“Some of my high school kids have been saying that they’re being called to ministry, too,” she says.
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church excels at identifying gifts for ministry within its congregation and encouraging those gifts to grow. Here are the fruits of that ministry.
- Charles Johnson, 1930
- Arnold Nelson, 1934
- Robert Moberg, 1981 (currently serving in Wisconsin)
- Mark Braaten, 1981 (currently serving in Texas)
- Joel LiaBraaten, 1982
- Glen Berg-Moberg, 1985 (currently serving at St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn.)
- Jerry LiaBraaten, 1986
- Rochelle Melander, 1990
- Brian Crockett, 1990 (currently serving at Teller & Brevig Mission in Alaska)
- *Linda Johnson Seyenkulo, 1993 (Curriculum Developer and Trainer at Louis T. Bowers Lay Leader and Minister Training Center, Totota, Liberia; Her husband, Jensen, is the bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia)
- Paul Simmons, 1996 (currently serving in Wisconsin)
- *Melinda Melhus
- Mike Carlson, 20?? (currently serving at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minn.)
- Elizabeth Cheney, 2014 (the congregation’s first distributed learning student to graduate from Luther Seminary; currently serving at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Tower, Minn.)
*Did not grow up attending Our Savior’s, but did so as young adults discerning calls to ministry