Story Magazine - First Quarter, 2004

First Lutheran Carries Out the Great Commission

by By Nancy Giguere, special correspondent

Pastor Todd Hylden, '94, of First Lutheran Church in Minot, North Dakota, likes to compare his church to an old-fashioned threshing crew working to bring in the harvest with hopeful urgency and a spirit of comradeship. "We are working together in that same spirit to bring in the precious harvest of souls to the love of Jesus Christ," he says. So strong is that spirit in the 2,000-member congregation, the First Lutheran "threshing crew" created a special fund to enhance its mission outreach, repair the church and support eight potential seminarians from the congregation.

A love for the seminary

First Lutheran's close relationship with Luther Seminary began with former Pastor T. F. Gullixson, who after leading the congregation from 1912 to 1930, went on to serve as seminary president until 1955.

Over the years, the relationship grew stronger as parishioners participated in projects like the Western North Dakota Synod's Gifts Program, which brings in professors from Luther to train lay people as teachers and preachers. The church became even more closely linked to Luther as its members followed their calls and began their studies at the seminary. During the last 40 years, 14 sons and daughters of the congregation have entered ordained ministry.

To support its seminarians, the church created its own foundation, which until recently has been able to pay their tuition with the interest generated by its endowment. "When the love of a parish for the seminary gets started, that love is handed down from generation to generation," says Pastor Leroy Yarger, '68.

Meeting new challenges

Last year with Yarger contemplating retirement, First Lutheran called Hylden as its new senior pastor. At the same time, the congregation was presented with exciting new opportunities for mission.

Eight men and women were seriously considering a call to ministry, and the church wanted to support them by paying their tuition. But income from the foundation was limited, and additional funding was needed. In addition, First Lutheran needed to raise money for a shared ministry with two smaller parishes, building repairs, salary and benefits for a director of discipleship, and support for global mission.

To meet these needs, the congregation created the Yarger Mission Fund. "The purpose of this campaign was to enhance our participation in the Great Commission," Hylden says. "We named it after Lee and his wife Jan in honor of their passion for mission and the gracious energy they have brought to the congregation."

A brand-new call

At first Yarger was opposed to having the fund named after him, but eventually he agreed. In an unusual arrangement, Hylden asked Yarger to stay on at First Lutheran as an unpaid campaign consultant.

"A new mission happened to me on the way to retirement," Yarger wrote in the campaign booklet. "Suddenly, I found myself at the heart of a mission emphasis, the like of which I had not seen in 35 years of ordained ministry. It is an exciting adventure that I simply must complete. It is a call." The campaign raised almost $400,000 during the fall of 2003. Yarger is quick to credit Hylden as well as co-chairs Bruce and Jenny Nelson for its success. He also praises the generosity of First Lutheran's members: "This is a wonderful congregation, and the mission fund is their calling," he says.

A vitally needed mission

Although the money will be used to meet variety of needs, the heart of the Yarger Fund is support for the seminary. "This support not only connects us to the mission of our past, it is vitally needed now and in the future," Yarger says. The pastors have introduced all eight candidates to the congregation.

"I put them in the pulpit and ask them to talk about themselves, their faith and their call. I might ask them about their core beliefs or what today's gospel text means to them," Yarger says. "We want the congregation to see them, call them by name, pray for them and know what's happening with them.

"I'm not doing this on my own" Patrick McCormack, one of the eight, is currently in his second year at Luther. As a midlife career changer with a daughter in college, McCormack has appreciated First Lutheran's support.

"The congregation's support lets me know that I'm not doing this on my own. It makes me feel that God is really calling me," he says. "It's also comforting to know that people are praying for me. And the financial support has taken a lot of the pressure off our family."

Two other candidates are currently taking seminary classes from Luther Seminary over the Internet. Another is a senior in college. The remaining four are contemplating a mid-life career change.

Igniting the congregation

At least two of the candidates plan to return to the Western North Dakota Synod once they've completed their studies. That's good news for the people of First Lutheran who care very much about the future of the church in the region. "But even those who don't come back will serve the greater church, and that's part of our mission, too," Yarger says. Best of all, the presence of so many potential seminarians who are excited about their faith has "ignited the congregation." And that alone, Yarger says, is "sufficient motivation for the parish to support their seminary education."