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There are three things that Wendell Debner will miss most when he retires this July as director of the Doctor of Ministry Program and executive director of the Minnesota Theological Consortium: the students--past and present--he has come to know well; his colleagues on the faculty of Luther Seminary; and daily worship in chapel. All three have been an integral part of his life for more than 20 years.
Debner is moving to Iowa Falls, Iowa, where his wife, Margaret, has accepted a call to a pastorate. She had served a small parish in Litchfield, Minn., since her ordination in 2000. Theirs has been a long distance marriage for the past two years. Debner would drive the two hours to Litchfield each weekend. Now, he follows her to Iowa, just as Margaret and their two daughters followed him in his years as a parish pastor. "It's Margaret's time to shine, for her to take center stage," he said.
He expressed excitement about her call, glad that she will minister to a larger church and larger community. "She's one of the best preachers I've ever heard. I want her to have the opportunity for a wider audience."
Debner began at Luther Seminary in 1981 as field education director and assistant professor. It was his responsibility to supervise the internship sites. In the '80s, he entered the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) Program of the Minnesota Theological Consortium. The Consortium consists of Luther Seminary, United Theological Seminary and the St. Paul School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas, in cooperation with Bethel Theological Seminary and the School of Theology at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. Upon graduation in 1990, he was appointed director of the program. "I often joke that I got more media coverage than David Tiede, who became president of Luther Seminary at the same time," he said.
One of the greatest joys as director is getting to know the students so well, Debner said. "They come out of parish ministry eager to do reflection. They have something dear to their hearts and they want to be the best there is. Here, they can find a safe place to look at issues critically."
Debner sees the D.Min. Program offering pastors professional development in four areas: the theory of ministry, spirituality/personal growth, the integration of theology and practice, and skill enhancement.
He jokes that a lot of what he does is pastoral care, but adds that he also feels he has had the opportunity to grow academically. "It's a community of learning--there's research and dialogue, case studies and congregational studies. It's an enriching process, peeking over their shoulders," he said.
Debner has enjoyed the diversity of the theses and of the students, themselves. While 60 percent are Lutheran, the program draws from many faiths and denominations.
In the past 12 years, Debner has seen an ebb and flow in the D.Min. program. There have been identifiable trends, such as spirituality, and now, congregational leadership. There has been growth--from a high of 48 students at one time--and there has been decline. "Many do not finish. There's an immense busy-ness of pastors," he explained. "They are simply overcome by parish activities."
It's this need for pastoral leadership that clues Debner in that he will not retire completely when he moves to Iowa. He knows of three or four churches near Iowa Falls in need of an interim pastor. There is the possibility of teaching courses at a local junior college, as well. "There's plenty of work for me," he said.
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