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Story Magazine

First Quarter 2009

The Path of a Mission Developer at Luther Seminary

by John Klawiter, M.Div. junior

Master of Divinity intern Scott Thalacker is serving his internship in Casa Grande, Ariz. He is pictured here with his wife, Lindsay.

Now Luther Seminary is focused on the new mission field. "We began to imagine North America as a missionary field and every congregation as a missionary community," said Gary Simpson, professor of systematic theology.

The curriculum at Luther Seminary is changing and evolving to meet these needs. Students are presented with missional thinking in one of their first classes, Reading the Audiences, but they also have opportunities to apply missional thinking through joining middler cohorts, choosing internships geared toward mission work and working in mission starts in their first calls.

Year 1: Reading the Audiences
You could say Gary Simpson was one of the main mission developers of Luther Seminary's current mission emphasis. Simpson, who has taught Reading the Audiences, was instrumental in the development of the curriculum that put RTA in place.

"RTA's role is central and crucial to the curriculum," said Simpson. "It fits into the interpreting and confessing division by bringing together confessional and missional theology. There is a rhetorical strategy in understanding that we proclaim good news to audiences in order to understand the community to which we're sent."

The outline of the course mirrors the three phases of the seminary curriculum, but over a shorter period of time. Junior year is about "Telling the Story," middler year focuses on "Interpreting and Confessing" and the concept of the senior year is "Leading in Mission."

The course also uses demographic and sociological tools to aid in teaching. Students participate in a group project directly involved with studying and applying their skills in a congregation in the Twin Cities. At the end of the term, the groups present their findings to the congregations, focusing on "What is God up to?" The students are challenged to theologically interpret the sociological data in an effort to understand what God is doing in that congregation.

This year there are four residential sections of Reading the Audiences, as well as a newly developed distributed learning version. Each is team taught. Mary Sue Dreier, associate professor of Congregational Mission and Leadership, teaches two sections with Lois Malcolm, professor of systematic theology.

"We are training evangelical public leaders for the mission of the 21st century," said Dreier. "Luther Seminary is committed to leadership that is theologically framed."

By going into congregations for further study, students get an opportunity to apply their classroom learning firsthand. "Congregations really become a learning opportunity because they open themselves up to students and talk about what God is up to," said Dreier. "They help us see the realities of what we're seeing theologically."

Year 2: Congregational Mission and Leadership Middler Cohort
Dreier and Dwight Zscheile, assistant professor of Congregational Mission and Leadership, have teamed up to lead a CML cohort in missional leadership. This group of 14 students, mostly middlers (second-year seminarians), meets several times throughout the academic year to reflect on the theology and practice of missional leadership, to explore questions of vocation and process, and for mutual support and encouragement.

The cohort does not involve graded assignments like a regular course. However, there are opportunities for online and in-person discussion of case studies and written reflections on real-life leadership challenges. Guests with hands-on experience are also brought in. In December, the cohort spent time with Pastor Jannie Swart, a Ph.D. student in CML and experienced missional leader from South Africa.

The cohort has helped extend students' classroom experiences and join them with other missional-thinking students. "As I talked to people who were involved with it, I realized that it is a group of people who are like me," said Lydia Nelson, middler. "They also want to know how to integrate the exciting things we are learning about mission into our education and how we can bring this to our future congregations."

Sue Johnson, a junior from Duluth, Minn., joined the cohort despite being unable to attend every meeting. "I find the distributed learning piece to be a big part of the missional focus of Luther Seminary," said Johnson. "I appreciate the program as a way of reaching out to those in rural communities, and lifting up those church leaders, while keeping them in their church contexts."

Sarah Anderson joined the CML cohort because she was interested in congregational vitalization, in which she would serve in a struggling congregational and bring it back to life. But the cohort has opened her eyes to new ideas. "I truly think any congregation can be a missional conversation and the purpose of this new cohort is to be intentional about the process. It takes seriously our life as church and how it is involved in God's mission," said Anderson. "While I still have interest in vitalization, I'm also looking at mission development - particularly within a Latino context - and broadening that to more multicultural ministries within the ELCA."

Middler Katy Warren joined the group to gain more exposure to an aspect of ministry that she was unfamiliar with. "I am looking at the possibility of entering a specifically missional internship next year," said Warren. "Ultimately, I hope that wherever I end up I will be able to find ways to work on missional programs."

So far, the CML cohort is off to a good start. "We are still learning as we go about how best to serve students in their learning and growth," said Zscheile. "These students are already directly involved in shaping the cohort experience and we hope to give them increasing responsibility for doing so in the future." There are plans to launch another middler cohort next fall.

Year 3: Missional Internship: Progress in the Grand Canyon Synod
The Grand Canyon Synod is one location clearly focused on providing a missional internship experience.

Intern Scott Thalacker ended up at Central Lutheran Church in Casa Grande, Ariz., because he was drawn to a challenging internship involving the startup of a second site in a relatively small congregation. For the past several years, the Grand Canyon Synod studied the possibility of starting a new congregation and decided to follow a multi-site model for outreach in the area.

"The context I serve now is a good experience in what happens when a smaller congregation starts a new site, a fairly uncommon enterprise," said Thalacker.

In 1989, Central Lutheran was built in Arizona City, a town of about 10,000. Casa Grande, located about 12 miles north of Arizona City, has a population of about 40,000. There hasn't been an ELCA congregation in Casa Grande, and recent surveys show the unchurched population to be more than 40 percent.

"Central Lutheran decided it would be good to provide some of the same congregational opportunities
in Casa Grande that exist in Arizona City," said Thalacker. "So with this mission, the congregation started worship services in Casa Grande in October 2008."

One of the initial goals for the site at Casa Grande was the possibility of adding more services. On Dec. 7, the church reached that goal, moving to two worship services serving a total of about 80 people.

Master of Divinity student Hannah Johnson is the current intern at Our Savior's Lutheran in East Mesa, Ariz. Beginning in February, Our Savior's will serve three campuses. As an intern, Johnson is experiencing congregational renewal with one campus and the beginnings of a new ministry with another. "Hannah has an incredible spirit that endears her to many," said Mark Halvorson, '73, senior pastor.

"She loves to actively participate in all dimensions of ministry. Needless to say, she is thriving!"

Johnson is also learning to go with the flow of a ministry that drastically changes throughout the year.Worship attendance in the winter averages around 3,400 people in nine services; in the summer, the number drops to 650 congregants over five services.

Halvorson believes there is a great opportunity for his church to be united with interns. "The Grand Canyon Synod has a strong missional vision," said Halvorson. "Bishop Steve Talmage was excited about starting a Phoenix cohort of internship sites from some of the best congregations in our area. This is the first year of the cohort,with four participants from Phoenix and one congregation in Las Vegas."

Year 4: Preparing for a Call to the Mission Field
Senior Jodi Houge's first call is a product of asking herself one question: "What about my neighbor?" Little did she know that her first call would hold its services in a coffee shop that offered up rolls and coffee in exchange for a $100 facility fee.

Her congregation, Humble Walk, is the product of an ice cream night that Houge hosted this past summer in which she invited people from the community to her house. "It was about creating conversation and community," said Houge. "The overwhelming response was 'Thank you!'"

She asked community members what their hopes were, and how the church could meet them where they were. What she found was that many of the people from her working-class neighborhood weren't used to feeling invited or welcomed. "Many of the people were looking to connect, but needed community," said Houge. "They want church, but not the pew. They want to walk in and have people know their names."

There was an emphasis on having a non-threatening and welcoming environment. The next step was starting a congregation. The only problem? Houge was, and still is, a student. Before the idea took flight, she met with Bishop Peter Rogness, '72, of the St. Paul Synod. "I told him, 'I don't want to lead if it's not an OK thing to do.'" And Houge was willing to go anywhere for her first call.

After hearing her idea and seeing her energy, Bishop Rogness was excited. "He went to bat for me," said Houge. Until recently, students needed to serve at established parishes for three years prior to working in mission development. A recent decision by the ELCA bishops approved mission development as a potential first call for graduates, so Houge went through that approval process and Humble Walk began its journey. They're currently meeting on Sunday evenings at Fresh Grounds coffee shop in St. Paul, Minn.

Her goal is that Humble Walk will "never grow so big that it needs to be plugged in. Once it gets uncomfortable, we'll split into two groups." Houge is also realistic that the members of Humble Walk will never be able to support her financially and she is looking for a partner congregation to support her.

It's apparent that Houge's motivation for starting Humble Walk was to serve the neighbor and not to ask, "What can my neighbor give to me?"

Luther Seminary has taken the lead on preparing students for the new missional church. Directly or indirectly, mission will play an integral role in how each student can discern the needs of his or her congregation and community.

"It's theology of the cross," said Simpson. "We are little Christs sent to get inside our neighbor."

Students interested in participating in the CML cohort are encouraged to contact Mary Sue Dreier ( or Dwight Zscheile (

Master of Divinity senior and Humble Walk leader Jodi Houge.

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