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Story Magazine

First Quarter 2009

Luther Seminary Honors Past, Moves Into Future

by Shelley Cunningham, '98, M.Div.

Pillsbury Mansion in Minneapolis, former site of Northwestern Seminary.

Since 2005 Luther Seminary has been engaged in a long-range strategic planning process to shape a vision and set a course for the future. To help lead that process, President Richard Bliese has been researching Luther Seminary's history, including working with Archivist Paul Daniels and talking with alums and former faculty from Luther's predecessor seminaries.

"We can be stronger if we can hear deeply these stories and how they have shaped the seminary's values," Bliese said.

One of these predecessor schools is Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary, the former seminary of the United Lutheran Church of America (ULCA). For more than 50 years, Northwestern Seminary and Luther Theological Seminary served Lutherans of different denominational and ethnic traditions in the upper Midwest. They were even across-the-street neighbors for nearly a decade before deciding to come together in 1976. But though the Northwestern Seminary name no longer stands apart, the school's heritage remains.

Last fall, Bliese gathered with a group of Northwestern Seminary alums to tour the former Northwestern Seminary site, the Pillsbury Mansion in Minneapolis. His research and conversation with those alums has revealed a legacy as rich as the ornate woodworking in that stately building. It's a legacy that shines through much of what makes Luther Seminary strong today.

"The Church Must Be Planted"
In the decades before World War II, the Northwest Synod of the ULCA was starting churches throughout the upper Midwest - in the Red River Valley and the prairies of North and South Dakota. The goal was to "get pastors out on the prairie," Bliese said.

Former Northwestern Seminary New Testament professor Bob Bartels, '47, said this was encapsulated by the phrase, "The church must be planted."

Northwestern Seminary's mission impact was global as well as domestic. Northwestern graduates served as missionaries in India, China, Indonesia, British Guiana and Liberia. Northwestern Seminary sent its graduates out by the dozens to begin new congregations. The close ties between students, synod and seminary served to create a deep loyalty between them.

The strong sense of community reflected how the ULCA was structured. For many years the synod office shared the same building with the seminary, and the affiliation between the two extended to the congregations of the Northwest Synod.

"One of the influences of theological education at Northwestern was that pastors absorbed the belief that congregations belong to the church," Bartels said. "They were seen as one with the church in message, in stewardship, in mission."

Alum William Seabloom, '54, experienced Northwestern's ecumenical as well as international impact. "There was a real feeling that the 'church' was larger than just the Lutheran Church," he said. "When I was a student there were students of other denominations - Greek Orthodox, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, a Franciscan - this was long before the emphasis on ecumenical training came into vogue."

Seabloom recalls classes in human sexuality and social work that were in the curriculum of Luther, co-led by United Theological and St. Paul seminaries in the 1970s.

"We were taught to focus on our love for the church and the work of the church," he said. "Those things existed together wherever we were."

Today, Bliese promises, "We are going to be the leading school in the field of mission development." The M.Div., MA, D.Min. and PhD programs all offer concentrations in Congregational Mission and Leadership for pastors and leaders who have a passion for transforming churches and communities in the name of Christ. The key faculty involved with CML are some of the country's top missiologists. In the past decade Luther Seminary has partnered with Augsburg College to offer a dual degree in theology and social work, and developed the Centered Lifeی initiative to equip lay people to see their life's work as vocations, their callings from God.

"Pray God and Tell the People"
Northwestern Seminary's heritage of strong stewardship reflects a move away from more legalistic, apportionment giving to grace-based giving. Congregations in the Northwest Synod responded with tremendous generosity in supporting the seminary as well as other ministries and missions.

"We were taught that you didn't give to a cause; you gave because you were grateful," former Northwestern Seminary Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics Robert Roth, '45, said. "Northwestern Seminary never accepted a dime from the national church because the Northwest Synod and the Red River Valley Synods were so generous in supporting their seminary."

In turn, the seminary made good use of its resources, amassing a substantial endowment, paying off its mortgage, and funding tuition for all students from the ULCA.

"Students came with a real sense of wanting to serve their synod, and the synod took care of them," Seabloom said.

That tradition of strong stewardship is carried on as Luther Seminary has developed a wealth of resources for congregations and future church leaders. The Stewardship for the 21st Century Web site,, targeted classes and coaches on financial management -  both personal and in the parish - for students, and continuing education courses like "Root,Walk, Lead" have made the Center for Stewardship Leadership "one of the best in the country - not just among Lutherans, but among all traditions," Bliese said.

"Faith of the Parents in the Language of the Children"
Northwestern Seminary taught and proclaimed the faith of the parents in the language of the children. This was first and foremost in the consciousness of faculty and students, producing professors who made contributions to at least four major movements in modern theology.

Worship was one place that united believers from many different traditions. Because the Northwest Synod encompassed so many different ethnic groups, worship was typically held in English, not Norwegian, Swedish or German. "There were so many immigrants from so many countries, but what they all had in common was that their children were learning English in school.We led worship in English because it helped transfer faith from one generation to the next," Bartels said.

The identity of Northwestern Seminary as a worshipping community shaped the very way courses were taught. Professors understood that a seminary education was not merely a matter of receiving information and learning skills; rather, it was an opportunity to establish a personal relationship with teachers through Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life.

"We did not think of Northwestern as a school that occasionally worshipped," Roth said. "We were a worshipping community, first and foremost, that had a specific function: to train pastors for the church. People identified themselves as members of that community - we worshipped, we worked, we lived together."

Added Bartels, "And Northwestern graduates knew that their mission was to go into pulpits to preach the gospel, and into chancels to lead their congregations in reverent worship of Jesus Christ."

Liturgical worship was a cornerstone of the seminary; in fact, in 1967 when the seminary moved from the Pillsbury House to its new campus on the corner of Hendon and Fulham streets (what is now Northwestern Hall), the building was designed around a formal worship space, the Chapel of the Cross. While still in the Pillsbury House, students and faculty worshipped daily in the chapel furnished by Charles Pillsbury.

Into the Future with Hope
As the strategic plan continues to take shape, Bliese wants to lift up the stories of Luther Seminary's heritage.

"We have so many students, so many new faculty who were not a part of these traditions," Bliese said. "They want to know what has made us strong in the past, and how those things will make us strong in the future.

"Discovering these stories gives me the confidence that we are headed in the right direction," he said. "We have deep roots and our heritage will carry us forward."

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