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Story Magazine

Fall 2012

A blessed partnership

by John Klawiter, M.Div. '12

Co-directors of Koinonia share long bond that includes Luther Seminary

Tom Ahlstrom was pursuing his Master of Divinity at Luther Seminary in the late 1970s--until one day, he woke up laughing.

"I said to myself, 'Tom, you don't have a call. What are you doing here?'" said Ahlstrom. "I deeply liked the seminary but I decided, I guess I'm gonna resign. I don't belong here."

Tom quit seminary and became a bartender, which opened the door to the restaurant industry.

While Ahlstrom recognized that his calling wasn't in ordained ministry, little did he know he would one day return to church leadership. In 1983, Tom joined his friend, Paul Hinderlie, and his wife, Carol, at the Harbor View Cafच in Wisconsin. Their next move would be as executives at Holden Village. After a brief sabbatical, the three were called to their current positions as co-executive directors of Koinonia, a Christian camping and retreat center that operates in the 1,200-acre nature area of New York state.

Carol and Paul Hinderlie, who have been married 35 years, bought Harbor View Cafच in 1980. Tom and Paul have known each other since high school, and all three attended Luther Seminary together. "It took us three years to get Tom to 'come on down the river' to work the Harbor View with us," said Paul. They haven't looked back since. After five years at Holden Village, they just completed their first summer at Koinonia together.

"I've never seen three leaders work together more beautifully. It's like watching a dance," said Ellie Sudbrock, chair of the search team for Koinonia. "I felt their spiritual energy and magnetism and knew they were just right for Koinonia."

The solid, lasting relationship of the leadership trio may be just what's needed at Koinonia, which is in the midst of sweeping and meaningful changes. Those changes have led the co-directors to ask, "What is 21st century discipleship?"

This summer, Koinonia suspended its camping ministry, which had been in deep decline for the past 15 years. Now, they're focused on bringing people together for retreats and conversation to discern God's active role in this new and uncertain era of Koinonia. "This summer has been about freeing people to have honest and meaningful conversations about difficult topics," said Ahlstrom. "They are not specifically theological, but they can be."

"Over time, there have been many different dreams pursued at Koinonia," said Carol. "A lot of people engaged in those dreams and brought them to fruition, but the place is so large and the dreams so various, many haven't been sustainable.

"We were called in as agents of transformation. Places have calls too. A ministry like this has an identity, but may have different missions at different times."

"What the board figured [when they called us] is that Koinonia only had a few years to be viable in its present state," said Paul. "They decided to take risks. We see tokens for good in a new ministry for Koinonia, but they've had 50 years of outdoor camping ministry, even though they haven't had many campers in 15 years."

By cutting the camping ministry this summer, and the large staff that comes with it, Koinonia was able to be simplistic. The co-directors focused on retreats, which concluded in a six-week program called Renewing the Family of God. Special guests and speakers were invited to attend and center the experience on worship and activity.

Instead of putting together a crisp plan for what the next few years will look like, the three executives have put the discernment for what Koinonia should be in God's hands.

Hopes for the future are dependent on additional funding and increased partnership. The executives have had a lot of practice being innovative within the organizations. As a trio, it is clearly their calling. This is where they belong.

For more information about contributing to Koinonia and its mission, or to plan a trip or retreat, visit

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