Story Magazine - Third Quarter, 2003

Abundantly Gifted, Abundantly Pardoned

by Melinda Melhus '01

The invitation promised a "life-changing weekend." It may have
seemed a tall order for the rostered staff of the ELCA's Southwestern Minnesota Synod. They, along with their spouses, were invited to attend Stewardship 2003: Abundantly Gifted, Abundantly Pardoned, August 1-3, at Luther Seminary. Was it life changing for the 130+ participants? If gracious hospitality, amazing generosity, exemplary speakers and a general atmosphere of camaraderie, rest and renewal can change a person's outlook on stewardship, this conference did do just that.

Why Stewardship 2003?

Co-sponsors Luther Seminary and the SW MN Synod had a two-fold purpose for the weekend event: to help support, equip and challenge participants in establishing personal stewardship goals; and increase their confidence as stewardship leaders in their congregations and communities.

All participants, including keynote speakers and facilitators, committed to participating in the entire three-day event.

At Stewardship 2003, participants examined stewardship from biblical,  cultural, personal, pastoral and congregational perspectives. They also engaged with keynote speakers and increased their confidence as stewardship leaders.

They explored multiple facets of stewardship through keynote addresses,  worship and devotions, workshops, small group discussion and mentoring. They also had ample time for personal growth and reflection.

All functions were held at Luther Seminary and the Radisson Roseville Hotel in St. Paul, Minn. Several individuals and organizations helped subsidize the event so that the cost to individuals was reasonable. Meals, accommodations, information, fellowship, inspiration, pampering and focus were promised in the invitational flyer--but participants repeatedly stated they were overwhelmed by the gracious treatment received at the event.

"Our greatest hope for this event is that you will experience it as an oasis," planners stated in the opening welcome of the event guide. "We hope the event will provide physical refreshment...a place for emotional rest...and that you will find spiritual invigoration, especially as it relates to stewardship...You may be here in search of good ideas for your next stewardship campaign or tips on how to motivate stronger giving in your congregation. You may find some of those ideas woven into the fabric of the event...But this event has been designed primarily to be a blessing for you personally. If that blessing spills over into your congregation or community--well,all the better."

Outrageous Hospitality

Remarkable hospitality and the assurance of God's grace, as stated in the weekend's biblical theme from Isaiah 55, provided the foundation for the Stewardship 2003 event. Stewardship was the primary focus but emphasis on the theme, Abundantly Gifted, Abundantly Pardoned, was clearly an intentional underlying message throughout the event from the moment participants arrived. Volunteers provided valet parking, asking surprised guests to surrender their car keys. Meanwhile, other volunteers simultaneously grabbed their luggage and led participants to rooms with lovely accommodations.

Once registered, the clergy and lay guests were offered a variety of activities to enjoy and partake of as they began to relax and settle in for the weekend.

Options included refreshments, massage therapy, a stewardship confession booth, a workshop to explore biblical stewardship stories, aerobics at the pool, a game room, a special event coffee house complete with bluegrass music by Dick Kimmel, and square or line dancing.

Other special services were available throughout the event. The Stewardship Oasis offered space for private reflection, meditation or prayer.

"Members of our congregation encouraged us to go," said Wayne Kopitzke, pastor of Salem Lutheran in Montevideo, Minn. "It's been great. Oh, but how shocking to allow someone to park your vehicle!" "Then to find a rose in our room!" someone at his table interjected. "Plus,that lovely goodies bag filled with all sorts of treats and practical items," another added.

Nods of agreement came from the three couples seated at the table, as their comments tumbled over one another. Participants received a bonus perk as a group of students and adults from Our Savior's Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minn., washed their vehicles back at the hotel while they were at the seminary attending sessions. Surprises continually awaited participants: hand-thrown coffee mugs from Clay Coyote Pottery in Hutchinson, Minn., green plants with Isaiah 55:12-13 printed on the attached card, devotions from Luther Seminary's God Pause daily e-mail devotions under each participant's door every morning.

Framed prints of an original watercolor depiction of Isaiah 55 by Robyn Sand Anderson were presented to participants during the closing worship service. The deeply symbolic piece, which features abundant, flowing water, will undoubtedly be cherished as a treasured keepsake. The gift is intended as a reminder of the event. It also serves as a visual commission for participants as they continue their stewardship journeys.

Perhaps the greatest surprise for all in attendance, but especially for those who received them,were the $1,000 checks presented to 18 of the synod's clergy new to ministry who carried a seminary debt load.

These checks were made possible by gifts from participants who attended Luther Seminary's first Stewardship 2000 event. The funds are intended to help with the high seminary debt load most new pastors carry with them into the parish.

Participants Expressed Gratitude and Amazement

Responses were varied about what participants gained from Stewardship 2003.

"Renewal," was the solid response from Solvejg Seamon of Springfield, Minn., when asked what the weekend had meant for her.

"It's offered the opportunity to recharge our batteries," her husband Carl, pastor of St. John's and Sundown Lutheran churches, added.

"It's been wonderful--especially the Bible study and the worship," Terri Stangeland of Westbrook, Minn., said. Her husband Mike, pastor of Westbrook Lutheran Church, concurred.

The weekend event clearly impacted Rachael and Ronn Gusaas of Windom, Minn., at multiple levels. Rachael is pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church there.

"The one thing that means a lot to me as a pastor has been the participation in worship," Rachael said. "It's been so neat to sit with my husband and to be fed, instead of being the one doing the feeding. The worship services have been just wonderful.

"The speakers have all been fantastic and so inspirational. I wish we could just picked them up and take them back with us. The stewardship of the event was very moving. Every time we turned around there were gifts of service.

"There has been a lot of attention to detail. The little things were just huge!"

Rachael was clearly overwhelmed by the event, especially as a scholarship recipient.

"I've just been blessed by the giving, the giving, the giving...the quality... the arrangements...how everything's been done with such care for us. The scholarship was so unexpected. I was speechless,completely caught off guard."

David Andert was enthusiastic about the weekend but somewhat more tempered by 30 years in the ministry. He and his wife Anne are co-pastors at Our Redeemer's Lutheran in Benson, Minn.

Andert said he had been challenged to tithe as a confirmation student in high school. His wife Anne was also. In addition, he had the opportunity to attend a similar stewardship event with fellow young pastors during the first five years of ministry.

"It kind of set the tone for me in raising the comfort level in this area of ministry," Andert said.

He was saddened that more of his colleagues were unable to attend the event. He is already thinking about ways to encourage and challenge fellow clergy who didn't attend Stewardship 2003. "It's certainly better late than not at all," he said. "We have so many congregations faced with closing their doors. If the average Lutheran gives two and one-half to three percent...just think if they tithed! "A congregation of 150 average Lutherans can hardly stay alive, compared to a congregation of 50 who tithed. It's no wonder so many pastors are paid below guidelines."

How It All Began

Stewardship 2003 grew out of the Southwest Minnesota Synod's Stewardship Council and was co-sponsored by the synod and Luther Seminary.

The event was the second time Luther Seminary helped sponsor a stewardship weekend. Stewardship 2000 was the first such event with a focused audience. All Luther Seminary graduates in their first five years of ministry were invited to attend,along with their spouses. Anonymous donors underwrote much of the cost.

Glenn Taibl, major gifts consultant in Luther Seminary's seminary relations office, was one of the primary individuals involved in planning and implementing both events. Since Stewardship 2000, Taibl has made a point to visit the pastors who participated.

More than 50 percent have told him it was a life-changing event for them. "The response has shown that not only do we change people's view of stewardship--personally as well as in their ministry--but such an event helps build a network among their peers," he said. "Over time, we hope to help better define that network to offer mentoring, coaching and support."

Taibl sees the format of the event as a model that can be imported." The way the laity has supported and gotten behind this event has been key," he said.

Visioning for the 2003 event began about a year and a half ago when Taibl visited Todd Nelsen of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minn. Nelson had been a facilitator at Stewardship 2000 and asked Taibl if Luther Seminary would consider doing such an event with a synod. Once interest was established by both the seminary and the SW MN Synod, and financial support secured, a planning team was formed.

"What would it look like and what kind of outcomes would be hoped for had to be addressed," Taibl said. "The model is good but we knew we could not replicate the first event. Right off, it was key to recognize that our context is different."

Ultimately the synod will determine what the outcome of Stewardship 2003 will be, according to Taibl. Key members of the seminary event team will meet with the synod's stewardship committee after the event. "I hope that this event will be a long-term gift to the SW MN Synod," Taibl said.