The imagination of a faithful innovator
by Lisa Renze-Rhodes
David and Muffy Tiede
Before the phone interview begins, he politely asks, “Would you mind if I use a headset since our conversation will go an hour?”
“Of course not,” you reply. “Not at all.”
This discussion should go smoothly, you think to yourself.
Then he promptly hangs up on you.
“That didn’t work, did it?” he asks with self-effacing laughter after he picks up on the first ring when you call back. “Sorry about that. Let’s just go without.”
It’s easy to picture gentle laugh lines taking shape at the corner of David Tiede’s eyes when the smile in his voice makes its way across the miles. Counselor, coach, and cheerleader, Tiede is a purposeful listener and thoughtful responder, eager to engage in rich dialogue that sweeps from faith to a brief dip into politics; from teaching and pastoral care to the church of the past and of the future; from educational and fundraising innovations at his beloved Luther Seminary to a Jack Benny reference that he cracks himself up with, and so you laugh along.
It’s an hour that could be played on a loop to find things on a third or fourth listen that were missed the first few times. Because while he’s expansive in his thoughts about so many things, the one thing David Tiede '66 B.Div., president emeritus of Luther Seminary, doesn’t want to dwell on is the Christus Lux Mundi Award he’s receiving.
“It’s lovely, of course,” Tiede said. “And I don’t have false modesty—we did good stuff during my time there. My discomfort is only that there are so many other people for whom this award would fit so beautifully.”
He is equally humbled and inspired by past recipients.
The annals of Christus Lux Mundi Award winners include the likes of Gudina Tumsa ‘66 M.Div., general secretary of the Lutheran Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.
Tumsa was a vocal dissident of Emperor Haile Selassie and later of the new political leadership that took control of the country in the mid-1970s. He voiced concerns about the class system and government oppression there, and he was unapologetic in his pursuit of the faith and in helping others build lives centered on gospel teachings. Those beliefs and actions made Tumsa a target, and in July 1979, he was abducted off the street and killed by Derg soldiers.
It would be impossible, Tiede said, to deny the ways in which Tumsa embodied the Christus Lux Mundi spirit.
Still, there’s a common thread that unites these two men who both happen to be alumni of Luther Seminary’s class of 1966. There’s a deep connection between the African pastor who wrote, “In every situation and in every event, both divine and demonic elements are at work,” and the American pastor who says that in any situation it’s good to ask, “What in heaven’s name is going on?” and “What in hell is going on?”
People who know him well say those questions are in many ways indicative of what makes Tiede so unparalleled, laying open the nexus of not only who he is but why.
And they lead to insight into the reasons behind Tiede’s selection to the Christus Lux Mundi corps.
About the Christus Lux Mundi Award
The name of the Christus Lux Mundi Award derives from the Latin inscription carved in the stone lintel above the main entrance to Gullixson Hall, the home of the Luther Seminary library. That inscription (translated “Christ the light of the world”) articulates the central purpose of Luther Seminary.
The Christus Lux Mundi Award is the most distinguished award presented by Luther Seminary, reserved for limited use to honor the witness and service of those who have manifested the light of Christ during their career, either in the pastoral office or as laypeople. The criteria of the award are:
- Recognized public evangelical leadership in the church and the world
- Exceptional stewardship of abilities, talents, time, and/or other resources on behalf of the mission and ministry of the gospel
- Continuing motivation and encouragement of others to creative service on behalf of the church
- A minimum of 20 years of faithful service either as a pastor or as a lay leader in the church
Called to question, called to answer
“He’s got the wisdom of a scholar, the heart of a pastor, and the imagination of someone who is perpetually curious about what God is doing in the world,” said Robin Steinke, president of Luther Seminary. “He cares about what God is doing in and for the world through the church. But the thing that draws all of that together, and why it’s so rare, is that it’s combined with the humility of someone who is rooted in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Steinke said that commitment to Christ and the church continues to resonate through Tiede’s work and the example he sets.
“One of the things that might be curious is that after he retired he was willing to step in to very complicated situations,” Steinke said. “He could have relaxed in Arizona. He could have just taken a step back and put his feet up and enjoyed doing a lot less. But he chose to stay in service to the church through leadership roles that are often so complex.”
Through his continued scholarship and relationship stewardship, Steinke said, Tiede continued to build and empower leaders of and for the church.
“He’ll laugh and say he’s failed retirement three or four times,” Steinke said. “But there’s something deeper there, something really substantive about who he is and who he and Muffy (Tiede’s wife of more than 50 years) are together.”
What theological education has to offer to the church and to the world, how that education is provided, and the means by which it’s made available to those who are called—those ideas fuel his thinking, Steinke said.
Especially given the changing needs of the church.
When Tiede began his work in the church, seminary education was often fully funded by a denomination.
And once a pastor was connected to a congregation, that pastor was able to raise a family and enjoy a secure lifestyle. Now, fewer and fewer congregations can afford a full-time pastor. School is rarely fully subsidized. Even the modalities of education have changed, as students find themselves telecommuting to classes while juggling other life demands.
It was Tiede who gathered teams within and beyond Luther Seminary to begin the process of changing not only the way theological education was delivered but also how it was defined. Their adaptations would touch every corner of the institution—from its classrooms to its congregational partners.
Listening across the church
Change came neatly packaged on the fronts of poster boards, carried into family rooms and living rooms throughout Minnesota and parts of the Midwest by a group of fundraisers and educators who had no way of nowing if what they were doing would work.
A few hundred cups of coffee later and the team knew they were on to something.
Though fundraising had been a successful part of Luther Seminary for some years, Kathy Hansen, former vice president for seminary relations, said that during Tiede’s presidency the seminary moved in a direction that was revolutionary.
“He asked the all-important question, ‘Who is the Luther Seminary customer?’” Hansen said. “What we came to understand was that the customers of Luther Seminary were the congregations of the church.”
Once that information was unlocked, Hansen said, the traditional ways of securing support were no longer sufficient.
“As part of his introduction he would say, ‘I’m a school teacher,’ and I always thought that summed him up so well,” Hansen said. “At heart he was a teacher. He understands how to share information, but also how to engage people and draw out their best thinking. That humility, that directness—we always said we’re not fancy, we’re going to speak with people plainly and directly. We were just people talking.”
Those informal but informational conversations with what Tiede jokingly called his “Ross Perot boards” evolved, and in time included weekend-long retreats that brought together donors, seminarians, theologians, alumni, and other key stakeholders. These events eventually were named Leadership Circle Retreats (and even continue today). The weekends often had themes, and featured opportunities for donors, faculty, students, and administrators to dig deep together into topics like ensuring the faith of the church’s children, while also participating in spiritual enrichment of their own through Bible study and worship services.
The “rich and substantive weekends” succeeded in engaging attendees’ “hearts and minds in real conversation on things that mattered to them,” Hansen said. “We were engaging people deeply.”
The staying power of those weekends extended well beyond the formal close of the retreats. “It was really kind of a ripple effect,” Hansen said.
Churchgoers and community members cared about who would be preaching on Sunday, she said, and whether the messages from that person would resonate with young people enough to encourage fidelity to the faith.
“Would they have someone who could help their children and grandchildren understand Jesus and have a relationship there and stay in the church?” she asked. “It was their own personal congregations they were thinking of. We created a movement of people whose hearts weredeeply committed to Luther Seminary,” Hansen said.
The next generation of listeners
Solidifying a support system for Luther Seminary was only one of Tiede’s overarching concerns.
Were the seminarians who were graduating best prepared for the needs of the congregations who awaited them? What’s more, was Luther situated to provide what those graduates needed?
In typical Tiede fashion, he went straight to the sources.
He put a call out to alumni, asking generally and specifically if Luther Seminary was providing what graduates needed to be successful pastoral leaders within the church. The grads weren’t shy in responding.
“He got hundreds of letters back,” said Daniel Aleshire, retired executive director of The Association of Theological Schools. And because of those letters, Aleshire said Tiede “began seeing what alumni valued, what they experienced, and what they could now see they needed.”
Tiede also recognized the need to empower and encourage the faculty to express their ideas in order to define, then secure, a sustainable future. As a former faculty member, he understood faculty engagement and support were critical for any lasting success. Looking back, he said he knew the passion and expertise those educators would bring to bear on the process.
“They are fine scholars, and they have persisted with curriculum reforms for three decades as the church continues to change. The arguments, turf battles, and competing visions are intense. You can hardly imagine how fiercely such smart, committed people can go at it when the stakes are so high,” Tiede said.
Lois Malcolm ‘89 M.A., professor of systematic theology at Luther, said faculty needed and valued the opportunity—the responsibility—to help shape what the future of the school could and should be. She agreed that discussions on a revised mission statement were, at times, “fractious,” because of the passion everyone brought to the conversation and individuals’ deeply held perspectives.
It was crucial, Malcolm said, that the seminary faculty had the opportunity to publicly plant a flag about what they considered their non-negotiables. Ultimately, everything centered around two halves of what would be the one Luther Seminary: The confessional (the internal identity) and the missional (the external focus beyond one church to a larger community).
“The 1990s were a period of anxiety about the changes that we were going to need to address,” Malcolm said. “The church no longer had the privileged place in society that it used to have.”
This meant traditional rationale and beliefs were no longer sufficient for the justification of theological education. New arguments needed to be made, and that started with the faculty’s public debate of just what Luther Seminary was going to commit to being.
“If you lose the theological depths we stand for, we lose our reason for existing,” she said.
It was the faculty who first articulated that argument, Malcolm said, and they continue to be a voice of the mission today. She says the years have softened the arguments and now many “see Tiede as a hero.”
“He is an exemplar of presidential leadership, not only for a seminary, but for other deans and provosts to [articulate] why the academy needs to exist to benefit society,” Malcolm said.
One mission, many voices
Tiede didn’t limit animated conversations to the faculty. Hearty discussions with his administrative cabinet members were also good opportunities for Tiede to listen and reflect—two things, Aleshire said, that Tiede excels at. “A leader can work in a way that draws attention to the individual or empowers other people,” Aleshire said. “David consistently worked to empower others.”
The instinct to champion those around him is born of an internal peace that comes because of and through his faith, Hansen added. “He has a kind of self-confidence and inner security to be very open to other people’s perspectives, other people’s ideas.”
This creates opportunities for those around him to live the teachings of the gospel, she said, without exactly replicating what Tiede does.
“There are multiple ways of looking at the same central truth—he’s not threatened by people looking at these things from multiple perspectives,” Hansen said, adding that the very notion of inviting many ideas into a larger conversation “is in fact very biblical.”
And she’s convinced that a large part of the comfort others find in Tiede is because regardless of who he encounters, people feel heard after he’s engaged with them.
That ability to simultaneously consider the micro and the macro of any situation is what Charles Olson, longtime Luther board member and founding member of the seminary foundation, recalls about his time with Tiede.
“Always there was a smile on his face and interest in whoever it was that came onto campus,” Olson said. “He was a master at relating to people, just a true master. People liked him—they just had automatic quick respect for him.”
Olson said Tiede was “a preacher, a teacher, and a planner for the future.”
“If he wasn’t clear about what someone was saying, he would get down into that conversation a little bit. He would ask questions and really hear what someone was explaining.”
And Olson said Tiede did it in such a way that it was a conversation, not an interrogation.
“Well, it’s all about listening,” Tiede said.
What he’s always hoped for, worked toward, believed in, is the blueprint for life the Gospels map out for those willing to read them, learn them, and live them.
“Astute listening is a very complex task,” he said.
“What you bring with listening is a huge witness of the love of God for all people.”
If Tiede is remembered only for intentionally listening, well, that’s just fine by him.
“As long as it is clear that together we are listening for the Spirit of Christ,” he said.
“What I would hope would come through, as you’re telling this story, would be about the calling of Luther Seminary, not about David Tiede,” he said. “Maybe David Tiede is a servant in this story.
“What I hope, what I know, is that I believe the calling of Luther Seminary, and what’s needed from it is not ambiguous. How to do it—to prepare the next generation of listeners so the church will be adept and adroit and able to engage what’s really happening in the world—well, that’s hard.
“So let’s speak to it with a word of promise, and hope, which the gospel is.”