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My Christian life: From Air Force sergeant to staff minister

A retired military sergeant follows God’s plan for his life—right into the public ministry.

Mike Tracy, a staff minister with Chaplains in Schools, was born with a heart for ministry, but his path into public ministry was anything but direct. While Mike and his wife, Diane, didn’t always understand where God was leading them, they never lost sight that God was going to use them for the glory of his kingdom.

The early years

As a teen, Mike initially enrolled in Northwestern Preparatory School (now Luther Preparatory School), Watertown, Wis., but things didn’t go as planned. “I was failing at it,” Mike explains. He transferred to Lakeside Lutheran High School in nearby Lake Mills, and God’s plan slowly began to unfold.

A love for mechanics drew Mike toward a career in the Air Force. So in 1985, just months after meeting his future wife, Diane, he joined the military. Mike recalls, “I spent three months at a time in Central America, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Europe during the last years of the Cold War.”

In 1987, Mike and Diane married and soon had two children—the first when Diane was only 19 years old. Then, during Mike’s yearlong tour of duty in Korea, Diane gave birth to their third child. “Diane and the baby both almost died,” says Mike. “The Red Cross was able to fly me back for emergency leave, but it was tragic. Diane was in one hospital, the baby was in another hospital, and our one-and-a-half-year-old, who developed a bone infection, was in yet another hospital.”

Miraculously, Diane and the two youngest Tracy children survived. Their new baby, Heather, was born missing three-quarters of her blood and suffered permanent brain damage. She continued to progress, however, so Mike and Diane had the privilege of loving and raising a daughter with special needs.

God provides

Looking back, Mike and Diane can see how God’s plan for them unfolded just as he ordained. For example, during their time in Florida as a newly married couple, God carefully placed mentors in the Tracys’ path.

At the WELS preaching station near the base, Mike and Diane met Gerry and Marion Fisher. The retired couple quickly took Mike and Diane under their wing. On Sundays when the WELS pastor from Mobile, Alabama, was unable to come, Gerry would occasionally ask Mike to lead the church service.

“So in my 20s, I was the Sunday school teacher, and I was doing services,” Mike explains. “Right from the get-go, God got us a mentor, and we’re already in ministry.”

No matter where the Tracys went, whether it was Florida, Texas, California, Wisconsin, Germany, or Minnesota, God continued to provide. They would find the nearest WELS church, the church would become family, and they would both jump into serving, gaining experience through nearly every church position available.

In another grand display of God’s providence, Mike was abruptly sent to California for a special duty assignment. The Tracys were left a bit confused by the sudden upheaval, until God showed his hand. “A sister of a good friend we made through the church in California found out she was pregnant,” explains Diane.

The young woman had the baby but chose not to keep her daughter. The Tracys decided to adopt her. Suddenly, Mike and Diane were looking at their move to California through a new lens—one in which God led them to their fourth and final child.

MCL Sept 22
Upper left: Mike and Diane (right) with their friends and mentors Gerry and Marion Fisher at their son Jonathan’s baptism in 1988. Their daughter Elizabeth is in Mike’s arms. Upper right: Mike Tracy (second from left) and other members of the WELS Military Services Committee, which provides spiritual services to WELS members and others in the military.

A third career

After Mike retired from the military in 2009, he spent eight years in the corporate world doing government contract work. After he fully retired in 2017, the Tracys were living in La Crosse, Wisconsin. “We had no idea what to do next,” says Mike, “but we knew God was going to use us, and we were just going to let God decide.”

They bought their dream home and planned to use Mike’s GI bill to put him through nearby University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. After speaking with friends and family, however, the Tracys started questioning that decision. When they mentioned Mike’s plan to go back to school, people would ask, “Oh, what’s he going to do? Pastor track? Teacher track? Staff minister track?”

So the Tracys moved once again—this time to New Ulm, Minnesota, where Mike attended Martin Luther College to be a staff minister. He spent three years as the oldest student on campus. He says, “Second-career people are so ready to do something. We should encourage and support seasoned men and women who have the desire and opportunity to prepare for ministry.”

A unique ministry opportunity

MCL Mike Tracy with children SEPT 22
Mike Tracy with some of the students at HOPE Christian School in Racine.

After he graduated in 2021, Mike was assigned as a chaplain with Chaplains in School. “Because of my family’s military and unique life experiences, ministry in urban settings isn’t unfamiliar to me. Because of everything God has put us through, I can sympathize with a wide range of people—parents, students, workers, parents of a disabled child, veterans, separated fathers, single mothers, and called workers in a new mission field,” he says.

Chaplains in Schools, a WELS-affiliated ministry, supports charter school staff members in urban southeastern Wisconsin areas in ministering to children and their families while connecting them to Jesus. “The responsibility of bringing God’s Word really belongs to the parents, but they are so filled with frustrations and broken marriages and broken communities that they don’t have that piece [of the puzzle],” says Mike.

Because many of these students do not have a church home, Mike notifies parents of upcoming baptism events and asks if they or their children would like to be baptized. “We have had over 300 baptisms in just a short five-year period,” he explains.

A team effort

Despite his many accomplishments, Mike believes the credit does not belong to him. God was steering the ship even when Mike and Diane felt in the dark. Together, they experienced a traumatic birth, 19 moves, numerous deployments, the deaths of beloved parents, caring for a child with special needs, and periods of time when they felt unsure about their future. God’s will prevailed, and he led them exactly where they were meant to be—sustaining them with strong mentors and friendships along the way.

Of all the mentors and friends in his life, however, Mike values Diane the most. “She is my grounding rock,” Mike says. “She’s been with me for 35 years through thick and thin. For us, ministry isn’t a me thing. It’s an us thing. That’s the body of Christ.”

He continues, “[My ministry] is not a job. It’s too fulfilling and too rewarding to be a job.” In truth, ministry has never been Mike’s job. Instead, it has been woven into the fabric of his life. Throughout their journey, Mike and Diane followed God’s lead—faithfully ministering to the churches and people in their lives.

Author: Stephanie Boeckman
Volume: 109, Number 09
Issue: September 2022

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