Jesus directs us to pray for workers. Here are some answers to our prayers. Their stories suggest how we will find the next generation of pastors.
In April 2022, 230 pastors and their wives gathered for a three-day ministry retreat in San Antonio, Texas. They talked and laughed as they relived college and seminary memories. They caught up with each other, recounting personal blessings and the joys and challenges of ministry.
They also talked about how they became pastors in the first place. Their stories hearten us to thank God for his answer to our prayers for workers. At the same time, they direct us to pray for more workers and invite us to encourage young men to choose pastoral ministry.
The importance of encouragement
For Benjamin Golisch, pastor at St. Paul, Slinger, Wis., ministry was in his blood, with many relatives serving as pastors and teachers. Yet he remembers someone else when recalling how he decided to become a pastor. “I attribute the idea of becoming a pastor to my sixth grade Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Habermas,” he says. “She used to tell me, ‘You should become a pastor. I think you’d make a good pastor.’ Today, I encourage especially our laypeople—Sunday school teachers, church council members, and just the encouragers in a congregation—if you see a young person with ministry gifts, please speak up. Plant the seed. Encourage those on the journey. You never know how much your interest in one of these young people can make a difference in their lives and the kingdom of God.”
For Michael Zarling, pastor at Water of Life, Racine/Caledonia, Wis., one person did make a difference. It was his advisor at Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School, Jackson, Wis. “Pastor Mehlberg advised me as a freshman to sign up for Latin because he said I was ‘an intelligent young man who could be a doctor or a lawyer.’ Four years later I realized that my language classes would also be helpful for training as a pastor. So that’s what I did. Thanks to one pastor encouraging—and flattering—me, now I’ve been blessed to be a pastor for over 25 years. I continue to encourage—and flatter if need be—the youth in my congregation to consider the full-time teaching or preaching ministry.”
Michael Johnson, pastor at Good Shepherd, Sioux Falls, S.D., remembers a recruitment message. “I was in second grade when a recruiter from Northwestern Prep School (now Luther Preparatory School) spoke at my congregation about the need for pastors and teachers. I talked with my mother that evening about becoming a pastor and never looked back. It’s never too early to think about whether you could be a pastor, and children are never too young to encourage.”
When Philip Pitt, pastor at Our Hope, Chippewa Falls/St. John, Bloomer, Wis., was a high school student at Michigan Lutheran Seminary, Saginaw, Mich., he heard a recruitment message for the pastoral ministry. He muttered out loud, “I could never do that.” His teacher overheard him and said, “Why not?” After 35 years of ministry, Pitt says, “I still encourage young people to ask that question about gospel ministry: ‘Why not?’”
Faithful people all around
The encouragers mentioned previously were never working alone. They were supported by parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors, and other believers. Faithful and steady lives of faith are powerful recruitment tools for ministry.
Nathan Strutz, pastor at Tree of Life, Cary, N.C., remembers his father’s faithful service. “My dad is a layperson and was the first one to church and the last one to leave. I learned from his example of serving Jesus.” By his weekly example, Strutz’ father showed him how to love and serve Jesus and his people, and that was a powerful motivator for the pastoral ministry.
Matthew Schoell, pastor at St. John, Appleton, Wis., says, “I grew up in a parsonage and witnessed the joys and struggles of ministry firsthand. My father’s approach to ministry made me eager to follow in his footsteps.” Schoell also remembers a high school teacher, Mr. Treder, who invited him to visit Martin Luther College, whether he wanted to or not. His teacher’s encouragement and confidence in him led him to pursue the pastoral ministry.
“My mother tells it like this,” says Paul Workentine, pastor at Our Savior, Roanoke, Va. “I went through stages of wanting to be a fireman and police officer. When I was about five years old, I came home from Sunday school after a lesson on Jesus’ death and resurrection. I told her that if Jesus did that much for me, then I wanted to tell other people about his love. . . . After I graduated from our Lutheran elementary school in Geneva, Nebraska, my mom sent me 500 miles away to Northwestern Lutheran Academy, even though she had been widowed three years before. The seed was planted early, and God made it grow.”
As Michael Ewart, pastor at St. Peter, Appleton, Wis., was growing up, his parents and various pastors encouraged him to consider the ministry. But even after he went to college to become a pastor, ongoing encouragement was important. During his first semester, a professor from the seminary led a seminar on how to share the gospel with others. “When I heard the gospel so clearly and simply explained, my heart was full, and I knew I would spend the rest of my life sharing God’s amazing grace in Christ with souls that so desperately need it,” he says.
For Nathan Zastrow, pastor at Grace, Yakima, Wash., the event that played a significant role in his decision to become a pastor was his catechism instruction. His understanding of the Scriptures shifted from Bible stories to doctrine. He explains what happened: “Worship made sense. Hymn lyrics made sense. I took ownership of my baptism. I hadn’t changed anything about what I believed, and yet everything I believed became deeper, more reasoned, and personal.”
The fields white for the harvest also stir a desire to share Jesus. Daniel Laitinen, TELL missionary, remembers going to Kiev, Ukraine, while in high school to teach the Bible and Luther’s Catechism. That time spent with his host family and in the classroom showed him their eagerness to learn more about Jesus. It opened his eyes to the world outside the US and the importance of the gospel for all people. “That allowed me to experience a mission field and was a big stepping stone in my final decision to go into ministry,” he says.
John Boggs, a professor at Luther Preparatory School, Watertown, Wis., speaks for many who praise God for the privilege of serving: “Sometimes I just look back and shake my head. How does a young Catholic kid from Indianapolis wind up getting the privilege to serve our amazing God as a WELS tutor, home missionary, dean, parish pastor, professor, and more?! The grace of God has been both unmistakable and boundless in my ministry journey. I daily praise him for bringing my family to WELS, for the encouragement I received to consider serving him in the public ministry, and for the responsibilities, challenges, and blessings that are a part of it.”
It is truly amazing how the Lord of the harvest provides workers for his harvest fields—from among us and for our eternal benefit.
Author: Bradley Wordell
Volume 109, Number 10
Issue: October 2022