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Under God’s sky: Dakota-Montana District

Peter J. Naumann

“Go West, young man and young lady,” has been the assignment given to hundreds of pastors and teachers during the history of the Dakota-Montana District. Following the Lord’s call, they found a big, beautiful country with people needing and wanting to hear the gospel.

Dakota-Montana served as the joint synod’s largest mission field for decades, through the Depression and World War II. That changed with the 1961 fellowship decision and the synod’s sudden need to follow members throughout all 50 states. Still, many past and present pastors, teachers, professors, and synodical officials started their ministries in the district. “They assign them to us so they can learn ministry,” one older member stated.

“Big and beautiful, boom and change” describe the scenery and life in the district, which comprises the states of North and South Dakota, Montana, and the Canadian province of Alberta. There are also a few congregations on the borders of Minnesota and Wyoming. Dakota-Montana contains the majestic beauty of the Northern and Canadian Rockies. Of course, who hasn’t heard of the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore? It seems fitting that this series on the 12 districts ends in Big Sky country.

The district covers the seemingly endless expanse of the northern plains, which contain several desert badlands locations. Arable land is covered as far as one can see with amber waves of grain, sunflowers, and also corn and soybeans. Pastureland is paradise for cattle and honeybees. The former remind a person of Psalm 50:10: “the cattle on a thousand hills.” A marker on the 100th meridian, just east of the Missouri River, says that in the 1800s insurance companies and banks would not loan money any further west because beyond that point was only the Great American Desert. Current residents just smile and keep on working. (Rainfall is measured, however, in hundredths of an inch not in tenths of an inch.)

The district spans 1,233 miles from Yankton, South Dakota, in the southeast to Saint Albert, Alberta, Canada, in the northwest, and 954 miles from Missoula, Montana, on the Idaho border to Moorhead, Minnesota, in the east. Out here it is hard to relate to urban sprawl or overpopulation. The Canadian cities of Calgary and Edmonton are the only cities in the district with a metropolitan population of over one million.

The “boom times” included the waves of European immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, encouraged by congressional homestead acts. Hardy Reisepraedigern (traveling preachers) followed these determined people to gather them into congregations. Of one such missionary, a son said, “Dad had a hand in starting 43 congregations.” There have also been population spikes brought on by the gold rushes, the railroads crossing the plains, vast supplies of coal, and now the oil and natural gas boom, especially in western North Dakota and northern Alberta.

Change has come in several forms. The railroads helped span and populate the plains. Railheads sprouted towns every ten miles, and towns sprouted churches. Now interstate highways carry people and commerce, attracting jobs and people to different towns. Farms and ranches have changed too. Modern machinery causes today’s family farm not to be sized by acres but by quarters and sections.

Two things of course have not changed: the natural spiritual condition of people and the Lord’s burning desire to reach and save as many as possible. Responding to our Savior’s direction to “go into all the world,” the church, missionaries, and schools have followed the population and pioneers west. And they have not bypassed the local population, as Native American names such as Pourier, Cadotte, Catch the Bear, Trevan, Never-Misses-a-Shot, Handboy, Traversie, Dancing Fox, River, and Hawk witness. Asked why he accepted a call to the far-flung, sparsely populated Dakotas, one veteran pastor replied, “They all have souls too.” Fifty-four pastors and fifty teachers address that need daily with the good news.

Formerly part of the Minnesota Synod, three years after the death of its president and the full amalgamation of the joint synod, the Dakota-Montana District was

formed in 1920. It is currently composed of 73 congregations with 10,103 members. It supports five elementary schools and one high school, Great Plains in Watertown, South Dakota. Though an area Lutheran high school and not supported by the synod, Great Plains is an able and growing successor to Northwestern Lutheran Academy. That former synod preparatory school in Mobridge, South Dakota, thrived for 50 years until 1979 when it merged with Martin Luther Academy, New Ulm, Minn. The new school, Martin Luther Preparatory School, was relocated to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

The states and province comprising the district have enjoyed low unemployment rates for decades. That is especially true now with the oil boom. Thousands of young people and families are heeding Horace Greeley’s advice. The many new, young families have caused a great demand for child care. District congregations have responded by establishing nine early childhood ministries, with more in the planning stages.

If you are planning a vacation or looking for new job or home in beautiful surroundings, come and take a look at our district. It has much to offer. Some locals refer to it as “real America.” Be that as it may, the Dakota-Montana District is thankful for the gospel and eager to proclaim real wisdom, wealth, forgiveness, and salvation through Jesus Christ.

Peter Naumann served as president of the Dakota-Montana District from 1994–2014. He currently serves the dual parish of Zion, Mobridge, South Dakota, and Saint Jacobi, Glenham, South Dakota.

This is the final article in a 12-part series on the WELS districts.

 

 

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Author: Peter J. Naumann
Volume 101, Number 12
Issue: December 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Under God’s sky: The North Atlantic District

Donald L. Tollefson

The North Atlantic District stretches along the eastern seaboard of our nation, from North Carolina up the coast to Maine and into the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Within its borders rest two national capitals—Ottawa and Washington, D.C.—and large cities—Charlotte, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. It was known as the Colonial Conference of the Michigan District before being granted status as a district in 1983—one of the youngest of the 12 districts.

ROOTS

The first seeds of our district were sown when a call came from some concerned Lutherans imploring help to hold onto and strengthen their scriptural and confessional roots. Pastor Leonard Koeninger, on leave from his congregation in Lansing, Michigan, conducted the first WELS worship service on the East Coast in March 1963. By the fall of that year, in the shadow of our nation’s capital, Walter Beckmann was installed as mission pastor at Grace, Falls Church, Virginia. It became the first of a string of mission congregations planted in the mid-Atlantic region of the Colonial Conference. Twenty years later when the district was formed, he was called to serve as district president (1983–2004) of this newly formed district.

SHOOTS

The planting of the first WELS congregation in Virginia led to others. Prior to the planting of these congregations, a WELS family who had moved into New Jersey considered their options when the nearest church of their fellowship was in Ohio. They debated: Compromise or pray? Thankfully, they chose the latter and were elated when a WELS church within a day’s driving distance got its start in Virginia. They made the 200-mile trip frequently. Soon the pastor from Virginia was making the trip to New Jersey. It wasn’t long before another congregation was planted. Others began to spring up, branching out along the coastal states in New Jersey (East Brunswick), Pennsylvania (King of Prussia), Maryland (Baltimore), Connecticut (South Windsor), Virginia (Virginia Beach), and Massachusetts (Pittsfield). Like circuit riders, the early pastors of the Colonial Conference were willing to drive long hours, navigating East Coast traffic, in order to serve gatherings of concerned confessional believers. The Lord used that willingness and that concern to plant congregations where his saving Word would be proclaimed and grow.

The 1970s and ’80s were decades of rapid growth. More than half of the congregations in the district serving God’s people with the gospel today sprang up in those years.

In those years the door was also opened to serve souls to the country to our north—Canada. St Paul in Ottawa, Ontario, organized in 1874 as a member of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, numbered some seven hundred communicants. Led by their scriptural and confessional convictions, the congregation along with its pastor, Thomas Pfotenhauer, applied for membership in WELS. They were welcomed as a member congregation in 1970 and were used by God to assist in the planting and growth of several sister congregations in the Ottawa Valley and beyond.

CHALLENGES

Ministering on the East Coast presents challenges. The mobility of the population as well as the high costs of operating a ministry are factors to be faced. And the independent mindset of the original 13 colonies seems to be alive and well. Of those states listed as the ten least religious in the United States today, six are in New England. It presents a challenge. But then, when has the church been without a challenge?

Challenges also bring blessings. The Lord has blessed the efforts of serving and seeking souls with the gospel of Jesus. Hope in Toronto ministers well to several cultures. Falls Church, Virginia, and Woodside, Queens, New York, minister to the Spanish-speaking population in their neighborhoods. On the horizon, outreach among the growing Korean population is showing promise. Several of our congregations serve Asian students, attracted to colleges and universities up and down the East Coast. Illumine, a ministry to college students, is an active part of the ministry in Ottawa, Ontario. Opportunities and untold blessings come when serving military families and members at various facilities—Fort Drum, US Military Academy, Groton Submarine Base, McGuire Air Force Base, US Naval Academy, Fort Belvoir, Quantico, Fort Lee, Langley AFB, Norfolk, Camp Lejeune, and Fort Bragg.

Not every church planting on the East Coast survives. Several have been absorbed into other congregations; several were restarted and begun with renewed vigor; several are no more. While it saddens us to see plantings not blossom as we had hoped, it gives us a firmer resolve not to let such setbacks discourage us. We find strength in God’s promises to move forward in order to share his Word that it may bear rich fruit.

And the Lord continues to bless the proclamation of his gospel. A congregational restart in Sterling, Virginia, is producing fruit. Preschools, such as Precious Lambs in

Raleigh, North Carolina, give hope for the future. Woodbridge, Virginia, is given renewed vigor with the blessings of a new worship facility that is being filled with worshipers. A new mission congregation in Watertown, New York, is just getting off the ground.

This young mission, like every one of our congregations on the East Coast, is supported by the generous prayers and gifts of God’s people. The support of others will help the congregations of the North Atlantic District sink their roots in the rich soil of God’s Word so that they might produce fruit. The Lord has promised he will not let his Word return empty but will accomplish what he desires. We take him at his Word!

Donald Tollefson, pastor at Immanuel, Long Valley, New Jersey, is president of the North Atlantic District.

This is the tenth article in a 12-part series on the WELS districts.


 

STATISTICS

District president: Pastor Donald L. Tollefson
Congregations: 45
Mission churches: 6
Baptized members: 6,479
Communicant members: 4,860
Early childhood ministries: 3
Lutheran elementary schools: 2
Area Lutheran high schools: 0

 

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Author: Donald L. Tollefson
Volume 101, Number 10
Issue: October 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Under God’s sky: The Minnesota District

Paul E. Koelpin

The summer of 1918 was a season of action. American troops were engaged in heavy fighting along the Western Front during World War I. Halfway around the world, Vladimir Lenin was establishing his communist dictatorship in Russia. Closer to home, a group of pastors, teachers, and lay delegates—130 in all—met in June at Trinity, St. Paul, to form the Minnesota District of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Other States.

DISTRICT HISTORY

German Lutheran missionaries had spread the gospel in Minnesota even before it became a state in 1858. Under the leadership of Lutheran pastor and missionary to India, “Father” J. C. F. Heyer, several pastors and congregations organized as the Minnesota Synod in 1860. Already in colonial times, Lutheran synods followed along state, linguistic, and cultural lines. This “state synod” was a gathering of specifically German Lutheran churches. Although it was an independent church body, the small Minnesota Synod did seek affiliation with other larger Lutheran organizations for mutual support and assistance. The process fine-tuned Minnesota’s confessional stance and practice, and the Minnesota Synod became a charter member of the Synodical Conference in 1872.

Proximity to northern state synods in Wisconsin and Michigan, a like-minded Lutheran identity, and strong cultural ties resulted in establishing a formal unification as a “Joint Synod” in October 1892. Each synod remained autonomous while pursuing ways to function more effectively and efficiently as Lutheran churches joined in a common cause. Eventually, the Minnesota Synod adopted a reorganization plan and constitution, which formally made it a “district” of the Wisconsin Synod.

In 1918, the Minnesota District brought 22,000 communicant members into the new synod. Today, not quite one hundred years later, communicant membership in the district has nearly doubled. At its formation, the Minnesota District also included 18 congregations from mission work in the Dakotas. Within two years, these churches organized as the Dakota-Montana District.

SCHOOLS AND EDUCATION

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the Minnesota District in terms of the wider synod is the college located in New Ulm. Dedicated in 1884 as a worker training institution for the then Minnesota Synod, the school, called Dr. Martin Luther College (DMLC), owed its origins to Pastor C. J. Albrecht, a pastor at St. Paul, New Ulm, and the fifth president of the Minnesota Synod.

Albrecht was a man of action. After the synod struggled to sort out location options and to secure funding for the project, Albrecht had footings poured for a building on the picturesque hillcrest overlooking the city in the Minnesota River valley. He begged the synod’s indulgence for his boldness, and DMLC was born. In 1995, Northwestern College (in Watertown, Wisconsin) was amalgamated with DMLC to become Martin Luther College (MLC). Today MLC is the “WELS College of Ministry.” Its chief purpose is the training of pastors, teachers, and staff ministers for our synod. Nearly every called worker in our church body since 1995 has some connection to this school.

The Minnesota District has had a strong connection to education—with 61 early childhood ministries and 38 elementary schools. Three area Lutheran high schools provide secondary education. St. Croix Lutheran High School was founded in 1958 in West St. Paul; West Lutheran High School in Plymouth and Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School in New Ulm were both started in 1979. Since its founding St. Croix has moved to a second campus site and has been visionary in its approach—attracting hundreds of foreign exchange students (chiefly from Asian countries) and establishing an area Lutheran “middle school” on the campus as well.

SPECIAL MINISTRIES

The district is also the headquarters of The Lutheran Home Association in Belle Plaine. The “Lutheran Home” began in 1898 when Sophie Boessling donated farm land and money to Trinity congregation in Belle Plaine. Boessling intended that the donation be used to build a home for orphans and the aged. The Home became recognized for excellent care of the elderly and has continued to expand its facilities and services. Jesus Cares Ministries, which has served the spiritual needs of people with developmental disabilities since 1985, became part of its ministry in 1998.

Proximity to high quality medical facilities such as the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and the hospitals in the Twin Cities led to the formation of the Lutheran Institutional Ministry Association (LIMA). In addition to visiting the sick, LIMA also supports campus ministry efforts such as The Beacon (Minnesota State University, Mankato) and True North (Twin Cities universities) and has begun coordinating with WELS Prison Ministries (which is headquartered in New Ulm).

OUTREACH OPPORTUNITIES

The Minnesota District includes a handful of congregations in extreme western Wisconsin and congregations in Iowa and Missouri. Mission development in the last several decades focused mainly in the expanding suburbs of the Twin Cities; Rochester, Minn.; Des Moines, Iowa; and St. Louis, Mo.

Evangelism opportunities multiplied with the movement of peoples to these metropolitan areas. God used the work of Pastor Loren Steele to reach out to changing communities, especially to people of Asian descent. After his ordination at Emanuel in St. Paul in 1986, Steele began intensive outreach with Hmong immigrants in his neighborhood, resulting in a specifically Hmong congregation (Immanuel Hmong Lutheran Church) and the local training of Hmong men to serve as pastors. Hmong ministry remains strong in the district.

German Lutheran missionaries planted strong churches and schools as Minnesota was being settled in the 1800s; WELS mission work continues among people of other cultures, languages, and nations on the very same ground. All by God’s design and to his glory!

Paul Koelpin, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

This is the ninth article in a 12-part series on the WELS districts.


STATISTICS

District president: Pastor Charles Degner
Congregations: 158
Mission churches:
Baptized members: 49,454
Communicant members: 39,746
Early childhood ministries: 61
Lutheran elementary schools: 38
Area Lutheran high schools: 3

 

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Author: Paul E. Koelpin
Volume 101, Number 9
Issue: September 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Under God’s sky: Pacific Northwest District

Under God’s sky

The Pacific Northwest District

Theodore D. Lambert

The beautiful Pacific Northwest. That’s the descriptor often attached to this region of North America. Beautiful, indeed! Crystal clear lakes, great rivers, wheat fields that roll in the wind like a golden sea, mountain ranges boasting the tallest peaks in North America, ocean beaches where one can walk forever. The Pacific Northwest District covers the largest land mass of the 12 WELS districts. It stretches over three time zones and includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and the Canadian Province of British Columbia.

Cultures are as diverse as the landscape. Faith, Anchorage, Alaska, offers worship services in English, Spanish, and Hmong. Last year Holy Trinity, Des Moines, Wash., received 38 Sudanese immigrants as members. Holy Trinity already hosted a Korean congregation, so every other Sunday services are now offered in English, Sudanese, and Korean. In Boise, Idaho, Peace in Jesus is the sole Vietnamese-speaking congregation in WELS. Nearby, Nampa is the home of Truth in Love Ministry, dedicated to bringing Mormons to the true gospel. Six years ago Immanuel, Salem, Ore., established a connection in Korea that enrolls Korean students in the congregation’s school.

IN THE BEGINNING

The roots of the district are not traced to a mission board in Wisconsin anxious to plant new churches in the far west, but to a church begun by others. In 1884 the Ohio Synod founded St. Paul’s, Tacoma, Wash. Ten years later, when the Iowa and Ohio Synods broke fellowship with the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods, St. Paul’s petitioned the Wisconsin Synod for membership, and the synod suddenly had a new mission field. In 1905, the second WELS congregation in the Pacific Northwest—Grace, Yakima, Wash.—was organized. Two years later the mission board assigned a seminary graduate to serve central Washington. By train and lumber wagon he traveled a circuit of two hundred miles, ministering to small congregations in logging towns and wheat fields.

In 1918 the Pacific Northwest mission field was upgraded to the status of a district even though it numbered only eight pastors and 447 communicants. The Tacoma congregation was the only self-supporting church; all the rest were still missions.

Growth was slow, hampered in part by missionaries focused primarily on serving German Lutherans in their native tongue. While other church bodies began their work in the cities decades earlier, the Wisconsin Synod was content to establish missions in small towns and logging villages. Pastors frequently accepted the first call back to the Midwest. Lengthy vacancies were common.

HARD TIMES AND HARD GROUND

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the district, three new missions named Faith, Hope, and Charity, were simultaneously begun in Tacoma in 1928. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The following year the stock market crash ushered in the Great Depression. Money for missions dried up. Faith of Tacoma survived, but its infant sisters did not.

Still, God’s gracious hand provided for his church. Grace, Portland, unexpectedly joined the synod in 1929, opening the door for work in western Oregon. When young people from small communities migrated to the cities after World War II, the district mission board saw the wisdom of planting missions in Seattle, Spokane, and Edmonds, Washington, and in Eugene, Oregon.

But in 1957 the district faced its greatest challenge. When the Wisconsin Synod in its 1957 convention declined to sever fellowship with the Missouri Synod, a quarter of the pastors and churches of this district withdrew and joined the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC). The loss of two self-supporting churches and two missions in Spokane was especially painful.

The independent natures of the loggers, fishermen, miners, and ranchers who settled this part of America also became a factor. This is reflected in a telling statistic: Only 30 percent of the residents claim church membership, and less than 10 percent of the total population attend worship on any given Sunday.

GOD BLESSES HIS WORD

But God works in amazing ways. The severance of fellowship with the Missouri Synod in 1961 fueled enthusiasm for mission plantings throughout the synod. The Pacific Northwest District especially benefited from this awakening. Warren Widmann, who would later serve as district president (1986–2002) was called as mission developer in 1963. With his help, congregations were organized in British Columbia and several cities in Oregon and Washington. At the same time, missions were established in several cities in Washington and in Idaho.

In 1968 a new field was opened in Alaska. The 49th state would prove to be a fertile field for gospel outreach as Faith of Anchorage would be joined by missions in Fairbanks; Eagle River; Wasilla; Kenai; Juneau; and a second Anchorage congregation. Today all are self-supporting congregations. In southeast Alaska, Christ, Juneau, and Grace, Sitka, are two of the most remote churches in the synod, accessible only by boat or plane.

It is not unusual for members to drive an hour to church one-way and repeat that trip during the week to attend other events. Modern technology now allows the district to minister to people living in remote locations. Seventeen churches of this district have opened preschools to reach out to their community. Most are full before the doors open each fall. Nine congregations operate elementary schools in which a large percentage of students are from non-member families, providing a rich mission field. The 25 Asian students attending Evergreen Lutheran High School, Tacoma, Wash., comprise one-fifth of the entire student body. Many baptisms and confirmations have been the blessing of such cross-cultural openness.

In some locales missions have been closed, then restarted years later. Our timing has not always been the same as the Lord’s. We can rejoice that the churches and people of this district who have patiently and persistently shared the gospel are now witnessing God’s fulfillment of his promise.

Ted Lambert served as the Pacific Northwest District president from 2002 to 2014. Recently retired, Lambert is a member at Christ the King, Bremerton, Washington.

This is the eighth article in a 12-part series on the WELS districts.


 

STATISTICS:

District president: Pastor John Steinbrenner

Congregations: 44

Mission churches: 10

Baptized members: 6,903

Communicant members: 5,405

Early childhood ministries: 17

Lutheran elementary schools: 9

Area Lutheran high schools: 1

 

SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

SUBSCRIBE TO FORWARD IN CHRIST

Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Theodore D. Lambert
Volume 101, Number 8
Issue: August 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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