Under God’s sky: Northern Wisconsin District

Northern Wisconsin District

Joel M. Zank

“Northern Wisconsin District”—the sharp letters of the stamp left their impression on the shiny gold foil.

It was the first time I had used the district seal as I put the finishing touch on a young pastor’s ordination certificate. I quickly learned the hard way that such a project offers no room for error. The letters that form the seal’s circle must be perfectly centered. By my third attempt the words finally fell into place. That’s when I took a closer look at them: EV. LUTHERAN JOINT SYNOD OF WISCONSIN A.O.S. Wow! I could tell the stamp was old, but these words suggest that it’s as old as the district itself. How old is that?


The Northern Wisconsin District was formed in 1917 with the merger of the Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin Synods. These four church bodies, wanting to express their oneness in Christ and all of his teachings, became the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin And Other States. The members of this “new” Wisconsin Synod would, among other things, share in the work of proclaiming the gospel and training called workers.

With this resolution to unite came a decision to divide the “old” Wisconsin Synod into three districts, one of those being Northern Wisconsin. This explains why dozens of Northern Wisconsin District congregations are older than the district itself. In fact more than 30 congregations in the district were established in the mid-1800s. Their dates of charter help trace the gospel’s course from Fond du Lac to Manitowoc to Algoma to Green Bay to the Fox Cities and beyond.


The district’s very existence is a tribute to the missionary spirit of our fathers in the faith. It was not uncommon for our first generation of pastors to accept a call to serve a congregation and then immediately request a leave of absence. The pastors weren’t asking for a vacation. They were looking to “explore” opportunities to share the gospel in nearby communities. These missionaries would travel by foot or oxcart for weeks, even months at a time, taking the good news of Jesus throughout the north woods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. You might think that that the congregations that called these men would feel cheated of their service. Instead the members were only too happy to receive reports of the gospel’s success. Those who had been given so much in Christ were eager to share him with others.

Of course, “sharing Christ” meant more than starting new congregations. It also involved establishing schools. From the start, member churches of the Northern Wisconsin District had a burning desire to teach the pure truth of God’s Word to children, first in German and later in English. Lutheran elementary schools opened across the district, often in places where there were no public schools.

By 1917 only larger towns and cities in Wisconsin had public high schools. There was talk among some congregations of expanding parochial education to include ninth grade or perhaps even a four-year high school program. In 1925 the members of St. Peter, Fond du Lac, Wis., together with those of neighboring churches were the first in the district to offer a ninth-grade education. The very next year that effort gave birth to Winnebago Lutheran Academy, a school dedicated to training both called workers and lay people for service in the Lord’s kingdom. In 1953 the churches in and around the Fox Cities opened Fox Valley Lutheran High School in Appleton, Wis. Three years later Manitowoc Lutheran High School began offering classes.

To this day the Northern Wisconsin District is known for its emphasis on Christian education. Yes, the schools look different than the old one-room schools. Textbooks have given way to tablets and blackboards to interactive whiteboards, but the one thing needful remains ever the same—Christ is at the center of every lesson whether taught in the classroom or on the playground. As our district approaches its 100th birthday, aging schools are being remodeled or rebuilt from the ground up. Look at Weyauwega, where earlier this year the members of St. Peter Lutheran Church dedicated their new school building, replacing the structure that had served the congregation’s children since 1941. Our schools are expanding too in an effort to reach out to the young families in the community. Early childhood centers are opening in every corner of the district. In Appleton, Bethany uses its early childhood center to do ministry on a second campus. One of the congregation’s three pastors spends most of his time at the center, meeting the unchurched and offering a weekly worship service on the very campus where their children spend their weekdays.

Yes, the mission spirit that founded this district is alive and well. Congregations are reaching out to changing neighborhoods with the unchanging news of a Savior who died for all. One of the oldest churches in Northern Wisconsin, First German,

Manitowoc, is now also the site of Trinity Hmong. Bethel, Menasha, is calling for a second Spanish-speaking pastor to expand its cross-cultural ministry. What’s truly exciting is the fact that this is grass-roots mission work. The members of these congregations have seen and seized the opportunities to reach out. They have taken up the work themselves and only after these ministries have been established have they called workers to come and help them.

Northern Wisconsin District—EV. LUTHERAN JOINT SYNOD OF WISCONSIN A.O.S. It took a few attempts, but I finally finished that ordination certificate. It now hangs in the study of a young man who is brand new to the public ministry and to our district. He may notice that the words on our seal are a bit dated, but he can be sure that they will never be “outdated.” Why? Because they are packed with His-Story, God’s story of grace to his people in Northern Wisconsin—past, present, and future!

Joel Zank, pastor at Mount Olive, Appleton, Wisconsin, is president of the Northern Wisconsin District.


District president: Pastor Joel M. Zank
Congregations: 157
Mission churches: 4
Baptized members: 70,698
Communicant members: 56,963
Early childhood ministries: 46
Lutheran elementary schools: 55
Area Lutheran high schools: 3



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Author: Joel M. Zank
Volume 101, Number 11
Issue: November 2014

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