Under God’s sky: Southeastern Wisconsin District

Southeastern Wisconsin District

Mark A. Jeske

Welcome to the Southeastern Wisconsin District! We are a district of paradoxes. Although we are named for the State of Wisconsin, geographically most of our odd-shaped district isn’t in Wisconsin at all. We cover only a sliver of Wisconsin’s lower right corner, plus a small slice of northeastern Illinois, most of Indiana, and Kentucky. We are old and new, rooted in the past and yet driving forward into the future. We are small in geographic size in comparison with our 11 sisters but big in synodical population and institutions. On any given Sunday you can hear majestic pipe organs, brass, and timpani, but you can also hear contemporary Christian praise bands and the thump of gospel music.


WELS began here. “Conceived” at a meeting of immigrant German pastors at Grace Lutheran Church on Milwaukee’s east side in 1849, the synod was “born” officially at Salem Lutheran Church in the town of Granville (now Milwaukee’s northwest side) in May 1850.

Salem’s second worship facility still survives. Built in 1863 during the middle of the Civil War, its cream brick still houses special events and is undergoing a slow and loving restoration. Its lower level and old school rooms behind it presently house the synod’s museum. It has a marvelous collection of artifacts from our immigrant past and is open to synod members and groups by appointment. Along with other efforts to preserve WELS history, the WELS Historical Institute works on the restoration and preservation of this church.

An even older church building still in weekly use is in Jackson, Wisconsin. David’s Star’s fortress-like sanctuary was built in 1856. St. Peter’s Lutheran School on Milwaukee’s south side has been full of children ever since its construction in 1872.

That year also saw the birth in Milwaukee of the old Synodical Conference, a blessed and fruitful partnership between WELS and various other Lutheran denominations around the country. The most important and long-lasting relationships were the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), the “little Norwegian Synod” (now the Evangelical Lutheran Synod), and the Slovak Synod (now part of the LCMS). Alas,

Milwaukee was also the scene of WELS’ historic vote in 1961 to sever fellowship ties with the LCMS, and the Synodical Conference disbanded a few years later.


Massive German immigration in the 1800s, bringing millions of German Protestants to the upper Midwest, ignited rapid growth in our young synod. But those Germans kept moving. As they left their ethnic neighborhoods in search of bigger lots and newer homes, the congregations that they had founded either faded away or had to find ways to connect with their new neighbors, most of whom did not have roots in central Europe. Our district enjoys a robust ferment of ideas, strategies, and programs to share the timeless gospel message in a constantly changing environment.

Over a century and a half of existence has not burned off our passion for outreach and innovation. Our Indiana and Kentucky “wing” gives us a chance to plant new home missions in places where WELS has not been historically active, places like Greenwood and Lafayette, Ind.

Here in Milwaukee you will find the longest-running and largest voucher school experiment in the nation. After a little initial caution, quite a few of the eligible WELS schools have embraced the program. That infusion of funding has enabled over a dozen schools in Milwaukee alone to be able to say “Yes” to many low-income urban families who otherwise couldn’t afford tuition.

The vouchers have accelerated the growth of our student bodies into a much greater cultural and racial diversity. Milwaukee probably has more WELS African-American members and students than anywhere else in the country and a growing number of Hispanic people at a half dozen churches and schools. Christ-St. Peter School on the south side is home to several dozen Burmese Karen children as well.

Northwestern Publishing House in Wauwatosa has a long history of providing quality scriptural materials, music, and art to support ministries and families in WELS and beyond. NPH also publishes Forward in Christ magazine.


The Southeastern Wisconsin District is still the “heart” of the synod in many ways.

● The synod’s new headquarters is located in Waukesha, just west of Milwaukee, housing all business and administrative functions.

● Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, after a wandering history in Watertown, Milwaukee, and Wauwatosa, now has a beautiful home in the northern Milwaukee suburb of Mequon. All of our synod’s pastors are trained here. Its summer enrichment program draws not only pastors but a variety of other ministry leaders.

● Wisconsin Lutheran College has over one thousand students on its beautiful Milwaukee campus and now offers not only undergraduate degrees but also adult and graduate studies.

● Four area Lutheran high schools call our district home: Wisconsin Lutheran, Milwaukee; Kettle Moraine, Jackson, Wis.; Shoreland, Somers, Wis.; and Illinois Lutheran, Crete, Ill. Wisconsin Lutheran is the longest continuously operating Lutheran high school in the country, tracing its beginnings to 1903.

● A raft of outstanding church-related service organizations call the Milwaukee area home, such as Kingdom Workers, Lutheran Women’s Missionary Society, Christian Life Resources, Wisconsin Lutheran Institutional Ministries, and WLCFS-Christian Family Solutions. These ministries may be based here, but they have a national and even international reach.

● Milwaukee is also home to WELS’ largest mass media ministry, Time of Grace, which has 400,000+ subscribers to its online devotions and is approaching a million viewers of the weekly TV program.

Mark Jeske is pastor at St. Marcus, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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



District president: Pastor David Rutschow
Congregations: 148
Mission churches: 9
Baptized members: 68,096
Communicant members: 54,496
Early childhood ministries: 77
Lutheran elementary schools: 68
Area Lutheran high schools: 4



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Author: Mark A. Jeske
Volume 101, Number 7
Issue: July 2014

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