It started with an invitation.  

Eleonore and William Thuemmel were waiting for a table at a popular restaurant in The Villages, Fla., where they live. They weren’t in a hurry—William had retired from his demanding job two years prior and they relished life’s slower pace. Still, they were hungry. Then the couple ahead of them, with whom they’d been chatting, made a proposal they couldn’t refuse.    

“They said, ‘Why don’t you join the next table that comes up with us?’” Eleonore remembered. “‘You are German, you must be Lutheran,’ [they] said.” It was true, Eleonore told them, she had been baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church in Germany, where she grew up. She’d met William while he was stationed in Germany, and they’d married in that same Lutheran church. But they didn’t have a church home in The Villages. Upon learning this, the couple issued a second invitation: to join them for worship at Hope Lutheran Church.  

 “We went the next Sunday, didn’t we?” Eleonore laughed. “That was in 2003. We have gone to Hope Lutheran every Sunday except when we travel.” 

A plan for the future 

Over time the Thuemmels became active members of Hope, joining the mission team and building new friendships. Through Hope, the couple met then ELCA Foundation trustee Kathleen Rehl, who inspired them to finalize their will. “You don’t have the idea until somebody breaks it to you,” Eleonore said. “I think it was divine guidance we met Kathleen.”  

Eleonore requested more information about gift planning, then she and William decided to work with Rehl to create a plan for themselves. Once a month for six months, the Thuemmels met with her to discuss their assets and their passions for the church, education and the environment.  

“We’ve been blessed having a really good life,” said William, whose career as an educator transported them to such places as Thailand and Guam. “We’re in our 80s now and we’ve had a lot of fun and seen a lot of the world. … We think it’s time to pay back to society. We wanna leave the world a little better than when we found it.” 

“It gives me great pleasure when I think about it. [My grandmother] will make such an impact.” 

The Thuemmels created a plan to fund charitable-gift annuities for their 13 nieces and nephews that will benefit them for life, with the remainder going to the ELCA, ELCA-related ministries and other charities. Utilizing other assets, they also designated gifts to the Nature Conservancy and other charities.  

“We don’t have kids to leave the whole mess to,” Eleonore said. “We needed to have some sort of a plan.” 

William added, “Once you get it done, you sleep better.”  

Perhaps the most meaningful gift to come out of their planning sessions was a new scholarship honoring Eleonore’s grandmother, Margaret Ursula Nitschke, who raised her (Eleonore was 1 when her mother died in Germany during WWII). “What could I do to really, more or less, immortalize her?” she said. “One day I was thinking about a scholarship through the ELCA. That’s what I did.” 

As a girl, Nitschke had been turned away from geography classes because of her gender. To honor her, Eleonore established the Margaret Ursula Nitschke scholarship for women through the ELCA Fund for Leaders. “It gives me great pleasure when I think about it,” she said. “[My grandmother] will make such an impact.” 

A canceled debt 

When Rachel Simonson discovered in 2008 that her seminary education would be paid in full, she was astonished. Over and over she read the letter announcing that she’d received the Nitschke scholarship. “Once [the news] sunk in, I felt such an overwhelming feeling of relief,” said Simonson, who attended Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn. “There’s a reason that Jesus uses the feeling of cancelation of debt with the forgiveness of sins in his parable of the two debtors. It’s powerful.” 

Simonson was the first of many women to receive the Nitschke scholarship. She wrote the Thuemmels throughout her seminary experience, updating them about her education and subsequent call. 

For her, the scholarship meant more than financial support. “As I went through seminary and was discerning where God was leading me, I didn’t feel alone,” Simonson said. “I had a strong sense of relationship not only with the Thuemmels, but also with the larger body of Christ.” 

Today she is a pastor of First Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes, Minn. 

Eleonore and William feel joy knowing that their gifts are making a difference, especially in the area of church leadership, where they know the need is great. Lutheran faith has been the foundation of their marriage, and they have “great faith in the young people” of their church. Meeting regularly with their new gift planner, they continue to add to the scholarship fund and support other ministries such as ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission.  

“We’ve been able to have a good life by planning ahead as we could,” Eleonore said. “We never made debts, always paid the money first and then bought things. At this point, both of us want to pay back and shine our light.”  

To watch a video of this story, click here.


About ELCA gift plans 

ELCA gift planners offer free legacy and gift planning to all ELCA members. “The church believes this is such an important part of our own stewardship that we provide gift planners throughout the nation to help members,” said Ana Lugo, a Presbyterian pastor and regional gift planner for the Florida-Bahamas Synod. “It’s a service to the church, for the church.” 

Even after a plan is established, gift planners continue to check in with a member to make sure everything is current. “Seventy percent or more of legacy plans aren’t successful or aren’t realized because the donor was not aware of a mistake they made or didn’t update their current documents or just plain forgot to sign a piece of paper,” Lugo said. Regular check-ins are essential. 

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Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago and author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years (Morehouse Publishing, March 2023). Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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