Many churches boast of raising up a minister every generation or two, but at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Decorah, Iowa, six members are currently on the path to ministry—five as pastors and one as a deaconess. What’s going on?
Just as Iowa has the perfect soil and climate for growing soybeans and corn, Good Shepherd has the perfect conditions for raising up faith leaders: a partnership with an ELCA college ministry, robust connections to the wider church, visionary pastoral leadership, and a congregational ethos that stresses an open door and an open hand.
“Good Shepherd is focused on the mission of Jesus Christ, is welcoming to all of God’s children and has created a climate of thoughtful and active engagement with the faith,” said Steven Ullestad, bishop of the Northeastern Iowa Synod. “We celebrate Good Shepherd’s leadership in assisting people to hear God’s call to ordained ministry. We are grateful for their commitment to the ministry.”
Members and seminarians couldn’t agree more.
“Good Shepherd is good soil that really cares—cares about the gospel of Jesus Christ, cares about the people who become that body—and shows that to people in the world,” said Nathan Wicks, who graduated this year from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and is beginning pastoral ministry in the Eastern North Dakota Synod.
Wicks became familiar with Good Shepherd through Luther, where he was formed in the faith through the college’s vibrant student congregation. When Good Shepherd was founded 60 years ago on the edge of campus, it was intended to complement the student congregation in the college community. Today the two congregations enjoy a fluid and dynamic relationship.
“That’s a really key part of this story—the faith formation that happens at Luther College,” said Amy Zalk Larson, who accepted the call to Good Shepherd after 10 years serving the college ministry.
For Menzi Nkambule, now a second-year seminarian at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., Good Shepherd was the “go-to” place for worship when the campus congregation was closed for summer and winter breaks.
A native of Swaziland, he had come to Luther to study business, but as he discerned a call to ministry, Nkambule found Good Shepherd eager to welcome and support him. And not only him, but also fellow student Joseph Tiegen.
“As we were considering ministry, Pastor Amy and the church at large were very present in walking with us in discernment,” Nkambule said. Good Shepherd gave them opportunities to serve by helping with confirmation classes, which provided an opportunity for the two to learn about Lutheranism.
Neither grew up Lutheran and neither was baptized until 2018 in a joint ceremony at Good Shepherd. For parishioners, walking with Nkambule and Tiegen was a no-brainer. “People didn’t say, well, these aren’t our people,” member Jane Jakoubek said. “It was like, we can be part of this! We’re happy to welcome them! We’re glad to celebrate their baptisms and support them on their way to seminary.”
“As we were considering ministry, Pastor Amy and the church at large were very present in walking with us in discernment.”
The support extends to other forms of rostered ministry too. Shortly after she joined Good Shepherd last fall, Angie Sadler was accepted into the Lutheran Diaconal Association program at Valparaiso (Ind.) University. Despite her newcomer status, the congregation’s support was immediate and substantial. “Oh my gosh, I have the best church in the world,” she said.
The congregation affirmed her decision to be a deaconess (hospice chaplaincy is her goal), provided financial support (as it does for the seminarians) and sent her off with a ceremony that made a big impression on Sadler: “People I didn’t even know were laying hands on me, and I just felt so included.”
A welcoming spirit drew Amalia Vagts to the congregation when she was executive director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, which supports LGBTQ ministry leaders. At the time, Good Shepherd was the synod’s first Reconciling in Christ congregation, declaring that they are welcoming to all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“It mattered to me that Good Shepherd had made an explicit welcome to the LGBTQ community,” said Vagts, who began an internship this summer. “I soon found that Good Shepherd’s spirit of welcome is grounded in a commitment to justice and hospitality.”
That commitment is also evidenced in support for many causes, including the environment, the hungry, those in recovery and anyone who would be enriched by a gift of a hand-knitted prayer shawl. Good Shepherd also supports many ELCA ministries, including Advocacy, Lutheran Disaster Response, Women of the ELCA, Young Adults in Global Mission and AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities).
“The horizon of this congregation is expansive,” said Daniel Grainger, a parishioner and seminarian at Wartburg. “The local, regional and global connections and partnerships are not ‘in addition to’ the ministries of this congregation but woven into the identity of it.”
Moreover, Good Shepherd values its role as a congregation of the ELCA and the synod, evidenced through support and participation in ministries but also in financial Mission Support.
Good Shepherd members and seminarians said the tradition of service, social justice and connection to the wider church have been nourished over the years by exceptional and visionary pastors, of whom Larson is the latest.
“Pastor Amy is somebody who is particularly looking at faith formation and particularly good at helping people identify where God is calling them,” Vagts said. “There’s definitely a strong culture of raising up and equipping leaders for all kinds of service to the church.”