October was designated National Clergy Appreciation Month in 1992 as a time to celebrate the service of pastors and all religious workers. The Concordia Lutheran Ministries Chaplaincy team has been an integral part of Concordia Lutheran Ministries since its founding in 1881 by a group of pastors. Currently it consists of 10 pastors, two deaconesses, a deaconess candidate and several others whose duties are defined as spiritual care providers. Concordia also counts 28 member churches and their pastors as an essential part of our mission, and we recognize all spiritual care staff for how they help for our residents, patients, employees and families.
To celebrate this year, we asked a few members from our dedicated Chaplaincy department what their greatest challenges and/or accomplishments have been over their careers.
Rev. Roger Nuerge
Rev. Roger Nuerge, Concordia chaplain since 2009, shares his greatest challenge from his 48 years of ministry: “Confirmation Sunday in the spring of 1988 – I wanted the class to have a good Confirmation Sunday like I had in the 1960s.” He prepared them with a question-and-answer examination and planned the Rite of Confirmation and First Communion all in one Sunday service. When Sunday morning came, the class didn’t seem to know how to answer the questions. He gave them clues but that didn’t help.
“Looking at the eyes of the class told me they were checking out. The body language of the congregation said that there was a lot anxiety for how this was going,” he remembered. “We got through the day, but I just felt terrible afterward. My Confirmation Day was a big and important day for me. I wanted Confirmation Day to be the same for this class.”
After thinking it all over, Pastor Nuerge decided to confess his sins and failures face to face with the congregation. He took responsibility for what happened, blaming no one but himself for how the day was handled.
“By throwing myself on the death and resurrection of Jesus for my forgiveness, people were willing to grant the forgiveness I needed, and it opened the door for their doing the same with each other,” he explained.
It opened the door for having conversations on how to approach Confirmation Day and confirmation class in a better way. Using confession and absolution made it possible to gain an inactive member back to church and receiving Holy Communion regularly.
“For more than 20 years we, pastor and people together, learned that the church is more than just us, but in fact it is all about Jesus,” he said. “He is the one who makes it possible for pastor and people to be in ministry together.”
Rev. Joel Dieterichs
Letting go during sermons and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak is an accomplishment of Chaplain Joel Dieterichs, new chaplain at Concordia at Sumner.
“I was preaching Good Shepherd Sunday, and during the sermon, I had this strong desire suddenly to describe the difference between the rod and the staff in Psalm 23,” Rev. Dieterichs said. He explained that the rod is for hitting away predators such as wolves and bears, and the staff is for two things: the straight part is for walking long distances and the crook/half loop is for pulling sheep back up onto their feet when they roll over, fall down, or get stuck in mud.
“A big, tough vice president of a roofing company was in tears after the service,” Rev. Dieterichs continued. “He said, ‘Wow, man, the Spirit was flowing through you. Do you know what our son asked us on the way to church today? ‘What’s the difference between the rod and the staff in Psalm 23?’ ”
Rev. Dieterichs believes, however, that this was not really an accomplishment of his own, just him getting out of God’s way!
Deaconess Candidate Zoe Huelsman
“Being so new in diaconal ministry, I would say that the greatest challenge that we face on a daily basis is speaking with individuals who are not interested in hearing the good news of great joy that we have received,” said Deaconess candidate Zoe Huelsman, who has been called by Concordia to serve once she completes her thesis. “We rest in the knowledge that it is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, yet it is sad and sobering to see people who could be helped that are not yet at a place where they want to hear the hope of the gospel.”
Rev. Lee Genter
Rev. Lee Genter, even after 35 years in the ministry, listed the same supreme test of faith. “You see those needing Jesus but they don’t want him,” he added. His answer – be persistent in pray, never lose heart because a change of heart is something only God can do.
Rev. Ronald Cox
Challenges and accomplishments came together during Rev. Ronald Cox’s one-year deployment in 2007 as a Navy chaplain in Afghanistan. He left behind his wife of seven years and two young sons after being called from the Navy Reserves to replace the outgoing religious ministry team.
“There were so many unknowns going to this foreign and war-weary country,” related the Concordia chaplain of almost five years.
“Our mission was to assist the Afghan government and military in establishing schools, military bases, wells, police force, border control, and even building Mosques while war was being waged against the Taliban,” Pastor Cox said.
Chaplain ministry is a lot of one-on-one care providing spiritual conversation and counsel as it relates to loneliness, fear, family and job trouble, boredom – these were all magnified by the military mission, he explained. A small chapel in the camp provided weekly services with preaching, sacraments and hymn singing as well as ice cream socials, movie nights and gaming on the Nintendo Wii.
“Some weeks I jumped on the small mail plane to Bagram Airforce Base, and then to Chinook helicopters that brought me to even remoter outposts,” Pastor Cox said.
He traveled the helicopter ring-route throughout mountainous eastern Afghanistan. One Sunday he celebrated Divine Service with a tiny Special Operations Command along the Pakistan border. He also spent a week with an Army Unit who experienced the casualties of fellow soldiers on patrol.
Pastor Cox experienced his ministry like never before and felt the work of the Holy Spirit touch those he would not ever again see.
Deaconess Heather Wathall
Deaconess Heather Wathall could only share her challenges. “There is ALWAYS way more need than we can help. Personally, professionally, as chaplaincy staff, as a Concordia team, everyone feels burdened and pressed and unable to make enough of a difference. Our only hope in any of these situations is in the One who has said, ‘It is finished.’”
Rev. Adam Salinas
The greatest accomplishment for the newest member of the Concordia Chaplaincy team, Rev. Adam Salinas, was the baptizing of his three children Rachel, Isaac and Daniel.
“It was a great blessing to baptize them into the blood of Jesus Christ and have them received and welcomed into God’s family as His precious children,” he said.
His greatest challenge occurred with the deaths of those who were dying of COVID-19.
“It is painful to lose these precious children of God as they went home to heaven to be in the arms of their Good Shepherd,” Pastor Salinas said. “I comforted them and gave them peace in Christ’s love for them as they died and as their family members and friends mourned their deaths.”
Rev. Jack Hartman
Director of Chaplaincy Services at Concordia for nearly a quarter of a century, Rev. Jack Hartman said both his greatest challenge and most remarkable accomplishment came in the same place aboard a ship docked off the coast of Somalia in 1983. The third poorest country in the world, it was war-ravaged as they arrived on shore and went to inspect an orphanage. Everything was broken, the roofs were caved in and they found themselves looking into the hopeless eyes of 110 orphans and children whose parents were so poverty-stricken that they were unable to care for them.
“In three days we had 100 of the crew help these children, keeping them hydrated and feeding them, rebuilding their playground equipment and donating medical supplies,” he recalled.
One young child had a tumor and required surgery.
“I shared the situation with the Christian community aboard, and we raised enough money for airline tickets to get him to Kenya for the care that he so desperately needed. Children have a capacity to bring joy and make do where they are,” he said. “What a little bit of love and a great deal of compassion can accomplish – it drives you to the roots of your faith,” he declared.
This month, we recognize our chaplaincy team and thank them for sharing the Lord’s love with our residents, patients and staff each day. To learn more about Concordia’s Mission, Vision and Values, visit the About Us section of our website. You can also message us through our contact form or call our administrative headquarters at 724-352-1571.
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