My Life As a Pastor

By Ralph Andersen

I begin my response to our editor, Joy, by thanking her for the invitation to share a bit of my life story in Church and Life. I have fond memories of her as one of three children of Pastor Harald and Asta Ibsen during those formative years of my childhood and youth in the Viborg community. I know that I speak for the whole church (Our Savior's) and community (Viborg, SD) when I note how much we enjoyed and appreciated having the Ibsen family living in the parsonage from 1948 until 1960.

My confirmation class of twelve at Our Savior's included four of us as first cousins; also David Ibsen, Irvin Ibsen and Jim Rasmussen along with five others. We had to memorize hymns and songs and I think that helped us as much in our growth in the faith as did our studies of the Bible, the Catechism, and church history. Asta was always there at our gatherings to lead in singing and assist with folk dancing.

I was one of four children (Dorothy, myself born Sept. 15, 1936, Vernon and Marlene) born to Dwight and Lillie (Mikkelsen) Andersen. I remember moving as renters from farm to farm first near Hurley, then near Viborg until finally my parents were able to purchase their own farm near Irene in 1951. Although my siblings and I graduated from Irene High we have always thought of Viborg as our "real" home town since that was the location of our church as well as many of the extended family—we became part of a group of forty-five first cousins, many of whom still live in or near Viborg.
While we were renters I attended three one-room rural elementary schools before starting Sr. High at Viborg and graduating from Irene in May of 1954. That fall I enrolled in the College of Dairy Science at South Dakota State U from which I graduated in the spring of 1958.

I'm not certain where the spark originated but sometime during my junior year at SDSU I perceived what I thought of as a "call" to consider the ministry as a vocation. No doubt this originated from the influence of my parents whom I had always seen as models of the Christian life, and the subtle influence of Pastor Ibsen for whom I had the greatest respect. I remember discussing this possibility with him on one of my visits home from Brookings and receiving his blessing to finish college and enroll in Grand View Seminary. This resulted in a trip to Des Moines and an interview with Seminary Dean Axel Kildegaard who encouraged me to complete my degree in Dairy Science at SDSU and come on to the seminary in the fall of 1958. It seems that a vocational goal related to food for the body was now diverted to food for the soul.

I'll never forget that September morning when the seminary community (three instructors and six students) met to begin the fall term. I had been on the road from Viborg during most of the night and so here comes this farm boy from South Dakota who was dead tired, unshaven and unshowered. Thankfully I was welcomed with open arms by the faculty (Dean Kildegaard and Profs. Reuben Swanson and Don Zinger) as well as the student body. Hans (Hike) Nelson and Harold (Lars) Sorensen were my classmates. I remain indebted to all of them for their encouragement and assistance in my theological and spiritual growth.

I also recall meeting with the synod's examining committee in the spring of `60 where there was more discussion of my fiancé’s background (Lenarda Svihel was non-Lutheran and non-Danish) than of my own. Lenarda and I were married at the Congregational Church in Lake Preston, SD on June 10, 1960 and following a summer internship at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Kimballton, IA we traveled to the Chicago Lutheran Seminary at Maywood for my final year. Our small Grand View Seminary was transferred there in anticipation of the synod's merger into the LCA.

young ralphI was ordained at Danebod, Tyler, MN at the synod convention on Sunday afternoon, August 20, 1961 along with my two classmates and Jerome Nillsen. A memorable part of that service was the blessing with the laying on of hands by all of the clergy present. My first call was to Immanuel, Kimballton, where we were welcomed as newlyweds and I was baptized into the realities of day-to-day pastoral ministry. I'm grateful for the patience and understanding of the congregation. All three of our children - Brian, Karla and Kathy - were born there during 5 '1/2 years of ministry.

Other parishes I served were St. Paul, Cedar Falls (12 years), First, Ottumwa (15 years) and Faith, Burlington (8 '/2 years), all in Iowa. I retired the end of December, 2001. Many friendships developed during those years of ministry that continue to this day. An extensive autobiography would be required were I to begin citing stories of life with the people of those congregations. Suffice it to say that the most meaningful moments occurred when we shared events of great joy as well as times of great trauma, all within the umbrella of the great faith that we share.

After being blessed with more than twenty years of marriage, Lenarda died in January of 1981 following a three month battle with cancer. I married Mary Jo (Mill) Larkin at First Lutheran in Ottumwa on July 13, 1985 and we have now enjoyed twenty six years of marriage. She had four children (Julie. Kay, who died eight years ago, Patrick and Terri). Between us we now have seventeen grandchildren which has made for lots of traveling. Children, spouses, and grandchildren reside in San Diego, CA: Corpus Christi TX; York PA; Eau Claire Wl; Chicago; Ottawa IL; Bondurant IA and other locales. By the way, it's probably a good thing that Mary Jo was not the object of discussion at my interview with the Executive Committee. back in "60 as she is Catholic and Irish.

ralph & mary joTo illustrate my approach to ministry through the years I offer two incidents. The first arose during the spring of my senior year at SDSU.

Every spring the First Lutheran Church in Brookings would sponsor a "college student Sunday" at which the entire service (actually two services plus a radio broadcast) would be conducted by students from the Lutheran Student Assoc, a campus group of which I was a member. Since it was known that I would be attending seminary in the fall I was asked to prepare and deliver the sermon. What could I say?

It seems that a Lutheran clergyman somewhere west of Brookings got wind of the fact that a student from a "Grundtvigian" Lutheran Church down south in Viborg was on tap to give the sermon on student Sunday, and this needed to be checked out. Thus I was contacted and asked if I could make an appearance on a weeknight for a trial run. Not aware of the reason, I was glad to oblige. It was the one and only time that I ever preached a sermon to a congregation of one (who happened to be the Assoc. Pastor); he listened and gave his stamp of approval. I think the text was from one of Paul's letters and the thrust of my message had to do with how our faith encompasses all aspects of life: Body, mind and spirit.

When later I found out the reason for the trial run it got me to thinking: "Who or what is a Grundtvigian and what can be so negative about that?" I remembered Pastor Ibsen often quoting from the Bible, Kierkegaard and Grundtvig, and relating all of this to daily life.

The second incident was a follow-up of the first. While pastor at St. Paul in Cedar Falls the congregation graciously approved my participation in the Doctor of Ministry program sponsored by the seminary in Chicago (LSTC). I was blessed to have Verner and Elaine Jensen along with other good leaders to be members at the time. The final component (last of six) of this program required the writing of a paper - most any subject would do that would bring to light one's belief system, theology, spirituality, concept of the church, world-view, etc.

The subject I chose is noted in the introduction to the paper I composed (titled "The Created Life"): "In addition to affirmation of human life, this paper is an attempt to explore (examine) and to affirm (lift up) certain key elements that are foundational in my Christian life and ministry, and to present these as possibilities to others who are equally concerned about life affirmations and possibilities for our common life on the planet earth."

In the ninety pages of the paper I attempted to trace the life and thought of N.F.S. Grundtvig and how this had affected the church of my youth as well as my personal views and understandings. My paper concludes with a resounding affirmation of the many positive values that arose out of my "Grundtvigian" background. I will always be indebted to my mentors, Drs. Axel Kildegaard and Johannes Knudsen whose guidance and input were critical for the writing of the paper. And of course to Rev. Harald Ibsen who started me down this path many years ago.

This summer (2011) I celebrated the 50th anniversary. of my ordination and will soon have been retired for ten years. I have been involved in three part-time interim ministries, most recently at First Lutheran, Keokuk and occasionally fill in as supply pastor. I enjoy that but it's also nice to be able to say, "Sorry, I already have other plans."

Mary Jo and I live in a condo here in Burlington, IA (1026 Erickson Lane, 52601) which makes it easy to for us to leave on our travels. We've been able to escape three months worth of Iowa winters for the past nine years, heading west and south and at last count, about fifteen trips overseas. We get on the golf course once in a while, enjoy several duplicate bridge clubs, and are into reading. The most recent novel was “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand (she also authored “Sea Biscuit”) and if you haven't already read it, you need to.

I accompany Mary Jo at the Catholic Church most Saturday evenings, and she joins me at the Lutheran Church on Sunday mornings. She's officially listed as an "associate member" of the Lutheran Church —whatever that means—and I think the Catholic Church is still trying to figure what to do with me. That's a pretty minor issue in light of the problems that abound in the global community we live in. I can't help but wonder if God is kind of shaking his head regarding our self-imposed human predicaments and waiting to see if we're ever going to get it right. According to my understanding of Grundtvig that would involve a mind-boggling effort, but at least the potential is available to work it out.