Featured Stories, Lutherans in Minnesota

Finding community at the lake

Is it any surprise that pastors go up north? Jesus did.

In the summertime, pastors may disappear for a recharge. Their cabins might dot lakeshores in north-central Minnesota, where loon calls echo and northern lights sometimes hover like the angels at Bethlehem.

The Rev. Peter Rogness, current bishop of the ELCA’s St. Paul Area Synod (right), and the Rev. David Preus, former president of the American Lutheran Church, confer at a Kabekona cabin. Photo: Pat Rogness

Several lakes have such clusters for pastors to replace their collars with fishing vests. The mother lode of them all may be Lake Kabekona in north-central Minnesota near Walker, about 200 miles north of Minneapolis.

There, almost eight decades ago, a few seminary grads bought a half-mile of lakeshore. In the 1950s, they built cabins. Word got out. Now, on the lake’s east end, 80 pastors have places on a stretch aptly called Preachers Point.

On Sunday mornings, many are in the pews at Trinity Lutheran in Laporte, Minnesota, three miles from the nearest Kabekona cabins. Others go to Hope Lutheran in Walker. “We could easily have a dozen pastors, theology professors, and bishops,” says the Rev. Carl Jensen, interim pastor at Trinity.

Such a flock might rattle a younger pastor, but the Rev. Jensen had top-ranking colleagues in pews in Minneapolis at then-St. Luke’s before retiring in 1999. (In 2001, St. Luke’s merged with a Latino congregation to become El Milagro/The Miracle Lutheran Church at 3751 17th Avenue South.)

Indeed, Pastor Jensen signs up vacationers to preach. So Trinity has a sterling summer lineup. Being interim at Laporte suits Pastor Jensen. He lives in Minneapolis, but — did you guess? — has a place on Kabekona.

How did a Lutheran lake come to be?

Bishop Peter Rogness of the St. Paul Area Synod says his parents were among those who first set up on spring-fed Kabekona, which drains into Leech Lake. In 1932, graduates from what eventually became Luther Seminary in St. Paul, about to scatter to calls, bought lakeshore property in hopes that someday they could gather again in the summers.

You might identify your pastor’s lineage on the current Kabekona owners list: Anderson, Beaver, Boe, Carlson, Everson, Hofstad, Nervig, Nestande, Preus, Quello, Rasmussen, Rogness, Sheggeby, Tallakson, Wee, and Wold.

Wildlife at Lake Kabekona includes this nesting pair of bald eagles.

“Paul was a man of the city; Jesus of the lake and countryside.”

Preachers Point is solidly Lutheran. A solitary Baptist in the bunch claims to be happy representing the “one true church,” quips Michael Rogness, who teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. And a physician there likes being “amidst all these sanctified folks,” adds Michael Rogness, Peter Rogness’ brother: The physician predicts that the rapture will catch him in the updraft.

Michael Rogness remembers a gathering of first buyers. The Rev. O.B. Anderson “began the meeting by asking everyone to say Psalm 1 together, and they all knew it by heart,” Rogness recalls. “I was vastly impressed and wonder if a random group of pastors could do that today.”

Decades ago, first buyers decided they would hit the lake the first Wednesday in August. Since Lutheran churches “generally celebrated Holy Communion on the first Sunday of the month,” says Michael Rogness, “they all had to be in their parishes on that Sunday.” Afterwards they could vacation while lay leaders filled in if no neighboring pastors were available.

Congregations understand pastors need to get away, says the Rev. Jensen, who observes the 50th anniversary of his ordination in June — and who in his ministry has almost always had four weeks per year off.

Where did this tradition originate?

Jesus himself took a break sometimes, going into the hills to pray. “After you’ve been in the ministry some years, you find yourselves being very, very weary,” says Pastor Jensen. “At least I did. And I think that’s typical.”

James Limburg, a Luther Seminary professor emeritus, writes about his own getaways on Woman Lake not far from Kabekona in The Other Woman: A Northern Minnesota Love Affair (Zion Publishers, Des Moines, Iowa, 2006.)

An angler passes a heron rookery at Lake Kabekona, a respite for many Lutheran pastors and their families.

Limburg spent vacations at various lakes before settling at Woman. As a child, he dozed in wood boats rocked by waves, reeled in northerns and walleyes tugging at fish lines, and stargazed from the dock. At Woman Lake, his family added guitar and brass — lakeside musical performances.

“The last time I saw my father we read Psalm 121 as a family after breakfast,” says Limburg, “then paddled a new canoe down the shoreline.” He calls it a “nice exit” for his father — “and for us.” Likewise, the Rogness family patriarch, Pastor Alvin Rogness, took his daily walk at the cabin before suffering a heart attack that called him home at age 86 in 1992.

Jesus returned to the lake, too — going there after the resurrection and urging followers to join him up north. John 21 adds another story: great fishing — with towering theological significance.

So it’s little surprise that pastors love the lake. Indeed, it may be that Jesus’ message works better on the water. Limburg thinks so. “Paul was a man of the city,” he says, “Jesus of the lake and countryside.”

For Limburg, what Peter told the other disciples after the hard-to-believe resurrection report has “always resonated.” Said Peter: “I go a fishing.”

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