Lutherans in Minnesota

They get from continuing ed options like Concordia’s Charis

Pastors have ways to find out what they don’t know already

A continuing-ed pioneer pastor is glad to learn that his Concordia College-based program, in hibernation since 2008, may be back next year.

Or something like it. Continuing education for pastors and lay leaders, after all, has changed. The recession meant many congregations could no longer afford to provide it for pastors and lay leaders. On the other hand, webcasts mean participants do not need to travel.

Online or in person, people still sit, listen, discuss. “It may not have changed that much, actually,” says the Rev. James Hofrenning, founder of Concordia College’s now-dormant Charis program for pastors.

A Charis program looked like this in 1976. Photos provided by Concordia College

Charis came 30 years after what now is Luther Seminary launched its Mid-Winter Convocation in 1938. In 2009, Convo drew 600 to its three-day event featuring Greg Mortenson, now-controversial author of bestseller Three Cups of Tea. Recession took a toll in 2010. Attendance plunged to 399. In 2011, however, only bad weather thwarted a rebound: 423 registered, but 30 canceled because of snow.

Luther Seminary has added two other large annual conferences and a biennial event on stewardship, each designed to draw up to 500. Moreover, its Kairos program schedules 30 classes throughout the year for up to 50 attendees at each. Webcasts are available, but in-person attendance is steadfast.

What else has changed is that courses now tend to be two or three days, not four or five — and down-to-earth. “Pastors and church professionals are looking for very practical training in their continuing education that they can use immediately,” says Sally Peters, Luther’s director of lifelong learning.

Managing conflict is the subject of one well-attended course. Another covers extemporaneous sermons, still another focuses on lectionary texts on which pastors base sermons. “Pastors have to preach every Sunday,” says Peters, “and they’re looking for ideas.” Hofrenning agrees. “The ongoing preparation of sermons,” he says, “needs careful thought.”

‘Grace’ in Greek

Four decades ago at Concordia in Moorhead, Hofrenning’s job was teaching ethics — and connecting college and community. One result is the still-thriving Communiversity, offering college courses to the community.

James Hofrenning greeted a reader of Cobbers in WWII at a 2010 book signing in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Hofrenning also launched Charis Ecumenical Center, which provided courses for pastors and lay leaders serving remote parishes in the Dakotas and northwestern Minnesota. Summer convocations drew up to 500 participants, with speakers including the University of Chicago’s Martin Marty.

Charis — “grace” in biblical Greek — extended academic credit through Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Catholics joined Lutherans and others on the steering committee. Charis co-founder Paul Dovre — longtime Concordia president and now its interim leader again until a new chief takes office — watched Charis grow. “Jim’s mark,” says Dovre, “is on all of that.”

However, Charis took a break in 2008. Costs were too high, funding too little, and participation falling. “The way in which pastors and church workers were looking to receive their continuing education changed,” says Dovre, “and the model of Charis was not financially viable.”

Concordia College, however, “is reviving it in a new form,” he adds — “a forum on faith and life,” with relaunch as early as 2012.

Hofrenning, 85, lives in Minneapolis with his wife Ingeborg, but his spirit lingers in the new effort. “I remember his charisma, his passion for the life of discipleship,” says Dovre, “how he could stir students and motivate the public around this vision of Christ coming to life in daily living.”

Vision took hustle. Son Dan Hofrenning, who teaches political science at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, says his father phoned participants the night before startup sessions to make sure of meeting the early modest goal of 25 participants.

The elder Hofrenning — a graduate of Luther Seminary, with a master’s from Union Theological Seminary in New York and a doctorate in theology from New York University — pastored a parish in Brooklyn, New York, and earlier served with the U.S. Army in the Pacific in World War II. He edited Cobbers in WWII: Memoirs from the Greatest Generation (2010) about Concordia alumni in the war.

Dan Hofrenning says his father has “a kind of positive energy” that motivates people. A “signature sermon” the younger Hofrenning remembers calls us all “God’s works of art.”

The elder Hofrenning worries that congregations don’t always let pastors refresh themselves spiritually. “We expect pastors to be quick and efficient, able and powerful,” he says, “but we are not quick to help them.”

Luther called preaching key to worship. If you long for an inspiring signature sermon — continuing education may be a way.

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