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If you can’t speak — write!

Bockelman excelled in spite of the odds

Wilfred "Bill" Bockelman

Both Metro Lutheran and the Lutheran church lost a good friend on September 2. The Rev. Wilfred “Bill” Bockelman, 92, died in Wayzata, Minnesota, enduring the cruelty of Alzheimer’s Disease in his final years.

Bockelman, whose Lutheran heritage was the Joint Synod of Ohio, the (“old”) American Lutheran Church, the (“new”) American Lutheran Church (ALC), and finally, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, overcame unusual odds.

It’s a rare individual who, afflicted with a severe case of stuttering, would persevere in following the ordination track leading to parish ministry. Bockelman did that, graduating from what is now Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio (1945), and then accepting a call to serve Salem and Canaan Lutheran congregations in Wooster, Ohio.

But how does a called pastor who stutters do ministry? The advice Bockelman got turned out to be a blessing for the wider church: “If you can’t speak, write!”

Armed with a journalism degree from Columbia University School of Journalism, he began what became a life-long love affair with writing — for the Lutheran church. He served on the staff of The Lutheran Standard until the publication moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Minneapolis, and then joined the (new) ALC’s Office of Communication and Mission Support.

This writer recalls a time when Bockelman drove from Columbus to the wheat fields of the high plains to report on the exceptional stewardship demonstrated by the congregation my father was serving at the time. Someone at the national church office had done some data mining and discovered that St. John Lutheran Church of Bird City, Kansas, ranked at the top of all ALC parishes in per capita giving.

That discovery led Bill Bockelman to drive 1,000 miles across five states to do the interview and write the story. When it appeared in The Lutheran Standard, it was a testimony not only to his writing skills but also to his tenacity.

‘The word was with Bill’

In his later years, Bockelman created a stand-up recitation called “Tapestry — a verbal weaving of the holy and the hilarious,” tying together stories that unfold the church’s legacy and promise. What’s remarkable about this project is that its creator, still dealing with his stuttering, went in front of live audiences and delivered a lively monologue. Reports are that the stuttering didn’t intrude significantly during these presentations, 88 of which were offered in 22 states. (One occurred on the “old” Guthrie Theatre stage in Minneapolis.)

In another unexpected excursus, Bockelman developed a newsletter intended for individuals possessing a lot of wealth — people looking for ways to use it with integrity. He founded and edited for 14 years The Eye of the Needle, a monthly perspective for the responsible use of wealth, power, and position. (The title is an allusion to Jesus’ warning that it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to enter God’s realm.)

The newsletter was undoubtedly the catalyst for an invitation he received from the Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility to author, in 2001, the publication Culture of Corporate Citizenship. (He once remarked to this writer, “Minnesota has an unusual business ethic, one that affirms the common good.”)

Long before Alzheimer’s intruded, Bockelman was heard to say, in a moment of levity (in pre-computer days), “I don’t know what heaven is going to be like, but I sure hope there’s at least one typewriter there.”

One thing is for certain: If stories are told in the afterlife, Wilfred “Bill” Bockelman will be telling memorable tales with the best of them.

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