Archived Sections, National Lutheran News

What do you do after you’ve been to the top?

Lutheran church leaders reflect on life after high elected office

A retiree who had previously held a position of some importance told of
meeting a stranger on a city street. He was greeted with the question, “Didn’t
you used to be someone?” It can be a challenge, redefining yourself after
stepping away from a career that gave you special satisfaction. How have our
Lutheran church leaders managed it?
Metro Lutheran spoke with five former leaders about “life after life at the top.”
They include:
■ The Rev. Robert Lee, former national president of the Association of Free
Lutheran Congregations (AFLC). Not ready for a rocking chair, he now serves
on the academic faculty for the denomination’s seminary and Bible school,
both located in Plymouth, Minnesota.
■ The Rev. Lowell Erdahl, former bishop of the ELCA’s St. Paul Area Synod. He
lives in Roseville, Minnesota, in the same house he and his spouse have
occupied for more than 40 years.
■ The Rev. Robert Berg, former bishop of the ELCA’s Synod of Northwestern
Wisconsin. Too young to retire, he now serves as Assistant to the President
for Church Relations at the Board of Pensions in Minneapolis.
■ The Rev. O.H. Cloeter, former president of the LCMS’ Minnesota South
District. A long-time resident of Faribault, where he once served Trinity
Lutheran Church, he and his spouse have recently moved into Deaconess
Tower, a care facility in Faribault.
■ The Rev. Herbert Chilstrom, former bishop of the LCA’s Minnesota Synod,
and then first presiding bishop of the ELCA. He and his spouse live in St.
Peter, Minnesota, where he once served First Lutheran Church.
Clearly, serving as a Lutheran church president or bishop can present real
challenges (about more of which, see below). But how about the challenge of
stepping away from such a high profile role? How does a former leader re-
enter “ordinary life”?
None of the five here interviewed said, “I just went to my lake cabin and
kicked back” or “I’ve played golf every day ever since.” All of them indicated
they felt energized to continue serving the church, but in different ways. Said
Robert Lee, “I was AFLC president for 15 years. Now that I’m out of that
office, it just keeps getting better. I’m teaching about 10 hours. I feel like I’m
on vacation. Although there was much good about what I was privileged to do
as president, the pressure is gone.” He added, “I’m retirement age but I have
no intention of retiring.”
Lowell Erdahl said, “Since retiring, there are days when I wonder how I ever
had time to go to work. I’m fully committed to multiple activities. I’ve done a
parish interim. I have too much too read.”
“My heart has always been in the parish and it always will be,” explained
Robert Berg. “I considered taking another parish after serving as bishop. But I
discerned that serving through the Board of Pensions would be the right
The parish was the right choice for former LCMS district president O.H.
Cloeter. “I did a lot of preaching after I left office. I filled a lot of vacant
pulpits for a time. I did some Bible class teaching. My wife and I joined the
church choir. Of course now, declining health has forced us to slow down.”
Herbert Chilstrom’s list of post-elective-office activities is enough to make
one’s head spin. “My activities could be summarized by the ‘Four G’s’ —
Gardening, Golf, Genealogy, and God.” The former ELCA presiding bishop
didn’t jump into such pursuits immediately. “After eight and a half years in
Chicago I was pretty well spent. I took a year for myself and got my
For a time he busied himself traveling and lecturing — especially about how
to read the Bible properly and the homosexuality question. “I turn down
almost all requests for speaking now. I’m busy with genealogical research
and working on my memoirs. I have an incredible amount of documentation
to sort through in order to create an orderly account.”
While every parish pastor has stories to tell about what he or she has learned
from interacting with people on a daily basis, elected church leaders have
their own tales to tell. Said Cloeter, “There are a lot more problems in the
church than you realize. When you’re in a parish, you zero in on one narrow
ministry. But an elected leader becomes a problem-solver for an entire
region. The problems are something you don’t like to see, but you have to
work with pastors and congregations and struggle to find answers.”
Erdahl agreed. “Congregations are less likely to call and tell you what a
wonderful pastor they have. But they sure are quick to do the opposite. I
came to appreciate how much influence pastors really have — and it is, sadly,
not always positive.”
“It’s getting harder to be a pastor,” said Lee. “Times are changing. There are
more pressures on clergy marriages than ever. The debt load young pastors
now carry is amazing. My generation never saw anything like it, and pastors’
marriages rarely broke up when I was a young clergyman.”
Berg said the bishop’s office opened his awareness to the church’s global
reach. “We’re part of a larger world community,” he said. “The [ELCA’s]
Companion Synods relationship has been a real gift to the whole church. And,
as bishop, I got to be in different congregations every Sunday. That was
Serving in high office looks more glamorous than it really is, all five admitted.
Chilstrom said, “People thought it sounded exotic, how I could jet off to
Geneva for meetings. They didn’t know about the grueling pace, the jet lag,
and the fact that I never really saw Switzerland.” He said, “If I’d have known,
going in, what serving in high office would require, I would have said, ‘No
thanks.’ But, looking back on the experience, I have to say, I wouldn’t have
missed it for the world.”