Roads … taken and not taken
A Lutheran Church leader reflects on his church and ministry
Pastor and President: Reflections of a Lutheran Churchman. David W. Preus. Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press. 2011. Perfectbound, 185 pages. $18.00. www.lutheranupress.org.
Books often reflect not only the substance of the author, but often the author’s personal style as well. Pastor and President contains the biographical reminisces and reflections of David Preus, a Lutheran pastor and church leader, most notably president of the American Lutheran Church (ALC) from 1973 until its merger into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 1988.
This is a modest book, as its author is a modest man (in the best sense of the term), but the book’s modesty cannot hide the nature and wisdom of Preus’ extraordinary career as a pastor and a church leader within American Lutheranism. This is a very interesting and valuable book, not simply for the historical record, but also for the sum and substance of Preus’ valuable reflections on the future of Lutheranism in North America.
Preus came from a long line of Lutheran pastors and church leaders within Norwegian-American Lutheranism. After two pastoral calls in South Dakota, he became pastor at University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis in 1957. In 1968, he was elected vice-president of the ALC and, with the death of Kent Knutson in 1973, became president; he served in this capacity until 1988.
Both local and global
Throughout the book, one is struck by the wisdom of his leadership in many of areas. He helped organize his local community in the face of social and racial turbulence and change, and provided effective leadership on the Minneapolis School Board. During the 1970s, he solidified the ministry of the ALC through leadership of national church structures, while main- taining a focus on the local congregation. As an American Lutheran leader, he maintained good relations with other Lutherans in the United States and around the world, and provided sound leadership in moving toward the ELCA.
A number of his accomplishments are noteworthy. His ecumenical work within World Christianity was well-known and appreciated. At the same time, he took a fairly unpopular stand in the early 1980s, when he proposed a far more modest federation of American Lutheran groups, rather than the organic union that led to the ELCA. The enormous energy involved in this merger, and subsequent traumas of the ELCA, suggest that his proposal deserved far more serious attention than it received.
Once the process to form the ELCA came into being, Preus suggested a decentralized form of organization that would maintain the power of the new church much closer to the congregations. This plan, too, was ignored, but the subsequent history of the ELCA suggests that he may well have been correct in this; leaders currently thinking about restructuring the ELCA would be well advised to consult his original proposals. History has often demonstrated the thoughtfulness of Preus’ ideas, even if they were not appreciated at the time.
One of the larger sections of the book concerns his relations with the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod during its times of internal turmoil during the 1970s and 1980s. David Preus had a special connection to this church through his cousin, LCMS President J.A.O. (Jack) Preus. Even though he often did not agree with his cousin, David still maintained a close relationship with Jack and to the leaders of the LCMS, and his narrative of this period is a valuable historical record of a turbulent time. Beyond its historical value, his work with the leaders of the LCMS provides a valuable model of inter-Lutheran cooperation, despite differences in theology and practice.
This is a wonderful book, one that could have been improved by being longer. His early life and career as a parish pastor are described in only a few, brief pages, and the reader is left wanting to know more of a narrative of his life.
Other than pointing out his alternative proposals for Lutheran unity and structure in the 1980s, he is silent on the subsequent course of the ELCA. But it would be extremely valuable to hear his wisdom and experience as to how the history of the ELCA has unfolded, and the ways in which American Lutheranism might move forward from its present crises. Certainly his modest inclinations might initially restrain him, but in this case the value of his potential contributions would be greatly welcomed. Perhaps this might be only the first book in a series?
Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.
Tags: ALC, American Lutheran Church, David W. Preus, ecumenism, ELCA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, J.A.O. Preus, Jack Preus, Kent Knutson, LCMS, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Lutheran University Press, Minneapolis School Board, Norwegian-American Lutheranism, Pastor and President