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Joel Thomas Nickel: Reflections on 40 Years of Ministry

In August 2005, Joel wrote the following reminiscence of his years in the Lutheran ministry. He was looking ahead toward his retirement on January 15, 2006. It ran in The Clarion, the parish newsletter of Calvary Lutheran Church in Stayton, Oregon. The woodcut of the scribe, right, accompanied Joel’s article in The Clarion, though in the interest of accuracy it has been flopped horizontally to make the scribe left-handed. The pectoral crosses, below, are Joel’s own work.


Forty years ago this month I was ordained into the public ministry of the Christian Church, Lutheran branch, in a worship service of the congregation where I grew up, Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, Illinois. I had some wonderful mentors from whom I learned much about being a grace-centered pastor: Otto Geisemann, Martin Marty, and Dean Lueking. That was back in the days when the ’60s mantra was “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” which didn’t bnother me because I wasn’t. Since then, my age has more than doubled, and the flame of my desire for church renewal and relevance has been banked by cultural shifts and the loss of Christian influence in the culture. At the time, I tried to hone a prophetic edge, styling myself as a “conservative radical.”

Sue and I began our ministry in Detroit, Michigan, where we worked with David Eberhard, who had cobbled together a creative inner-city ministry living on a shoestring with faith that “The Lord will provide.” It was part of my job to create and publish Christian educational materials of the urban church, together with other members of the “team” from the Central City Circuit. That circuit was a “scandal of relevance,” which caused the Michigan District to vote to disband it rather than be provoked by it.

Before the urban riot of 1967 hit Detroit, I had already accepted a call to serve Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Chicago. We moved (with Philip) two weeks after National Guard troops successfully pacified our neighborhood (their tank had been guarding the local police precinct). We moved out of the pan and into the fire. Our Redeemer was the host church for the national Lutheran Conference on War and Race in the fall of 1967, a prelude to many personal tests. As friend and neighboring pastor Norm Theiss put it, “I studied theology at the seminary but had to come to the South Side of Chicago to learn what it means.” The riots after the death of Martin Luther King in April and the Democratic National Convention that summer put the church and our theology to the test. The neighborhood around Our Redeemer was falling down and burning down, and in the midst of this visible and tangible fragmentation, the worshipping congregation dwindled from 250 to 50 persons on any given Sunday — and this in a building that could seat 2,000.

We hired Otis Flynn, a very effective graduate of the “black deaconate program,” to develop our community program. There were three times when the church was filled to capacity: a memorial service in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death; a “call out” meeting to end violent gang recruiting (by a loose federation of little gang cells; they called themselves “the D’s” for “Devil’s Disciples” and spray-painted the letter “D” on every available wall); and one night when Jesse Jackson held forth and stretched his Operation PUSH banner across the church balcony to “Declare Hunger Illegal!” In the midst of this upheaval, Joy was born in the summer of 1968. We declared her name as our existential shout.

To make sure my aesthetic sense of life would survive, I enrolled as a part-time student at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art (the poor man’s Art Institute School). Going to art school was a “spirit saver,” because after Dan was born our situation became quite tenuous. We were the only white people living in the immediate neighborhood around the church; police harassment was increasing; Otis left to take a position as a community organizer in a black suburb, and the Nixon administration cut off HUD funds for housing development, which left our local development corporation twisting in the wind.

In 1972 I accepted a call to become campus pastor at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. On the day the moving van pulled up to load our earthly goods, the Chicago police called to say they’d recovered some items stolen in a burglary of the parsonage and could I come to their warehouse to pick them up? (It pays to record serial numbers.) As the parsonage emptied of furniture, Joy, age 3 1/2, asked me, “Daddy, when are the bulldozers coming?” She had observed that in our neighborhood, when people moved out their apartments were soon bulldozed. The number of litter-strewn vacant lots around the church was increasing; we even tried to turn one into a neighborhood garden on Earth Day.

At University Lutheran Church, I was co-pastor with Ray Eissfeldt for six years and grew to enjoy serving in the academic environment, which in a way was a ghetto too, though affluent and voluntary. We arrived in Champaign just in time for an anti-war riot, prompting a friend to accuse me of causing riots wherever I went. We started LITE, the “Lutheran Institute for Theological Encounter,” a free seminar for students and laity that utilized the expertise of faculty and staff in an ecumenical setting. But it was our ecumenicval engagement with other Christians that drew the ire of the Central Illinois District. I discovered that being a campus pastor placed me in limbo: The secular university at that time harbored much suspicion of religion, whice the Missouri Synod was suspicious of anyone who worked in the context of the secular univerrsity — especially someone who was ecumenical and opposed to the fundamentalist takeover of the synod.

The call to Calvary, Stayton, Oregon, 27 years ago was responsible for keeping me in the ministry. It was a drastic change — from Midwest to Northwest; urban to rural — and I wasn’t quite sure at first that I could handle the ministry transition from campus to small town. But I liked the people, the beautiful Oregon countryside, and the comfortable parsonage, and the years have flown by. Stayton was a good place to rear our children. Stayton passed every test our family required: Sue insisted that the town have a library; Phil that there was Little League (and tennis courts); Joy that there was a ballet school (thanks to Robin Humelbaugh); and Dan that there was a Dairy Queen. We slowly discovered Silver Falls and the covered bridges, how to pronounce “Scio,” “Mehama,” “Tualatin,” and “Willamette,” and how to ski cross-country.

And Calvary congregation was tolerant of my theological and artistic quirks, allowing me the freedom to enroll at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts and turn the parsonage basement utility room into an enamel studio with kiln and torch. While I often kid Sue that I “married the church” two weeks before I married her (also 40 years ago), I could never have carried out any of this work without her love and help. I’ve had three wonderful church secretaries to keep me focused and on-task: Joanne, Kay and Launee. We have done interesting things together as a congregation in worship, church building and service to our community. In the meantime, I have changed. A read through old Clarions and a glance at old church directories helps me remember how the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the “sweet communion” of the Holy Spriit has sustained all of us, for which I am eternally grateful. Looking back is a good exercise in reminding ourselves that the Lord still today leads us into the opportunities that are ahead of us.