Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Monday, April 16, 2018


I heard Granger Westberg speak long before I met him. It was the late 1960s, and he was back to speak at the Lutheran church in Bloomington, IL where he had pastored before he became famous as a chaplain/professor/innovator who did ministry in medicine.

In his speech, he told of how he had learned of the need for continuing education [CE] for pastors by watching how doctors continued to learn. Indeed, you could not stay in good medical standing if you did not acquire CE credits. He proposed to form an Academy of Parish Clergy [APC], modeled on the American Association of Family Physicians, in which clergy would have to accrue regularly a certain number of CE units to be in good standing.

I was bereft, because I really wanted to be a member, and I would not be eligible.

I would not be eligible for APC because I was not parish clergy. Westberg was clear about that. He said that the real experts in parish ministry were those who practiced it, and that they could learn a great deal from one another by sharing that practice. If, however, they admitted seminary and college professors, and denominational officials, and chaplains and other ordained people who were not actually parish clergy, those worthies would take over, because the church thought preachers could learn from anyone who was not a preacher but had nothing of educational value to contribute to other clergy, or to anybody else. So to be sure that did not happen, only real working clergy could be members.

I had been a preacher, a parish pastor, for eight years, but I was then a campus minister, and when I finished my master’s in communication theory at IL State, where I was Director of The Wesley Foundation, and got a doctorate in theology at Iowa, and applied communication theory to theological methodology to create my own narrative theology, I planned to be a seminary preaching professor.

I knew, though, that I needed to be in the company of every-Sunday preachers as much as possible, to keep being renewed in what those folks needed to learn to be good preachers. APC seemed like a good way to stay in touch with real preachers, but I would be the very type the APC would be most unwilling to accept.

In addition to needing to relate to preachers as a professor of preaching, I just loved the company of other preachers, the “goodly fellowship of the prophets.” I felt so blessed to be in the company of thoughtful, educated, compassionate, open-minded men-all men then-who took Christian faith seriously, not just culturally.

Those weren’t just “liberal” preachers. I knew many pastors who were conservative, and several who were fundamentalist. We disagreed about “taking the Bible literally,” but not about being Christians literally. They insisted on the literal interpretation of the virgin birth and the resurrection, but also on the literal interpretation of “feed the hungry” and “clothe the naked.” We were in one accord on Christian behavior, and that was before Hondas even made it to the USA. [1] We were denominational then, but not tribal, as we are now.

I recall having coffee one afternoon with one of my conservative friends. He almost cried when he told me he had just learned that people called him and his ilk “fundies.” He was proud to be a fundamentalist, but he thought “fundy” was disrespectful. I told him I thought so, too, and vowed to myself to stop saying it.

Things did not go as I planned, of course. I had some chances to be on a seminary staff for administration, but nobody wanted me as a preaching professor. I went back to parish ministry. The good thing about that was, I got to join APC! I became a Fellow. I was even the President for a term. The sharing of the practice and the fellowship were even better than I had thought they would be!

Not long before I retired, we had an APC Midwest Chapter meeting at Grace Lutheran in River Forest, IL. That was always exciting, because F. Dean Lueking was the pastor there, and his presence made any meeting better. That particular day, though, it was more exciting than usual, because Granger Westberg himself was there. He was retired and living in Willowbrook, after a distinguished career in which he pioneered almost everything having to do with pastoral care and holistic medicine in hospitals, including creating the parish nurse program, with almost three thousand parish nurses in practice by that time.

We had a lively discussion that day, doing case studies of situations in the parish, in which we helped one another see better ways to deal with certain practical pastoral concerns in our congregations. Granger pulled me aside afterward to say that he was much impressed with my insights and would like to get to know me better. He asked me to come see him some time. I doubt that I was all that impressive. I think he was just lonely.

I thought that it would be great to visit him, though. I was honored. Talk about continuing education, with Granger, himself?! It would not have been hard to do it. I lived only a couple of hours south of Chicago. I was able to drive fast and long in those days. But I never got around to it.

I was still recovering from cancer. I was getting ready to retire. Whenever I had opportunity to leave town, I went south rather than north, to see my granddaughter in Alabama. Then she moved to Iowa and I retired so I could move there, too.

I don’t regret at all going to see Brigid, ever. But I do regret that I did not make time to see Granger Westberg. When you are no longer the innovator and enabler, people honor you but they don’t pay much attention to you. He had read my cancer book and thought we would be on the same wavelength. I’m sure he was right.

Now I am Granger Westberg. Nobody wants my advice. Nobody pays attention to me. Personally, I find that refreshing. It takes a big load off. I need to pay attention to myself, not some young whippersnapper in his fifties. I hope Granger felt the same way.


1] Preacher joke: Honda is the Biblical car because “the apostles were all in one accord.” [Acts 2:1]

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