Five distinguished alumni honored at Homecoming 2021

Dave Hedlin accepts alumni award

For the second year in a row, LSTC presented distinguished alumni awards in a ceremony held online. The five recipients— with varied years and experiences of service—expressed deep gratitude to the school, their families and all those who have cheered them on.

Hosted by alumni board members Michael Fick and Sara Olson-Smith, the annual ceremony presenting the Distinguished Alumni Awards was the culmination of Oct. 13-14 Homecoming and Alumni Week events (mostly held online). Alumni were invited to sit in on classes, attend worship and separate class gatherings, witness the commissioning of the school’s new Antiracism Transformation Team, and “attend” the awards ceremony livestreamed from Augustana Chapel. One recipient, David Hedlin, was on hand to receive his award in person.

In President James Nieman’s welcome, he said the five recipients stand on behalf of all who graduated from LSTC or a predecessor seminary. The school, which has honored distinguished alumni since 1974, has some 4,000 alumni all over the world. The stories of these five, he said, represent “a deep and rich ministry in and beyond our church.”

Still, the seminary faces twin challenges, he said: too few students seeking vocations of ministry and service, and the complex demands on those preparing for vocations in a dramatically changed church and world.

“The five of you this evening are the answer to those two challenges… Your lives do not testify that ministry is easy or trouble free – often quite the opposite – but they do show that transformational ministry is possible, generative, amazing – always because of the divine mercy that supports and sustains us. There is no greater recruitment tool for future ministers than the legacy of you who now serve and do so gracefully, patiently, durably.” 

John Kotovsky (1998, MDiv)

John Kotovsky received the Specialized Ministry Award. He retired in June as chief mission officer for Lutheran Senior Services (LSS), St. Louis, Mo., where he focused on the faith-inspired and Christian core values of LSS through the pastoral care team and the Christ Care Fund. Kotovsky said that although he had always had a heart for ministry, his career as a CPA and CFO came first. It was during his time as a CFO when he heard God’s call to ministry, thanking his friend and fellow award-winner Ron Glusenkamp for walking with him in his discernment, and Bob Bertram, an LSTC professor of systematic theology.

“I was a student in his first class in a church basement in St. Louis. I want to thank LSTC for their vision in supporting Bob’s program and granting me LSTC credit for all the classes that I took… It enabled me to take my classes at night and continue to work fulltime while remaining in St. Louis with my family.”

Kotovsky recalled the significant year he spent on campus (1997-98), fortunate to learn from professors like Ralph Klein and Ed Krentz. From there he went on to serve Community Church of Joy in Pheonix, Ariz.

In 2001 he returned to St. Louis to work in real estate, then Lutheran Senior Services. “LSS allowed me to return to my roots because when I was 17 years old, my first job was working as a dishwasher at the Lutheran Convalescent Home, an LSS community… in many ways it was a home coming for me and I was able to combine my heart and passion for ministry with my academic and business experience to serve.”

Ronald Glusenkamp (Christ SeminarySeminex, 1980, MDiv)

Ron Glusenkamp (pictured above with his wife, Sue) received the Called to Lead Award. In addition to being a parish pastor he served the Board of Pensions (now Portico) in Minneapolis, and The Campaign for the ELCA: Always Being Made New at the churchwide offices. It resulted in $50 million beyond the campaign goal of $198 million.

Glusenkamp accepted his award on behalf of all those who have shaped him, beginning with his wife Sue, saying “I wouldn’t be a recipient this evening if it wasn’t for her love, coaching and mentoring along the way.” He noted others—parents and other faith-formers, and their children and grandchildren who have taught them about leadership, and new ways to see love and grace unfold.

He also accepted the award on behalf of the congregations he’s served (in Kansas, Missouri, Colorado and now Arizona.) “Being a parish pastor is such an amazing call,” he said, also recognizing the influence of Portico and churchwide.

After a nod to his friend and coaward winner Kotovsky, he accepted the award on behalf of Seminex donors, alums and faculty. Quoting the “great theologian Yogi Bera” he said, “You can observe a lot just by watching, and I watched a lot during those days at Seminex and I learned so much,” offering the same gratefulness to those who work at and support LSTC’s mission.

Kara Baylor (2000, MDiv)

Kara Baylor (above, center) received the Witness to the World Award. She has served as campus pastor of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., since 2014. She also leads the Center for Faith and Spirituality there, drawing on her more than 20 years in youth ministry.

Social justice has always been a part of her ministry when serving congregations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. Baylor claimed her public voice in a new way when she started her blog, Pissed Off Pastor – Righteous Anger Pushing for Reformation, in June 2020.

In introducing her, Olson-Smith said, “She speaks her truth as a person of color. She believes in calling what is evil, evil and calling what is good, good. Theology of the cross. The evil of slavery and dehumanization of black and brown people is a deep wound in America.”

Baylor said she was honored to be seen as a witness to the world through her work with youth and young adults, and for her blog. “In my call as a pastor I have taken seriously the role of lifting up others and helping them find their gifts and what is possible for them. My most important witness to the world is sending others off to proclaim the gospel… So if it’s playing a role in the lives of an amazing young pastor or watching a Carthage student take what feels like a daring step that leads them to awe and wonder, I love helping others find their way to be a witness to the world. Because I don’t like being the center of attention.”

She knew that at some point in her ministry she would be called on to speak up and speak out on race in the church. “Little did I know that the summer of 2020 would be the time for me to get mad and shout at the world that Black Lives Matter.”

David Hedlin (1978, MDiv)

David L. Hedlin received the Excellence in Parish Ministry Award. He is pastor of Peace Lutheran Church, New Lenox, Ill.

Following the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, he worked with schools to bring the asset building program, Teach Everyone that Assets Matter (TEAM), to the community. In 2019 he received the New Lenox Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year award for his work through the parish and in the high school district. In 2013 Hedlin and members of the congregation published a children’s coloring book, Questions Kids Ask about God.

He recalled Nieman telling a group to think of a return on investment not in terms of interest of dividends, but in the ongoing impact in people.

“I am the fortunate recipient of those investments,” he said, recalling the investments of his parents, brothers, and life on a family farm and community that grounded them. He felt supported in education and was involved in service. Other investments, he said, came from his home congregation and confirmation pastor, Gustavus Adolphus College and LSTC, classmates and professors, his MIC and internship sites, congregations he’s served (Wisconsin and Illinois). And certainly the investments of his own family, wife, and their daughters, who have expanded their horizon of who is hurting in the world and the differences that can be made.

“I am here because of the wonderful investments of all kinds of people,” he continued, saying he is cognizant that it all comes from God, who loves and invests in all of us. “We matter, and we can make a difference. And who knows? As we keep investing, each of us in our own ways, who knows who the next lucky person will be who gets to stand here.”

Gary M. Simpson (Christ Seminary-Seminex, 1976, MDiv; 1983, ThD)

Gary Simpson, professor emeritus of systematic theology at Luther Seminary, received the Faithful Servant Award. He served on the faculty of Luther Seminary from 1990 until his retirement in 2020, and since 1993 has taught some 500 people through the Lay School of Ministry in the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin.

Simpson is a widely published and active scholar, whose most recent research and writing has been in the areas of Lutheran confessional theology, congregational mission, doctrine of the trinity and theology of the cross. As a pastor he served congregations in California, Missouri and Oregon.

“Oh my,” Simpson began, recalling this is what his Grandma Klemm would say when something happened that took her breath away. “This Faithful Servant Award takes my breath away.”

As anyone who has received such an award knows, he said, we are all—as Sir Issac Newton once noted—“standing on the shoulders of mentors, helpers and supporters.” He recounted growing up in the church, serving as an acolyte in the 7th and 8th grades at the congregation’s weekly funerals, and being tapped as a pastor early on.

His ministry while in Portland, Ore., was significant—his portfolio included mission and community outreach that resulted in ecumenical ministries and carried him “deeply and personally into Jewish-Christian collaboration” and a community action program and governor’s commission on hunger that created change that continues today.

“Much of what I learned in my parish ministry has fueled my academic research, writing, and teaching to this very day,” he said.

At Luther, Simpson also taught some 2,500 students over 30 years, including teaching many students from around the world, mostly from Africa and South and Southeast Asian countries. 


Original article published in the Fall 2021 Epistle Magazine; written by Julie Sevig

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