MDiv student Julie Grafe is ready for what comes next

Julie Grafe, MDiv, in her graduation gown

The weekend of May 16-17 was a big one for Julie Grafe. On May 16, she learned that she is approved for ministry by the Metropolitan Chicago Synod Candidacy. And on May 17, she graduated from LSTC’s master of divinity program.  

Frankly, she had expected the weekend to be even bigger. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, LSTC cancelled the in-person baccalaureate service and commencement ceremony.  Instead of the excitement of being together with her classmates and LSTC faculty and staff, Grafe and her family celebrated at home, watching the video LSTC pre-recorded. It was released on YouTube at 2:30 p.m., the time graduation would have taken place in person. 

“This is a bittersweet time. It’s bittersweet that it’s here and that it can’t happen the way we planned,” she said.  

Grafe had a lot to celebrate, especially with family, friends and mentors who supported her in her journey to and through seminary. She hopes to “walk” during commencement 2021 and hopes there will be at least a few of her classmates walking with her. 

Difficult discernment 

Grafe comes from a long line of pastors and “knew they were regular people.” Still, that knowledge didn’t make her own discernment of her call to pastoral ministry any easier. Julie also believes that the spirit doesn’t let go of you. 

The seed of her call was planted by seminarians. From the interns and field workers at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill., where she grew up, to LSTC interns at her home congregation, Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Lincolnshire, Ill., Grafe always loved being around seminarians. She loved the energy and new ideas that they brought to ministry. They nurtured her sense of being called to similar ministry, herself. 

She didn’t trust that call for many years. She became a nurse and then worked in management and process improvement in health care for 25 years. 

“I didn’t think I was smart enough. Plus, we had one pastor each generation in my family. My cousin, Hubert (1973, MDiv), was a pastor so I figured my generation was covered.” 

It took others affirming her gifts for ministry before Grafe could acknowledge, tentatively, that this was her call. 

“One day, I said to my mom all that I had been thinking, about not being smart enough, how this generation was ‘covered’ and mom said to me, ‘We haven’t had a woman.’ Then one day when I was working on something at church, the pastor, out of the blue said, ‘You should go to seminary.’ I wanted to say no, but I couldn’t say no. So I said thank you.” 

Grafe was still looking for clear signs that God was calling her to ministry. She signed up for a Diakonia class as part of her discernment. On the way to the first class she stopped at an intersection and saw the street sign, Burning Bush Road. 

“I was looking for a sign and there it was, literally, a sign!” she said. 

Even her teenage children affirmed her call before she told them that she had visited LSTC to talk with the admissions director. Her son, Ben, wrote on a big whiteboard, “You’re going to be a pastor” and said, “That’s your sign.” Julie has kept that sign while she has been at LSTC. 

Embracing seminary and her gifts 

Grafe was a commuter student who made the Grand Hallway her living room when she was on campus.  

“I would just settle in there and talk with people as I did my work. I also built relationships. I think that was easier for me to do as someone who had a career before coming to seminary. I really wanted to connect while I was at seminary. I embraced the time of learning and tried to stay present to what was happening.” 

Grafe embraced a wide range of opportunities. She was the commuter representative on the Masters Students Association (MSA) and served on the Homiletics Search Committee that recommended Dr. Kimberly Wagner for her current position at LSTC. One J-Term she went to Holden Village for Ben Stewart’s Liturgical Landscapes course on earth cycles and liturgical cycles. Attending the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference with other LSTC students was also a powerful experience for her. 

She especially recalled the “aha” moments that changed her perspective. 

“Pastor Michael Russell (1999, MDiv) came to our Public Church class. What he taught us and what I learned in the Crossroads Antiracism Training were huge. They helped me understand power.” 

“The other thing I carry with me comes from Theology I, the first theology class I ever took. It’s from Vitor Westhelle, who taught us that we co-spire with God. He said, 

‘God in-spires breath – your first breath. You breathe and co-spire with God until you ex-pire your last breath.’ I sat with my mom as she ex-pired her last breath in January 2017. And it was just as Vitor said. We co-spire with the Holy Spirit. We do all this together. We do this as a community. I am wondering how can we co-spire better together?” 

Contextual Education, when she got to be the seminarian in the congregation, also has been an important to her. It’s when she was able to explore and take risks while “being grounded in what we know.” Her final year internship has helped Julie claim the gifts that come naturally to her. 

“On spiritual gift inventories it always showed I had the gift of hospitality and I thought, ‘I want to do more than just bake cookies for people.’ Now I know that hospitality goes beyond entertainment and being nice. It is God’s invitation to be in and of the world. God’s grace is for everyone and we need to make that happen.” 

 Now that she’s approved for ordination to Word and Sacrament ministry, her name will be submitted to the ELCA Conference of Bishops at the Fall Assignment, the next step in receiving a call to a congregation and being ordained. 

“I am so grateful for the time at LSTC. I’m glad to be done with this and sad to be done with this. . . and I didn’t do it. It was God working through me. I’m not sure what comes next but I’m ready. “ 

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