Wartburg Theological Seminary Hosts Digital Baccalaureate and Commencement for 167th Graduating Class

The Wartburg Seminary Administrative Cabinet did not make the decision lightly to hold the 2021 Commencement and Baccalaureate as distance celebrations. While the WTS community grieved with graduates, we also knew it would be possible to honor graduates, certificate earners, and our special award recipients and guests through a distance celebration.

The graduation planning team worked to find ways to acknowledge the palpable grief of several milestones coming and going as the pandemic progressed, and at the same time, proclaim the good news of Christ calling leaders forth into the world in a time like this. The idea of a “commencement kit” emerged during last year’s planning and continued this year. Each graduate and special guest received a kit, including a printed program, diploma sleeve/certificate, composite photo, a commemorative print, an alumni button, and for graduates, a cap, tassel, and hood.

As the vaccine rollout provided new opportunities to consider gathering in person again, the COVID-19 task force deemed we could safely host two traditional, in-person events leading up to commencement weekend. First was the Campus Cleanup with Texas BBQ, followed by the class composite photo unveiling. Campus Cleanup is a chance for the whole community to come together and give the campus a spring refresh before commencement weekend, when we’d typically be welcoming visitors. It was a gorgeous day, and those present were able to worship together later in the day with a concert hosted by several community members. We were also able to host a lunch and outdoor viewing of the composite photo after its unveiling.

Remarks to the Class of 2021


I have always loved Russian nesting dolls. I don’t know why, exactly; it probably has something to do with my affinity for little boxes, which I also love, but in any case, I have always found Russian nesting dolls beautiful, intriguing, and a little magical.

As I’ve gotten older, one of the things that I have grown to love about them is the symbolism they suggest—what it means to be connected over time and space in a deep and fundamental way. Each little doll can stand by itself, but they aren’t designed that way—they are designed to “nest,” to be together. That’s at least a little like us, is it not?

You, you yourselves, are not alone; you do not exist alone—you cannot, none of us can! Instead, you are nested in a much, much larger community, shaped by those who came before you, shaping those who come after you. Each of our lives is distinct, but all are interconnected, bound to those you see and know, but equally bound to those you will never see, and those you will never know. As we gaze out at the future God is calling us into, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants; and others will need our shoulders to see this future as well.

The class pictures that hang in the halls at Wartburg Seminary are another beautiful visual reminder of our interconnectedness and the way that we are held together as one body in Jesus Christ. They are a vivid sign that this human connectedness is not simply abstract or theoretical, but it is embodied—it is tangible. These pictures memorialize 167 years of bodies that God has called to Wartburg—students, faculty, and staff who were here last year, and the year before, and long before you ever even heard the name Wartburg Seminary. And now, you—your pictures, your faces—are joining these halls. You will hang here, nested among the rows and rows of pictures, the bodies of others, all of us together held firmly in the secure arms of our loving God, all of us important members of the body of Christ.

Hear these words from Paul: “As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ … God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Graduates, you have been members of the body of Christ since your baptism; and now we rejoice to celebrate this official sign of your permanent, lasting membership in the deep and broad Wartburg Community. You are officially part of our long and faithful tradition, bearing the responsibilities and privileges of our name, forever written into our story.

Welcome to the walls of Fritschel Hall, welcome to the Wartburg “nest”; welcome, welcome, welcome!

Baccalaureate & Commencement

Commencement weekend at WTS is always a beautiful effort shared annually among students, faculty, and staff. This year was different, even from our first digital celebration in 2020, but no less of a team effort. What a joy to celebrate together as community—all degrees conferred, the Gospel proclaimed, and Zoom held strong! Baccalaureate and Commencement were held as two distinct services, both livestreamed on our website and Facebook Live. Wartburg Seminary bravely (and perhaps, naively!) committed to a real-time celebration in 2020 while most higher education peers chose to pre-record their ceremonies. We chose to do the same in 2021 with two live and real-time ceremonies, both worship-centered and focused on celebrating our graduates.

Baccaulaureate Sermon Excerpt


Graduating people: you will go on to do great things. You will become deacons, pastors, and church leaders. You will have titles like “reverend, deacon, clergy.” You will write things, post things, and create video recordings (more than you may want) that become widely known—and may even go “viral.”

But let us not forget: no matter what you do or who you become, you will always, simply (and beautifully) be a follower of Jesus, a child of God, marked by the Holy Spirit. No matter who you are, who you become, what you do, what others think of you, what your job is, what volunteer work you do—whether you are a graduate, a non-seminarian, a teen, a retiree, an able-bodied or a differently abled person, a lifelong churchperson or a barely churched person—the core of your identity (who you are) is anchored in your relationship to God in Jesus Christ.

Who you are in Christ is what ultimately matters. No matter how often we lose sight of that. As adults, we often prefer to identify ourselves—to others and to ourselves—by the choices we’ve made and the things we’ve done. But we find here a Jesus who cares remarkably little about what we’ve done and who we are—his concern, instead, is whose we are: that we live as those marked by relationship to him.

Special Awards and Honors

The Honorary Doctor of Divinity was presented at commencement to three recipients: Rev. Amy L. Current ‘97, Bishop of the Southeastern Iowa Synod; Rev. Christopher DeForest ‘09, Bishop of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod; and Rev. Amy Odgren ’01, Bishop of the Northeastern Minnesota Synod. The Living Loehe Award, established by Wartburg Seminary in 1973 as a way of honoring individuals who have given distinguished service to and through the church and exemplify Christ’s call to be disciples in the context of their own daily lives and professional commitments, was given at commencement to Rev. Kelly Chapman, Honorable Madam Justice Sandra E. Kurtzious, and Rev. Renee Splichal Larson.

The Rev. Kelly Chatman has served as an exemplary church leader in many capacities. In 2020, he became the first Director for the Center for Leadership and Neighborhood Engagement, a nonprofit organization providing programs, coaching, and training to connect and support congregations, nonprofits, and their neighborhoods. Honorable Madam Justice Sandra E. Kurtzious of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guyana (Redeemer Lutheran Parish) is Judge of the High Court of the Supreme Court of Judicature–Family Division. She is the only judge with that portfolio who serves the whole country. The Rev. Renee Splichal Larson, who also delivered this year’s commencement address, has served as Associate to the Bishop for Candidacy, Congregation, and Rostered Minister Accompaniment in the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since 2019.

Charge to the Class of 2021


As it is written in the Gospel of John, after the resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples, breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, and commends to them his peace, sending them out to bear this peace into the whole world.

You, graduates, are heirs to this peace, and to this sending; you, too, are commended to bear Christ’s peace with you in the ministries to which you will be called—or have been called. And what a gift you will be to this weary world—a world that is in great need of peace: peace among nations, peace among peoples, peace across political, ethnic, gender, and class divides. The world is longing for peace.

But note, please, that this is not just any peace you bear; it is the peace of Jesus Christ—it is the peculiar and particular peace Christ himself incarnated, the peace that marked his ministry, and the peace that ultimately led to the crucifixion. This is no ordinary peace. Christ’s peace is not a “leave me in peace”; a peaceful, easy feeling; nor a “peace-out.” No, the peace you are called to bear, dear graduates, is something else entirely: something far more costly, far more precious, and far more powerful and transformative.

Christ’s peace is a fierce peace—a keep your seat on the bus kind of peace, a lock arms and walk across the bridge kind of peace, a donkey ride into the city to face the authorities kind of peace. This is a peace that demands justice and accountability as a part of reconciliation and renewal. It is ferocious, it is strong, it is resilient. Christ’s peace is a relentlessly loving peace—a love driving out hate kind of peace, a walking the extra mile kind of peace, a keep on knocking at that door kind of peace. This is a peace that forgives in the midst of pain, a peace with open hearts and open hands, a peace that doesn’t give up or give out even in the face of scorn and indifference. This peace is patient, enduring, and persistent.

And Christ’s peace is a radically welcoming peace—a peace that makes a friend of the stranger and the enemy, a peace that says “all” and really means it, a peace that goes out to the alleyways and the prisons and says “come.” This is a peace that doggedly seeks out the lost and the abandoned, a peace that gazes with grace upon the overlooked and rejected, a peace that prepares an overflowing table for the marginalized and outcast. This peace is daring, inviting, and courageous.

The call you have received to be the bearers of such peace is both an awesome responsibility and a sacred blessing. This calling is not and will not be easy, and there will be times when you want to lay this peace down and walk away. But beloved children of God—named, called, gathered, and now sent—you are not alone in this peace-bearing work in the world; you are never alone. Christ goes with you in the power of that Holy Spirit breathed into you at your baptism. What is not possible by ourselves is possible with God. Hold firm in your foundation, and do not lose hope.

When evening had come, the first day of that resurrection week, the disciples stood together in fear behind locked doors. And Jesus came—through the doors, through the fear—and stood among them. They rejoiced in his presence. And Jesus said, “Peace with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And he breathed the Holy Spirit upon them.

Go out now with the Holy Spirit. Go now with Christ’s peace; go now with Christ’s blessing.

Both Baccalaureate and Commencement are available to watch at facebook.com/wartburgseminary/live.