Wartburg Theological Seminary Hosts Baccalaureate and Commencement for 168th Graduating Class

Wartburg Theological Seminary (WTS) honored 70 degree and certificate candidates and four special guests over the weekend of May 13-14, 2023. Graduation festivities included a banquet for graduates and special guests, their families, and friends in Dubuque on Saturday. Baccalaureate was held on Sunday morning in the Loehe Chapel at WTS followed by a reception and campus open house. The weekend concluded with the 169th WTS Commencement at St. Joseph the Worker Church on Sunday afternoon.

Baccalaureate and Commencement

Photo credit: Chuck ShingledeckerCommencement weekend at WTS is always a beautiful effort shared annually among students, faculty, and staff. WTS was thrilled to welcome nearly 300 graduates and guests to these special events. Live streams were available for those who were unable to participate in person. What a joy to celebrate together as community—all degrees conferred and the Gospel proclaimed! 




Special Awards and Honors

Photo credit: Chuck ShingledeckerWartburg Theological Seminary was delighted to honor three individuals at this year’s commencement ceremonies. Dr. Kathleen D. (Kadi) Billman was the recipient of the Honorary Doctor of Divinity. This honorary degree is conferred upon an individual who has dedicated their life to the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. The Living Loehe Award was 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. This year, the award recipients were Dr. Kelly Sherman-Conroy [Mato Wašté Winyan (Good Bear Woman)], and Dr. Knut Holter.

Charge to the Class of 2023 from President Kristin Johnston Largen

“Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God,

serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”

1 Peter 4:10


There are four aspects of your class verse that stand out to me as we gather here today for your Commencement—the commencement of your professional ministry in service to Jesus Christ for the sake of the world God loves so very much.

The first is the exhortation to be “good stewards;” the second is the “manifold grace” you are stewarding; the third is the “what” of that stewarding—service; and the last is the “how”—using the various and surprising gifts each of you has been given.  Let’s take these in order.

You are exhorted in 1 Peter to be good stewards: careful curators of that which does not belong to you, but has been entrusted to your care. Stewards are not owners; do not make the mistake of thinking that what belongs to God belongs to you. It does not. But God does need you; you do have a critical role to play in God’s mission in the world. As stewards, you are the channels through which God shares God’s love and mercy; you are the harbingers of Christ in the world.

What you bear is God’s manifold grace. It is well and good that as you have come to this celebratory moment, having accomplished so much, endured so much, that you lift up the rich, abundant grace God has lavished upon you. These past few years of the pandemic have not been easy—much was lost, expectations were not met. And still—God has been faithful, as God always is, and now you stand here poised and ready to bear the grace you have received to others who are in need. You do well to remember that in all aspects of pastoral and diaconal ministry, God’s grace stands at the heart of all you do, and your identity is grounded in that grace.

“Serve one another.” Class of 2023, you know how to do that. You have been caring for each other for years. Through the worst of the pandemic—through deaths, disappointments and losses—you have stood by one another, encouraged and consoled one another, served one another. And now, finally, you’re ready to take those hard-won skills, forged in fire, out into congregations, service organizations, hospitals, jails, and homes, to serve: the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy. In the name of Jesus Christ.

Finally, this verse reminds you that you all have been carefully and particularly gifted for the work to which God calls you, and that those gifts are different—uniquely tailored to you. Our God does not offer mass-produced, assembly-line gifts, as though one size fits all.

We all know that you are a large class; and one of the gifts you have brought to Wartburg, and one of the gifts you have experienced with each other, is the different gifts you all have manifested in the course of your formative time together. You come from wonderfully different backgrounds, with wonderfully different life experiences, with wonderfully different understandings of the kinds of public ministry to which you all feel called.

In this fluid, fecund time in the life of the church, Christian communities that exist now—and even more so, those who do not exist now but whom you are going to create—do not need cookie-cutter deacons, pastors and public ministers. They need your uniqueness, your quirkiness, your creative vision, and your embodiment of the gospel.

So, in this liminal moment, on the cusp of the new thing God is doing in you and through you, I encourage you to lean into who you are. Embrace boldly the call you have received. Love the people you serve and the place you land, powerfully and persistently.

Look around—look at each other. Marvel where you are now, how far you have come, and where you are going—where you will be two weeks, two months, two years from now. And give thanks to God; as we do, for you: for all you are now, for all you will become, and for your persistent witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.

Response from Final Year Class Presidents, Kurt Saenger-Heyl and Melissa Salminen

Thank you, Dr. Largen. On behalf of this class, we accept your charge for us with humility, gratitude, and excitement, grounded in the everlasting grace of God.

We accept this charge knowing it is indeed not by our own power of knowledge by which we can accept it but only through the power of the Holy Spirit who makes it possible.

We accept this charge to steward well these many and various gifts of God we have been entrusted with, knowing that we have been prepared to do so by the faculty, staff, and classmates in this place. We will live into our baptismal vocation to manifest the body of Christ together in this broken world.

We accept this charge to bear God’s grace to the world. We have experienced God’s grace along this entire journey, through all the highs and lows, through the successes and the failures, through the Zoom and the in-person, through the new lives born and the lives lost too soon, through the global pandemic and the local natural disasters. We have learned faith means trust—something we are definitively called to steward in this world—and is firmly rooted in God alone.

We accept this charge to serve one another. As you noted, we do know how to do that well. Through more hours on Zoom than anyone cares to count or admit, we have nourished and sustained each other, and we will continue to do so for each other now and in our future ministry settings. We will care for each other, our fellow ministers in Christ’s Church, our members, our patients, our clients, those we have never met, and those we have known for years. We will do it all in the name of Christ.

We accept this charge to bring our full selves into this work. We are fearfully and wonderfully made and just as we have brought our entire selves to this seminary journey, we will not stop doing so in our future ministries. We will share the gifts given to us—as varied and unique as they are—with all the world. For these gifts are not of our own making but indeed gifts given to us only through the grace of God.

If this class is known for one thing, it is boldness. We have been bold in all we have done here incase you have not noticed. Bold in big ways. Bold in small ways. Bold in new ways. Bold in old ways. We have done it all and were bold in it all.

We accept this charge to boldly embrace the calls received. We will love the people we serve and the places we land powerfully and persistently. Because that is the only way we know how to lead: boldly.

And so, we go forth boldly, trusting in the promise of the One who is always ahead of us preparing the way, accompanying us by our side, and behind us supporting us when we stumble.