Eight Students Connected to St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church Journey through the One-Year MA Program

In the Fall of 2019, Wartburg Seminary launched a one-year Master of Arts program. When WTS Board Member Michael (Mike) Carlson ’04 heard about this new program at one of the Board of Directors meetings, he immediately thought of the staff at his congregation, St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, MN. He began getting the word out to various staff members. Through email, one-on-one conversations, shared discernment, and encouragement, eight people connected to the ministry of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church began in the one-year Master of Arts program in September 2019.

They found diving into seminary with a cohort of colleagues invaluable, remarking that they didn’t know each other all that well before beginning the program at WTS, but by the end, they considered each other “family” and “connected forever” by the experience. We interviewed a few of those now-alumni, all of whom are on staff at St. Andrew’s, to learn more about their journey together through the program.

Can you share what you thought when you first heard about the idea of doing the new one-year MA program as a cohort?

  • Heidi Lender (Resource Counselor): I had been looking at other programs because I had always thought about seminary. I didn’t find what I was looking for in other programs, and Mike had just sent an email to all staff and said, “Hey, there’s a new program at Wartburg. Check it out. Let me know if you’re interested.” I checked it out, and I think I sat with it for quite a while, just trying to discern whether or not it was my next step. Once I decided it was, I went to Mike and I said, “I want to do this.” And he said, “Well, you’re not doing it alone, so who else is going with you?”
  • Kristine Mason (Case Manager, Community Resource Center): My reaction was, “Well, how much time is it going to take and how many books do we have to get and how many classes is it? Can we really do this in a year? And how is this going to work while we’re still working our jobs?” I did some research and asked a lot of questions. I sat with it a little bit like Heidi did before deciding to do it.
  • Tara McAdams (Senior Marketing Communications Consultant): For me, this came out of nowhere. I thought, “Seminary? Me, go to seminary?” And then I heard everybody else talking about it. I remember sitting with it, and the first time I thought that I could do it was maybe two days after I heard about it. It was a complete leap of faith thinking that I could do this, because I’m not the seminary “type.” It was complete trust that I could do this. Once I knew that there were going to be others of us doing it, I thought, “Yeah. Okay. We’re going to take this step by step and we’re going to do it.”
  • Lisa Grundtner (Director of Funeral Ministry/Support Groups): Mike was so enthused about it and one of his wonderful lines to us was, “You could have your master’s in a year.” You know, that’s a big deal. I was really intrigued and excited and scared to death. But knowing we’d have our cohort was an absolutely huge thing to encourage me to do it.

Let’s hear about your Prolog Week experience. What was it like coming down all together and as you started diving into seminary full steam ahead? Were you happy that you made this choice, feeling overwhelmed, or all of the above?

  • Tara: I have such happy memories of it for many reasons. It was beautiful weather. We were there with people from all over that we had never met before. And I thought, “Here is a whole bunch of new people that we get to know, learn with, work with, and laugh with.” Knowing that our cohort was there together was great, but then we were part of this greater student body that was really wonderful.
  • Kris: I rode down with Heidi, and the whole time I was thinking, “What am I doing?” And on one of the first days when we walked into the auditorium with everybody in there, the big whiteboard said, “Welcome home.” And I’m thinking, “Home? This is not my home. I am far away from my home and I have a stomachache and I’m here with my coworkers. This is great, but I’m scared to death.” And by the end of the week, I remember we looked at each other and said, “Oh, we have to leave here. Wouldn’t it be really cool to be able to stay here and do this?” So, just those four or five days there made me think, “Yeah. This, this feels like it could be home.” It was a really, really cool week.
  • Tara: Everyone wanted us to succeed, and it was very clear that everyone’s desire to help and to talk and to listen was authentic. That was part of the Wartburg mystique— that it was so intimate and personal and authentic. And boy, that came across immediately the first week, and I experienced that the whole year. It was really lovely and unusual.
  • Lisa: It’s true—right away during Prolog Week, and Kris talked about it too, how welcome we felt, how hard you guys worked to make that work well. To us, it was seamless and wonderful.

You’ve talked a little bit about your cohort and how important that was. Can you talk about how it went once you returned home after Prolog Week? How did you lean on each other as you dove into the rest of the semester?

  • Lisa: We were really fortunate as a cohort to have the resources that we have at St. Andrew’s. We also had a study group, so we would all get together after work once a week. We didn’t all have the same classes, so we would get together and talk about our different projects and papers. That helped a ton.
  • Carrin Mahmood (Director, St. Andrew’s Family Shelter): Mike would join us and just about bite his tongue off not jumping in to answer things for us when we’d be struggling with something. You could just tell he wanted to just expound. And then once in a while, he’d throw something out, saying, “Well, have you considered looking at it from this point of view?” He could not have been more excited through the whole process for us, so that helped.
  • Kris: We all went through and said, “Okay. Who has Plural Worlds? Who has this class? Who has that class?” And then we put somebody in charge of sending out an email every once in a while. “Okay. This is what’s coming up in this class. You have to post for this. This is when the paper is due.”
  • Joe Holmberg (Communications Director): I’d come into work and Lisa would say, “I noticed that you didn’t have a VoiceThread post, and that’s due by noon today.” And it’s like, “Oh, thank you, thank you!” I don’t know how we could’ve done it without the cohort. It’s really a great way to get through, and St. Andrews set us up to succeed. They really did.
  • Carrin: And Wartburg too. Like this right here, I could do a Zoom with my granddaughter in my lap. I have classes, and she just attended with me. Wartburg is all about, “Yep. Your family first and bring them.”

Is there a particular instance, story, or meeting with a professor or a certain topic that was really meaningful for you?

  • Joe: One of the most impactful moments of my life was the entire semester of Systematics. This happened throughout the entire Wartburg experience the whole year, but especially in Systematics: there were just moments where at 2:00 a.m. concepts would hit me, and I would just literally break down in uncontrollable tears. It was mostly out of happiness, and a lot out of the impact of getting close to God and close to life. There were other times when I’d be driving along cursing and yelling out loud in frustration. And again, that’s where I thank God for Mike, because I would call him and work things through with him. And he said, “You’re not the first to ever yell or scream aloud.” Those were just really big moments. And then there were the moments of elation, of just reading something and it clicks. The whole thing turns over and you finally get it.
  • Heidi: The dedication of the faculty and their willingness to want to know about you and your life outside of class was beautiful. That’s what makes Wartburg, Wartburg, right there. They care. They truly care. I was about to write my capstone paper, and it was COVID and I had stuff going on at home and work and finals. I sent an email off to May [Persaud] because she’s my advisor, and she just sent this beautiful email back saying, “Yep. You know, I get it, and it’s going to be okay.” Not only did she send me an email back, but then she had Winston send me an email, too. They were all supporting me and saying, “You know what? You can do this and you’re not alone.” And it was beautiful how it was more about you than what you ended up producing.
  • Tara: Heidi and I both had May Persaud as our advisor, and I remember when May called me about a week before Prolog Week and just wanted to get to know me and to talk through what I was going to register for. We talked for an hour-and-a-half, and she just wanted to get to know me. I had some questions, and then she got Winston on the phone and had Winston call Sam Giere to ask about something. I was blown away. I’d never had this level of personal attention, all to make sure I got what I thought I wanted from this program.
  • Kris: I feel like everyone was cared for equally. We weren’t the people who were going to be there for four years, but I never felt any differently cared for or taught to than any of the other students.
  • Lisa: I agree with everything everyone’s saying. The professors and the staff are obviously so sincere and caring. Susan Ebertz was my advisor and she had this rotation where she would periodically pray for everyone, and every time, it was so touching. She says, “Okay. I’ll be praying for you this week, and what can I pray for?” And where do you get that, you know? We were lucky.
  • Carrin: The first semester—except for maybe one or two classes—we took what was recommended. But then Wartburg really heard us when we all kind of diverged for the second semester and said, “For me and what I do in work, it would be way more useful if I took these classes.” And not only did they listen at a registration level, but the professors were willing to let us take classes with fourth-year students because we were only there for one year. So, from the professors all the way through the administration, everyone was really willing to say, “Let’s make this program work for you guys.”

Can you speak to the areas of your work at St. Andrew’s that have been enriched or changed by your studies at WTS?

  • Heidi: Having more of a Lutheran theological understanding and more of a biblical background really helped me see the world differently, which helped me help others see the world differently. Whether it’s counseling or spiritual direction, I do it with a whole different lens than I would have prior to WTS. It’s literally changed my world, and I hope that I’m a better counselor and a better spiritual director because of it.
  • Carrin: I think, like Heidi said, I learned a new language there at Wartburg. I learned a new thought process. Wartburg speaks with great intentionality. Every time a professor or anyone speaks, it was fascinating to listen. And just that alone, just some of those habits that they modeled, I can bring that into my practice.
  • Lisa: I learned so much. A lot of what I was hoping to get out of the program was to understand why we do what we do and the theology behind that. I did my capstone project on funeral practices: our theology and why we do what we do at funerals. I wrote my paper as a proposal to the pastors here to actually propose some funeral practices that we don’t necessarily do at St. Andrews. So, the program had a huge, huge effect on my role here.
  • Joe: In a broad sense, I think the way that we’ve been taught to focus outside ourselves has brought great empathy toward everything we do. Like Heidi said, it brings a different lens. And so, our focus, everything we do, every moment, every task at work, is with the other in mind. That empathy alone is just great in a big, broad sense. And then, again, that theological understanding just helps me as a communications person to better communicate, better articulate the good news in everything we do, in every program, in every paragraph that we write, and in every word that’s spoken. So, the impact is both broad and specific.
  • Tara: I think too—and this just came to me recently—that what Wartburg helped me see was that everything we do, in whatever we do: our work is ministry. Whatever you’re doing in your life, you’re ministering to others, and you’re the conduit through which the Holy Spirit can really make things happen in the world. I wasn’t able to see that until I really started to put together so many things from Sam Giere, Martin Lohrmann, Winston Persaud, and the beautiful comments that they made.
  • Carrin: What I appreciated too is talking to people in ministry outside of St. Andrew’s. I’m in contact with new ministers all over the country because I got to know them at WTS, and have access to new ideas.
  • Lisa: We’ve all talked about being a part of Wartburg. Mike would always talk about what a special, amazing place it is, and I think every one of us feels that and understands now. It really is.

Responses from interviewees have been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about the Master of Arts program at Wartburg Seminary at wartburgseminary.edu/master-of-arts.