Interview with Dr. Richard Bliese, Luther Seminary's New President

Last month, Dr. Richard H. Bliese – a distinguished missionary, pastor, and teacher – was named president of Luther Seminary, one of the largest mainline seminaries in North America.

On Monday May 9, 2005, the Christian Post spoke with Dr. Bliese about his visions and goals for the St. Paul, Minn.-based seminary – the largest of eight Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)-related seminaries in the U.S. – and about his experience in the growing ecumenical movement.

What is your reflection on being elected?

I’ve been at Luther Seminary for two years as academic dean. Before that I taught global mission at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC). The mission statement and mission commitments are what drew me here.

The Seminary has an incredible strategic plan, “Serving the Promise of Our Mission." It outlines the vision of where the school is headed. The Seminary’s business plan is designed around that vision.

Can you tell us a little bit about this plan?

The document was drafted in 2000. It's a very public document and it has become incredibly important in guiding the Seminary’s future.

I am called to continue that strategic plan. I think we will continue in the same direction as we develop a new plan. For example, the first sentence of the strategic plan continues to be very important to us: “We believe God is calling and sending the church of Jesus Christ into apostolic mission in the 21st century world of many cultures and religions.” The mission field today is much like the one the early apostles entered.

Many have testified about your passion and excitement towards the mission of Luther. What are some of the goals you wish to help the school achieve during your presidency?

We want to continue building a faculty that is centered along the mission of this seminary. We currently have 47 full-time faculty members, which is quite large compared to most other seminaries. Hiring quality people really makes a difference. We want to continue building a staff, administration, and board that are committed to the Seminary’s unfolding mission.

The president’s job is not only to lift up mission and vision of the school, but also to get adequate funding to move into the future. So obviously, fundraising will be a big part of my job.

One of the biggest missions of Luther Seminary is to prepare leaders for the church, does this mean particularly for the ELCA?

No, Luther Seminary’s mission is for the whole church. About 15-20 percent of our students are ecumenical. Our three largest groups of ecumenical students are Baptists, United Methodists, and Presbyterians.

We also have students from all over the world. The key for us is educating leaders who serve in Christian communities, not just pastors, but lay leaders as well. We really lift up the ministry, daily life, and the vocation of all the baptized. This is a big strength of our seminary.

I read that your first call to pastoral ministry led you to Germany where you served at a Lutheran church for several years. How did such opportunity come about?

I was in seminary at the time and there was a very vibrant growing congregation in Germany that was interested in evangelism, one of my passions. I stayed in the congregation doing pastoral work and emphasizing outreach and evangelism. It was a very prominent, influential congregation. It taught many German parishes throughout Germany and Europe how to do outreach. That was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity.

Do you speak any German?

Not when I first went there so I first had to go to language study. I went to the Goethe Institute in Munich, but I learned most of my German while working in the parish. It was in a mining area. I spent a lot of time visiting and getting to know people. That’s how I learned most of my German.

After this, you moved on to Africa.

Yes, right on the border of Zaire and Rwanda. I was sent to this church right on the Zaire border to help them train [native] pastors and evangelists. Many of them were never trained and they hadn’t worked with missionaries. They were sort of abandoned by missionaries twenty years ago, so we were sent there to support their church. We were there for five years before the genocide broke out [in Rwanda].

Can you tell us about your long mission experience abroad?

I was abroad for 11 years – 6 years in Germany and 5 years in Africa. Some of that time involved language study. For example, to prepare us for our time in Zaire we learned French in Belgium and Swahili in Kenya.

We had a wonderful ecumenical center there. It was a German mission center where we had music, evangelism and language schools.

How has your mission experience abroad in Germany and Africa helped you in your teaching and pastoral career since you’ve returned to the States?

Well first of all, I don’t think there’s much of a difference between global and local missions. The way we used to treat, teach, and train missionaries is very similar to how we treat, equip, and train local leaders here - pastors and other teachers. People need cross-cultural gifts. They need to know how to evangelize, reach out and sense how God is working in the world they are in.

What is similar or different between the international ecumenical movement and the ecumenical movement in the U.S.?

They’re very different actually. There tends to be more cooperation among churches abroad; the lines between churches in the U.S. are often drawn more sharply. But this is not always the case. It’s a hard comparison to make.

The official ecumenical movement has lost a little steam abroad, but it’s popping up in new and more creative ways. At the local level you’ll find churches working together in all sorts of projects. You’ll find a lot of situations where Christians get together to do outreach, social projects or tackle justice issues. Even revivals are done together across the world. Each place is different, however, so it’s hard to generalize. I do think Christians find a lot of excitement and energy when they come together abroad. That's true here as well.

What is your outlook on the ecumenical movement among the mainline denominations in the U.S.?

Actually it’s quite good. Many of the mainline churches have been working very closely for years. For Lutherans – especially the ELCA Lutherans – one of our strongest gifts is our ecumenical commitment.

You’ll find us working very closely with other churches. With some churches we have very strong ties, even pulpit and altar fellowships. But you'll find strong partnerships even beyond these offical ties.

For example, Luther Seminary cooperated with three other seminaries to discuss curricula that are mission focused: Fuller, Princeton, and Catholic Theological Union (CTU) of Chicago. We’re all big seminaries and all very different. Fuller is one of the biggest evangelical seminaries; CTU is one of the largest Catholic seminaries; Princeton is one of the dominant mainline Presbyterian seminaries; and Luther is the largest ELCA seminary. Yet we found just a wonderful working relationship on how to do develop curricula and form leaders around the mission of the church.

That’s the stuff I think is coming up. It’s new and exciting and doesn’t necessarily have official documentation, but it's wonderful.

As one of the largest mainline seminaries in the nation, how does Luther plan to continue impacting the mainline churches in the future?

Our key is to stay faithful to our mission. It’s an important statement of how to do an apostolic mission in a world of many cultures and religions.

The question for us is: how do you create ethos, infrastructure, faculty, and curricula that can all be centered in and live out our entire mission?

We’re learning how to be a seminary that can boost up a mission and work toward it. That wasn’t always the case. Seminaries didn’t always have a clear focus of where they were going, so we’re here to do that.

A lot of seminaries are currently facing a decline in student enrollment. Has this been an issue of concern for Luther?

We’re growing in numbers. Last year we had around 804 students and the incoming number of Master of Divinity students [those studying to be pastors] was the largest in a decade. We’re on pace to meet or exceed that again this year.

So our problem is not decreasing in numbers. We think we’re doing a better job in attracting students who are committed to mission and confession, our foci. They are also attracted to our four strategic initiatives: biblical preaching and worship, children, youth, and family ministry, congregational mission and leadership, and outreach to congregations (Center for Lifelong Learning).

Prior to joining Luther Seminary, Dr. Bliese served as the director of graduate studies and as the Augustana Heritage associate professor of global mission and evangelism at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC). He simultaneously served as a part-time pastor at St. Andrews Lutheran Church in Glenwood, Ill.

Dr. Bliese earned a master of theology in 19th and 20th century theology (1992) and a Ph.D. in confessional theology (1995) from LSTC. He has led mission and evangelism seminars and workshops as an independent consultant, administrated the Hein-Fry Lecture Series, and served as president of the Center for World Christian Interaction.

He has published articles throughout the world and co-edited “The Dictionary of Mission: Theology, History, Perspectives” (1997). He is also the co-editor of “The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution” (2005).

Bliese, who currently serves as the seminary's dean of academic affairs, will assume presidency on July 1, 2005. He will succeed the incumbent president Rev. Dr. David L. Tiede who will retire from the office of president on June 30.