Unforeseen Blessings through Grow in Grace

Prof. Richard Gurgel has taught at the seminary since 1999 and has served as the director of Grow in Grace since 2010. In October 2019, he accepted the call to serve as the president of Martin Luther College. He and his wife, Sue, moved to New Ulm in the summer of 2020. In March, I had the opportunity to interview Prof. Gurgel about his ministry here. Through his ministry God has blessed our church body in many ways, with unforeseen blessings also through Grow in Grace.

What did you teach during your years (1999-2020) as a seminary professor?

It’s fascinating that nothing written in my call twenty-one years ago matches what I do now. The call says “systematics (doctrine), education, and other areas.” It’s ironic that as I finish I only teach in homiletics (preaching), an area not specifically mentioned. Over the years I taught education, all four semesters of dogmatics, and all levels of homiletics.

How and when did you get involved with the continuing education of our pastors?

Two years before Prof. Mark Zarling left to be MLC president, I was added to our seminary’s continuing education committee. When he left in 2007, I became the chairman. The committee met only two times a year, mostly to plan and carry out Summer Quarter on campus. At that point, the dream of what Grow in Grace could be had not entered my brain or the imagination of anyone on campus.

How did Grow in Grace begin?

The impetus came from two directions: first, from a WELS ad hoc committee that wanted to help all called workers to pursue excellence, and secondly from a growing under-standing on our campus that we needed to help our pastors thrive longer in the public ministry. Our theological journal Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly had been serving our pastors for 100 years, and Summer Quarter had been serving some of our pastors since 1974, but the number of pastoral resignations was somewhat staggering. Soon it became clear that continuing education needed to be seen more broadly and that we needed to address more than just the academic needs of our pastors. Is their devotional life healthy? Are they balancing their callings as husband, father, pastor, and friend? Are they connected to their brothers in ministry, or are they isolated?

How has Grow in Grace changed over the years?

Grow in Grace went from being “the institute for continuing education” to “the institute for pastoral growth.” We began to think more holistically, and the four areas of our work developed (see sidebar).

Looking back on ten years of Grow in Grace, what were some of the challenges you faced?

At the beginning of my work at Grow in Grace, I was asked to devote half of my time to the development of a comprehensive program that would benefit the pastors of our church body, but I didn’t know what that was going to be. And I didn’t know how we were going to fund it. We had a generous grant from the Zietlow Foundation that covered half of my salary for three years. That enabled us to get a running start, but we also had a hunch that we would need to become somewhat self-supporting. Also, we faced the challenge of needing to change mindsets. Aren’t our pastors well trained over many years? Why and how do they need to keep growing? Why do new pastors need mentors? The questions made us sharpen our focus and communicate the needs. It has been fun to watch God bless our program and the pastors we serve.

For what blessings are you most thankful?

One of our core values is that we build partnerships. The four areas of work we are doing—none of these ideas were mine. They were the ideas of many godly men and women, inside and outside of WELS. On campus we look like a small shop, but we have more than 150 people who are partners with us on our Grow in Grace team. Secondly, I would mention the significant drop in pastoral resignations from the 1990s to the 2010s. How much is due to the efforts of Grow in Grace, God only knows, but the statistical reduction in resignations means that we have 100 more pastors in our pulpits. I am thankful for that.

What new opportunities do you see on the horizon for Grow in Grace?

We are in a digital age, and younger pastors especially are looking for resources in the form of brief videos, podcasts, and webinars. Grow in Grace will be able to maximize these opportunities. Secondly, as God grows our Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference around the world, they will need an institute for pastoral growth. Think of the opportunities in Africa, in Vietnam and other places in Asia, and in Latin Ameri-ca. We built our programs to serve pastors in this country, but to think about the possibilities for helping pastors around the world is exciting.

What final word of encouragement do you have for the pastors of WELS and the people they serve?

Pastors, remember that your first calling is as a child of God. That calling began at your baptism and it continues into eternity. Your own heart needs to be cut and healed by the power of the Word day after day. If we are not growing, if we are not being comforted by the gospel, it is almost impossible to have a gospel heart and a gospel-predominant ministry. We will pick up and lay down our calling as pastors, but our calling as a child of God is preeminent. Members of WELS, advocate for your pastors to have time for all their callings in life. Don’t keep them so busy that they cannot grow. Know that they need to grow, just as you need to grow.

What word of encouragement do you have for Prof. Tom Kock, the new director of Grow in Grace?

Be what God has equipped and wired you to be. We all come with our own set of weaknesses and strengths, but God is with you. It will be fun to watch what God accomplishes through Grow in Grace under your leadership. 

We thank Prof. Gurgel for all his faithful efforts and we wish him every blessing in his new calling as president of our WELS college of ministry. 

Professor Bradley Wordell teaches Old Testament and is part of the Pastoral Studies Institute Team. This article first appeared the 2020 issue of Preach the Gospel.

The four areas of Grow in Grace

•           Courses and Presentations: Summer Quarter and Winterim classes on campus, online courses, satellite Summer Quarter and Pastors’ Institutes in the districts of WELS.

•           Pastor Partners: The 3-year mentor program for newly assigned graduates, as well as ministry retreats every year in San Antonio for pastors 3, 10, 25, and 35 years after their graduation.

•           Informal Resources: A monthly elec-tronic mailing called Four Branches, book reviews and other online resources.

•           Study Packages: These toolkits help pastors to evaluate and grow in their devotional life and to understand their gifts. The resources also help pastors to grow in all their callings by partnering with spiritually mature lay leaders.

Former WLS professor and current MLC president Richard Gurgel and his wife, Sue.