Trinity Lutheran pastor turned sorrow into purpose
The Rev. Todd Stocker's journey to the pulpit at Trinity Lutheran Church has taken several turns, including one of great heartbreak.
In June of 2009, his 18-year-old daughter Makenzie was killed in a car accident in Houston. A professional ballerina, she was returning home from a photo shoot when the car she was riding in with a friend was broadsided by a pickup truck.
Stocker at the time was the spiritual life director for Lutheran South Academy and its 850 pre-kindergarten through high school students.
Two thousand people attended Makenzie's funeral at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Houston, including much of the student body at Lutheran South.
According to her obituary in the Houston Chronicle, Makenzie was an honor student "known for her open, bubbly personality and strong faith."
Following Makenzie's death, Stocker, his wife, Kellie, and their two younger children, Nathan and Madeline, returned to Woodbury, Minn., where he previously had served as pastor at Woodbury Lutheran Church.
"We moved up here just to heal," Stocker said in a recent interview in his office at Trinity Lutheran. "Our friendship group was up here, and we were always happy here."
He said that for a few months he didn't do anything but process his grief, which included keeping a journal. Some of those reflections are included in a book he wrote, "Dancing with God: First Year Thoughts on the Loss of My Daughter."
Two years ago, Concordia University of St. Paul invited Stocker to be its campus pastor. He was serving in that role when Trinity, which was going through a pastoral change, needed someone to help fill its two pulpits and asked him to preach once or twice a month.
The Missouri Synod congregation has two locations, the church and school on Sixth and St. Croix streets in old Hudson, and the newer Trinity Family Center on Badlands Road in the town of Hudson. Sunday worship services take place simultaneously at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. at both locations.
Stocker began preaching in Hudson in August of 2011. At the beginning of June of this year, the congregation called him to be the church's executive pastor. He's teaming with the Rev. Tim Booth, who has been at Trinity for nine years, and the Rev. Fred Golke, pastor emeritus.
"I got to know the congregation and they got to know me," Stocker said of his call to Trinity.
"I had a blast learning about college students," he said. "(Concordia) is a wonderful university. But I'm a church guy. I love the ebb and flow, and seeing people's lives changed for the better."
Stocker said that, in the end, the tragic death of his daughter didn't challenge his faith as much as strengthen it.
"For me, it was, what now? How can I be a pastor again?" he said. "It forces you to really examine, do I really trust that God is in control? Do I trust that no matter what happens, even though I can't explain it, he is going to walk through this with us?"
In the introduction to "Dancing with God," Stocker says many people have asked him how he managed to continue on.
"When all is said and done, it only comes from what I know about God," he writes. "God promises that whoever believes that Jesus is who he said he is, and did what he said he did, doesn't die, but lives forever with him in heaven (John 3:16)."
God knew the span of McKenzie's life from the start, Stocker said. He knows that for all of us.
"It's changed my paradigm about how life operates. I'm a visionary. I'm an entrepreneur. Before the accident, I would be living five years from now... Now, I still make my plans, but I wake up every day and I say, OK God, what do you want me to do today? And then that's it. All we have is this second, this moment."
It's freeing to realize you don't control the future, he said.
"My whole heart and soul is just trusting and leaning on God's direction."
@t:Stocker, who is 46 years old, attended elementary school in Grand Forks, N.D., and completed his secondary education in Phoenix.
His father was the director of choirs at Arizona State University. His mother also was a music teacher, and a church organist. He was the second-oldest of four children in the family.
"We're a musical family. I'm a musician as well -- our children, too," he reported. "I play guitar and piano, bass, drums. Not great, but it's a fun hobby."
His son, Nathan, on the other hand, is a phenomenal musician, Stocker said. Nathan is a senior at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and plays guitar in a band named "Northern."
Madeline, who goes by Maddie, is a sophomore at New Life Academy in Woodbury.
Stocker received his undergraduate education from Concordia University at Irvine, Calif. He studied psychology and sociology, but entered the business world following college.
He worked at the front desk of a resort as a college student and took a job in the hotel industry upon graduation. From there, his career path took him to America West Airlines, and then the financial company American Express.
A friend who entered seminary right out of college told Stocker that he thought he would do well in the ministry. The friend suggested that he give seminary a try, saying the worst that could happen is that he would walk away with a great library of books.
The friend's counseling proved correct.
After completing his studies at Concordia Seminary of St. Louis, Stocker was called to Woodbury Lutheran, where he had interned as a seminarian.
He then planted a church in Arizona, staying for six years before moving on to Houston, where he pastored another start-up church before taking the position at Lutheran South Academy.
"The ministry has just been wonderful," Stocker said. "It's really hard work, but it's so wonderful to be involved in people's lives and see how the message and knowledge of Jesus, and what he has done, changes people's lives for the positive."
@by:A big responsibility
@t:Being the executive pastor of the Trinity Lutheran is no small responsibility.
It means shepherding a 2,300-member congregation with two church campuses, four worship services a week and multiple ministries. In addition, the church operates Trinity Academy (a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school) and preschool and childcare programs at Trinity Family Center.
A campaign to raise money to add classrooms to Trinity Academy is set to begin later this year. The school currently has 164 students. There are 115 youngsters enrolled in the preschool and Trinity Childcare serves about 90.
It takes a staff of more than 30, between the church and schools, to keep everything running.
Given his business background and skill set, Stocker feels at home overseeing the church organization. He said it helps that the church has a capable and experienced staff, including Trinity Academy Principal Allison Johnson and Pastor Booth, whom he calls "incredibly intelligent" and "a calming force."
"When I came on board a couple of months ago, it felt like I was joining a team, and not having to rescue anything. Which is pretty nice," Stocker said.
He said the church is in the process of examining its mission.
"One of the things that is coming out is that we are a church focused on making disciples -- by loving God, loving others, and serving the world," he said. "And the way we know we're doing that is through positive life change."
"All in all, there is an excitement about the next chapter," he said of the atmosphere at Trinity.