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Pastor Dennis Nelson retires after 23 years at Bethel Lutheran

The Rev. Dennis R. Nelson stands in the sanctuary of Bethel Lutheran Church in downtown Hudson, where he has been the senior pastor for the past 23 years. The parish built a second church, Bethel Highlands, in the town of Hudson in 2007.

A passing of the torch service will be held the second Sunday of August at Bethel Lutheran Church.

The Rev. Dennis R. Nelson, the church's senior pastor for the past 23 years, will hand the leadership to incoming Pastor John Lestock, who previously served at Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna, Minn.

Lestock will play the role of Joshua and he will be Moses, Nelson joked during a conversation in his office in the parish's downtown church Monday afternoon.

"I'm going to stay out of hills after that," Nelson said with a laugh, and then had to explain the joke for his interviewer. After Moses passed the mantle of leadership of the Israelites to Joshua, he went into the hills and was seen no more.

Nelson will still be seen around Hudson for a while. He and his wife, Susan, haven't put their North Hudson house on the market yet.

But their long-term plans are to move to their lake home near Garrison, Minn., spend part of the winter in a warm climate and do some traveling.

"We're just going to rehearse retirement for a while," said the 70-year-old Nelson.

Susan retired four and a half years ago after more than 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service. During her career she served as the postmaster at Welch, Bayport and Hugo, all in Minnesota.

Nelson had just received a retirement card from the Rev. Karen Johnson (the first woman associate pastor called to Bethel Lutheran under his leadership) that read, "Welcome to the seven-day weekend." It made him laugh.

"I love what I do. I have always loved what I do. I have never felt put-upon to get up in the morning and go to work. I've always found it exciting and challenging and worthwhile. It will be an adjustment for me not to have that calling and challenge every day," he said.

"But I'm also very tired," Nelson admitted. "I've been doing this for a really long time. Being a pastor in a complicated congregation like Bethel is a full-time enterprise."

There was a man in his office seeking help when a reporter arrived, and another waiting for him when the reporter left. There's been an increase in the number of people needing assistance in recent years, Nelson said.

41 years of ministry

Nelson has been in the ministry for 41 years.

He said he first felt the call at age 7 or 8, after spending eight weeks in Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis being treated for polio.

Both he and a younger brother contracted polio in the fall of 1949. "It must have been scary for my parents," he said.

Nelson and his brother both recovered from the disease. One of Nelson's legs is a bit shorter and smaller than the other, but he's never considered himself disabled, he said.

His family spent a few years on a 40-acre farm near Floodwood in northern Minnesota when Nelson was a young child. They then moved to south Minneapolis, where Nelson attended elementary school.

In the early 1950s, the family relocated to Bloomington, then still a relatively small community of 5,000 people. Nelson attended Bloomington High School, where he was active in the music program, drama and student government.

He and Susan were classmates. They began dating when they were seniors, graduated in 1960, and got married a year later.

Nelson held a variety of jobs in the early years of their marriage. He worked at Dayton's Department Store, sold shoes for Juster's Men's Wear, was a hospital orderly and a music student at the University of Minnesota.

He dropped out of college after their son Dan was born.

Nelson went back to college, this time at Augsburg, in 1966. He was thinking of becoming a music teacher, but the music theory classes were full and he wound up in a Greek class.

"I took Greek classes and felt like I had been led, kind of, by divine intervention to where I should be," he recalled.

He graduated from Augsburg College in the spring of 1968 and entered Luther Seminary in the fall.

Those were turbulent times in the country with the war being waged in Vietnam and protests against it at home.

Nelson wasn't a typical seminarian for those days. He owned a home in the suburbs, had two children by then, and had been married for a number of years.

On a spring day in 1971, he graduated from Luther at 1 o'clock in afternoon and was ordained as a pastor at 7 o'clock in the evening. The next morning, he and Susan and the kids headed to northeastern North Dakota with all their possessions packed in a truck. His first pastorate, at age 29, was at the Norwegian Lutheran churches in the very small communities of Hampden and Sarles.

Sarles was 46 miles from Hampden, mostly by gravel roads, and sat on the Canadian border.

"It was a difficult time, because I was a city person," Nelson recalled. "I had mentioned to the bishop that I wouldn't mind serving in a small community. I was thinking of St. Cloud or Duluth."

Hampden had a population of 89.

But Nelson said he learned a lot about being a pastor during his two years in rural North Dakota. The people were wonderful, he said, and it was there that he gained his first experience ministering to people in tragic circumstances, such as the family of a man smothered by grain in a storage bin.

Nelson then served as co-pastor at fast-growing Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, Minn., for five years.

From there, he was called to be the senior pastor at a church in Urbana, Ill., home to the University of Illinois. He greatly enjoyed serving the congregation with a large number of "university-professor types," as well as the proximity to Big Ten Conference athletic events and an outstanding performance arts center.

Nelson became involved in the work of the national American Lutheran Church during his time in Urbana. He was serving on the national council when the decision was made to merge with the Lutheran Church in America to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

After 10 years of pastoring in Urbana, he worked for the newly formed ELCA for two years, helping churches with growth ministries.

The Hudson experience

The Nelsons arrived at Bethel Lutheran in 1989.

He remembers it being a substantially smaller congregation than it is now, with two traditional worships service on Sunday morning, and Sunday school in-between.

Nelson was just the fourth senior pastor to be called to the church since 1922. The Rev. Oscar Thompson served until 1949, followed by the Rev. Norman Scheide (1949-72), and then the Rev. Donald Docken (1974-1989).

"When I came, I noticed that there were 16 parking spaces on the north side of the church, and we had 400 or 500 or 600 people here on a weekend," Nelson said. "I thought some kind of move would be a good thing, but hard to accomplish. There really wasn't any way to grow at this location."

Some years later, he attended a conference in California where a speaker challenged the pastors in attendance to do something they knew in their hearts that God was calling them to do, but sounded too hard to accomplish.

"I knew that extending the physical space, and the ministry possibly, was important. But I kind of figured, well, I'm in my 50s, maybe I'll just ride it out and let the next guy worry about that," Nelson remembered.

Upon returning home from the conference, he raised the issue of church growth with the congregation.

"It was a long process. First, we had to decide what kind of a church we wanted to be - if we wanted to continue to be a growing church," he said.

At the end of the process, the decision was made to stay at the downtown church at 920 Third St. and build the new Bethel Highlands Church at 504 Frontage Road in the town of Hudson.

The new campus was dedicated in 2007, 12 years and some minor miracles after it was first proposed.

Under Nelson's leadership, Bethel also welcomed its first woman associate pastor, the Rev. Karen Johnson, and has had a woman on the pastoral staff for most of his ministry here. The Rev. Joanne Sorenson now is the senior pastor at St. James Trinity Lutheran Church in Fall Creek. The Rev. Kari Burke-Romarheim left last November to take the pulpit at Rush River Lutheran Church south of River Falls.

With Nelson's retirement, his long-time associate pastor, Van Bredeson, also will be leaving Bethel in the coming months.

Bredeson came to Bethel in 1992 and signed a contract agreeing to leave the church within six months of Nelson's leaving. The agreement gives the new senior pastor the opportunity to choose his own staff, Nelson said.

"He's done a lot of good things in this community and this congregation, but he'll be a good servant someplace else," Nelson said.

Also under Nelson's leadership, Bethel Lutheran began holding contemporary "New Song" and "Gathering" worship services. And its mission ministries, both abroad and in the community have grown.

He doesn't take credit for the missions work, but says various people within the congregation and on the church staff have led the efforts.

The church has a strong program of both traditional and contemporary music, Nelson said. Director of Music Layton "Skip" James, the organist and choir master, is in charge of the traditional and classical music.

Other strengths of the church include its preaching, Christian education and presence in the community, Nelson said.

"I've tried to say that this is a congregation that becomes great by its serving, not by its programs," Nelson said. "I think that it is a church of compassion. We would like to be as Jesus-like as we can be ... For me, it's about being a follower of Jesus more than anything about doctrines or denominations or religions."

"It's kind of an open-hearted church," he added. "That's been tough for some people to adjust to. But I think it is the character of the church."

In further reflection on his ministry at Bethel, Nelson said that the church, along with others, had had to deal with social issues that were "divisive and troubling" for people.

"We've made it through this time with a congregation that says, you know, this is a big tent kind of church. There are people in this church that don't agree with everybody in it about everything - and that's OK," he said.

"We say Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. That's the litmus test around here, not how you feel about politics or this particular social issue. Our main business is to be a community of compassion, grace and hope."

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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