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A call to Grand Haven

Becky Vargo • Mar 31, 2017 at 10:00 AM

St. John’s Lutheran Church’s new pastor, the Rev. Kurt Wenzelburger, said making the move from a congregation in Wisconsin isn’t downsizing — it’s about making relationships in a community more in line with the church in which he was raised.

Wenzelburger will be the first new senior pastor at the Grand Haven church — a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod — in more than 30 years. He will be replacing Pastor Dieter Haupt, who retired in November 2015.

An installation ceremony is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday at the church, 527 Taylor Ave. A reception with refreshments will follow the ceremony.

There’s no down time for the former pastor and teacher at Divine Redeemer Lutheran in Hartland, Wisconsin, who packed up his desk Thursday, loaded the trailer and was to travel with his wife, Shelley, to Grand Haven today (Friday, March 31).

“I have been working on the Holy Week sermons,” Wenzelburger said. “I will begin preaching on Palm Sunday.”

Wenzelburger said he is excited to start serving that week and is very excited about the opportunity to meet as many people as possible face-to-face, although he probably won’t remember their names at first.

The new pastor wasn’t ready to leave his longtime work at Divine Redeemer when called by two other churches in 2015.

“When St. John’s called, and just asked me to do a phone interview, I felt compelled,” he said. “I didn’t even know where Grand Haven was.”

Wenzelburger said that, throughout the process, he felt that this was going to be his calling; despite the fact the call was extended to someone else first. That person turned down the call.

St. John’s head elder, Al Lutz, said the call committee extended its invitation to Wenzelburger in January.

“We were looking for someone who had experience with schools, or who was very interested in a Christian day school,” Lutz said.

St. John’s Lutheran Day School has long been an extension of the Grand Haven church.

Wenzelburger, 50, has an education degree from Concordia College in River Forest, Illinois, where he met his wife — “one of my greatest blessings,” he said.

The new pastor worked as an educator and coach at Lutheran schools in Illinois and Wisconsin for 14 years before deciding to attend seminary.

“In my fourth year of teaching, my son was 1 (about 1995-96), and I was grappling with the call,” Wenzelburger said. 

That Thanksgiving weekend, his brother, who never calls him, called and asked if he wanted to go fishing with him. Wenzelburger told him he wasn’t able to go, but his brother already knew what it was about.

It turns out that his brother had called to confirm an appointment with the seminary, and they asked him which Wenzelburger was calling. Both brothers had an appointment at the seminary on the same day.

Wenzelburger said his brother entered the seminary and he decided it was his place to help his brother.

It was eight years later when Wenzelburger decided it was his time. He returned to his native St. Louis, Missouri, in 2002 and entered Concordia Seminary.

He received his first call to serve as pastor at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. He returned to Divine Redeemer Lutheran, where he taught school, to become an associate pastor and teacher in 2007.

Wenzelburger has been serving Divine Redeemer until his recent call to St. John’s in Grand Haven.

An avid sports fan who enjoys fishing and golfing, Wenzelburger said that he and his wife decided to fulfill their dream of living on a lake when their son, Garrett, and daughter, Jana, were finishing up college. 

Garrett and his wife, Hannah, live in the Detroit area. He teaches biology at Lutheran High School North in Macomb County. One of Haupt’s daughters, Natalie Haupt, teaches social studies at the same school.

Jana is set to graduate from Concordia University in Wisconsin late this year with a degree in elementary education. She will stay at the lake cottage, which the Wenzelburgers plan to keep.

Shelley, who is a registered nurse, will also go back and forth, as she plans to keep working in corporate health compliance for a Wisconsin company, Wenzelburger said. 

The new pastor said he hopes to go back to his cottage occasionally to do some fishing. In the meantime, he is looking forward to establishing relationships with the members of his new congregation and the community, and “to get people to rub shoulders with Jesus.”

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