New pastor takes over at Cross of Glory,

West Freeborn Lutheran churches

READY TO SERVE — Pastor Steven Schwartz has accepted the calling to Cross of Glory Lutheran Church of Hartland and West Freeborn Lutheran near Hartland. (Star Eagle photo by Melanie Piltingsrud)

Contributing Writer

There is a new face at Cross of Glory Lutheran Church and West Freeborn Lutheran Church. After a long stint without a regular pastor, Pastor Steven Schwartz has now been called to serve the congregations on a more permanent basis.

For 2 ½ years, Pastor Mark Hillmer served as interim pastor. Pastor Charles Espe also ministered there for a few months this spring. Pastor Steven Schwartz accepted the call at Cross of Glory and West Freeborn and began ministering there at the beginning of May.

“(Hartland) is very nice,” says Schwartz. “The people that I’ve met are all wonderful. I like small communities. It’s nice to have things be quiet. I like taking walks around town.”

Schwartz grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., and later attended Concordia College in Moorhead. From there he ended up at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey, where he met his wife, Nancy. For the first 4 ½ years out of seminary, he and Nancy worked as pastors in Pennsylvania – to a collective nine churches between the two of them. After the first of their two sons was born, they decided to move their family to Minnesota. Schwartz is now at his fifth call – as the pastor of Cross of Glory.

Schwartz decided to go to seminary, he says, because, “I wanted to do something that would be useful and helpful to people.” Schwartz was converted during high school “And [I] always had this feeling that God was pushing, nudging, encouraging, persuading, and just not letting go,” he explains. “There weren’t a lot of other choices to be made. I kind of wanted to be a journalist, but then I […] gave in and decided no. I decided to be a pastor.”

Schwartz’s decision to attend Princeton was partly due to its notoriety; as an undergraduate whenever he said he attended Concordia College, people had to ask which “Concordia” he was talking about. “I called up the head of the religion department at Concordia and said, “I’m looking at going to seminary. What would you recommend?” and he said, “Well, Luther, of course,” Back in those days, in the ‘70s you had a distrust of grownups, authority figures, so I took that with a grain of salt, and went to the college library, and looked at the shelf with catalogues of seminaries on it. And this is the hand of God, I suppose. But I spent almost four years getting an education at Concordia in Moorhead. […] I would talk to people, who would say, “Oh, in St. Paul?  So I saw in the seminary catalogue section, “Princeton.” You know, if I’ve got a degree from Princeton, people aren’t going to go, “Oh, is that the one in St. Paul?”  […] I still wasn’t altogether convinced that I was going to become a pastor, so I sort of sent off the application with a sense of, if this is really what God wants, then I’ll get accepted. That and the University of Chicago PhD program. I got accepted to both.”

Schwartz attended the Presbyterian-affiliated Princeton Seminary as a Lutheran. Did he ever hear anything he disagreed with there? “Constantly,” he says. “Really I learned Lutheranism in dialogue. […] I learned the basics of it in coursework, but sitting around the dining table and discussing theology with...  Well, Princeton was 51% Presbyterian, and the rest was every denomination you can imagine. They tried to keep a very ecumenical student body, so when you sat down to dinner, you were sitting with Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians…  Everything you can think of, and so theological discussions were a way for you to understand how as a Lutheran you approached this issue. From your perspective, you could see where Presbyterians, Baptists were coming from [with] their different perspectives. So it was a good way to learn what makes Lutherans different than the other churches.”

One of the tough issues Lutherans encounter is the very basis of the Lutheran faith: Salvation by grace through faith. How does Schwartz counter the argument that, if Salvation is by grace and not by works, then one should be able live as though one’s actions were of no consequence? “It’s a misunderstanding of what Luther intended,” says Schwartz,  “but it’s nothing new in the Christian faith because Paul had to deal with the same thing in the early Christian church. But it shows just how difficult it is to take a simple concept and teach it to people and have people understand it and live it. It’s one of the things I do when I’m teaching the first communion class. We do it for fifth-graders, usually. And my focus is on Jesus dying on the cross as an example of what it means for God to come down to us – that we don’t go up to God; God comes down to us. And so I talk about ‘up religion’ versus ‘down religion.’ ‘Down religion’ is: God comes down to us. ‘Up religion is: we think we have to make ourselves good enough to get up to God. It sounds so simple, but it is infinitely complicated. […] As simple as you try to make it, it always ends up being complicated [and] confusing.”

What would Schwartz say, then, to those who adhere to the opposite extreme, believing one should follow all of the Jewish laws in order to attain Salvation? “Good luck,” he says. “Even the Jewish people for thousands of years haven’t been able to do it, so if you want to try go ahead. When I was in Southwest Minnesota, […] we had a Charismatic pastor in town. He and I got along really well, but that was his main thing: the Jewishness of Jesus, and he was just fascinated by Jewish traditions, and it just became kind of a sinkhole, I think, that he fell into, because there’s just so much involved with it.

“My father was Jewish,” says Schwartz, who explains that his last name is also Jewish. “So at least I’m passingly acquainted with Judaism. I guess I find it to be an interesting intellectual topic for people, but not terribly inspirational. It doesn’t really build your faith up too much to know what your Jewish heritage is. It’s not a bad thing to know. But doing a Seder as a Christian – a Passover celebration meal – is an interesting experience, but that’s about as far as it goes, I guess. It doesn’t really translate into Christian faith too well.”

Schwartz says that Christians always question their engagement with the Jewish laws. “At what point do you discard the laws as being meaningless to you, or keep them ardently?” he asks. “You can’t get rid of laws entirely; we just don’t operate well that way. It’s a question of what your relationship with those laws is going to be, and if the laws are what motivate you, if it’s the law that makes you stop at the stop sign, then… You stop at the stop sign. But if it’s your concern that you might have an accident if you ignore the stop sign, then your concern is for yourself and for other people, and that’s a different motivation. Why do you not murder? Why do you not steal? Is it because the law tells you not to? That seems to be our approach – that we’ll say […], “If we can just outlaw this, then that’ll solve the problem.” Well, it doesn’t solve the problem, because people aren’t motivated by their obedience to the law. They’re motivated more by what works for them, regardless of what the law says. So if it works for me to not kill, then I’m not gonna kill. If it works for me to stop at the stop sign, I’ll stop at the stop sign. But the law isn’t what’s telling me to do it. It’s really not hanging over my head in that way, I guess.”

At Princeton, Schwartz learned Martin Luther’s stance regarding the law. “As a Lutheran, the Reformation-era theological argument was that there were three uses to the law. And Martin Luther didn’t go along with the third one. Basically, Luther saw the law as, first of all, governing our lives; secondly, [it makes] us realize that we can’t save ourselves. The Reformed churches – Presbyterians, Methodists – would talk about the third use of the law, which was: once you’ve recognized that you can’t save yourself, then you can adopt the laws again to serve as a guide for your life. So now that I’m a Christian, now that I’m saved, I am free to […] accept what God says: “You shall not steal,” and appreciate that law in my life. For Luther, that third use is just going to drive you back to the second use, which was: you can’t save yourself. So you’ve already got the laws as a guide for life. You’ve got the law telling you that that’s not the way to get saved; you’re not going to be good enough. Then, if you bring the third use in, it’s just starting the whole process over again, as Luther saw it. He thought [the third use] was problematic. Mainly because so much of theology then was based on the depravity of humanity, so regardless of how obedient to the law we want to be, we’re always going to be failing it in some way. We’re always going to be motivated by self-interest and baser desires, and so […] all the law was doing was pointing out that you’re a loser. It’s the same reason why we [need] stop signs, because we’re too stupid to figure out to look both ways.”

Schwartz intends to continue teaching these theological ideas to the 35+ regular attendees of Cross of Glory, hoping to inspire the faith of old and young, and eventually bring more people into the congregation, especially children.

One of Schwartz’s goals for Cross of Glory is to enhance the youth ministry. He tries to get kids involved in the church, and encourages them to invite their friends. “And it happens,” he says confidently. He admits, though, that teenagers are harder to reach. “When you start talking about the older kids, they’re so busy with school activities now that, if you haven’t reached them with some sort of faith experience before they get to their later years in public school, there’s not a whole lot you can do. So I focus more on the younger grades, so that faith will start to develop in those littler kids.”

He questions the idea that congregations are dwindling because of the exodus of young people. “Are the young people leaving?” he challenges. “The school is still doing all right, I assume.”

He’s dubious, too, about the notion of church consolidation. “I don’t know that that’s much of a solution,” he says. “It’s one thing for businesses to consolidate and say, “Okay, we’ve got this department, and this business over here has a similar department, so if we put them together we’ll save money by having fewer people do the work.” I’m not sure that it works that way with churches.” Schwartz says he’s not sure how consolidating helps. “Financially it might help, but maybe not, too. I don’t see that as a really good solution. I don’t think the population around here is dwindling that much, so there should be support for churches.

“What I’m hoping to do here in Hartland is have one more successful parish experience,” says Schwartz. “I am what the church refers to as a re-development pastor. So churches that are struggling, questioning their existence, I try to help them get on their feet and get going in a new direction.” Schwartz wants to get the congregation fired up and excited about the work of the church.

“And [I want] to create an openness in my ministry that people can come anytime and I’m [available],” he says. “You notice the lock on the door there?” he asks. “On a pastor’s office? To me that’s just so absurd, so that’s one of the first things I told them: That door is always going to be open.” Schwartz spends a lot of time in his office at the church. If you drop in or walk by, chances are he’ll be there, welcoming anyone who wants to talk.