Co-pastors now serving SAP Lutheran Church

By Sarah CR Clark

It’s a new day at St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church.

On Sept. 26, a top local Lutheran bishop was scheduled to install Jill Rode and Daniel Ruen as co-pastors of the church. Their installation heralds a newer leadership model.

“Strong congregations are able to try out new models for leadership that yoke the talents of pastors and able lay leaders in fresh ways,” said ELCA Saint Paul Area Synod Bishop Patricia Lull. “SAP Lutheran is such a congregation.”

Usually, when a senior pastor of a Lutheran congregation retires, as SAP Lutheran’s Pastor Glenn Berg-Moberg did in June 2020, that congregation then begins searching for a new senior pastor to fill the vacant top position.

But SAP Lutheran Church broke with that tradition.

“We were looking to call (hire) two pastors who were to be equal in stature, rather than a traditional hierarchical structure,” said Blaine Thrasher, chairman of SAP Lutheran Church’s pastoral call committee.

“We determined we wanted Jill Rode to continue her ministry with us but in a new and expanded role.” Rode was associate pastor at SAP Lutheran since 2015.

While SAP Lutheran isn’t the first church to adopt the co-pastor model, it is currently the only ELCA church in St. Paul to have it.

Rode and Ruen said co-pastoring is appealing. Both pastors equally share preaching and pastoral care, taking turns answering midnight emergencies and studying for writing sermons.

Ruen jokingly confessed to feeling relieved to be “on a solo-pastor vacation” . . . which can feel isolating and exhausting.

Rode contended this new model invites a more supportive, collaborative partnership.

“It’s a signal not only to the congregation, but to the neighborhood and our ministry partners that we are serious about walking the walk, in terms of Jesus’s call to break down systems of power,” Rode said.

Meanwhile, while new to co-pastoring and SAP Lutheran Church, Ruen is not new to the neighborhood. He lived in the Twin Cities from 1989 to 2005, graduating from Luther Seminary in 2005.

Ruen has been an ELCA pastor since 2007 and has served congregations in Evanston, Ill., and West Bend, Wis. Born in the South Bronx, New York City, Ruen’s family moved to Shorewood, Wis., where he spent most of his childhood. He attended the University of Minnesota for undergraduate school and worked in various occupations over the next 17 years in the Twin Cities..

In 2000, Ruen graduated from the U’s urban studies program and in 2005 he earned his master of divinity degree from Luther Seminary. Since entering the ministry, Ruen has focused on racial and economic justice work and interfaith cooperation. Ruen and his spouse, Clare, have two teenage children.

Ruen recalled when his kids were born while he and his wife were at Luther Seminary, “We were in SAP all the time—tromping around the border of the St. Paul campus, going to the library, utilizing the playgrounds in the parks, walking through magical pathways of Breck Woods and even receiving boxes of food assistance from the fellowship hall of SAP Lutheran Church when we were struggling financially at the seminary.

“I more or less lived at Tim & Tom’s (Speedy Market) as a seminary student. I had multiple sandwich cards . . . and may even have some old ones left in a faded theology textbook.”

As for Rode, since her start at SAP Lutheran, she has worked extensively with children, youth and families. She serves on the board for Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Bible Camp as well as two leadership development cohorts within the ELCA.

Rode was born in South Korea and adopted as an infant. She grew up in Tucson, Ariz., and graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor of arts in elementary education. After college, Rode taught English to children and adults in Thailand for five years.

When she moved back to America, Rode eventually enrolled at Luther Seminary where she earned her master of divinity degree in 2014. Rode and her spouse, Gretchen, are currently fostering four children.

Sarah CR Clark lives in St. Anthony Park and is a regularly contributing freelance writer for the Bugle. She is also an ordained ELCA pastor, on leave from call, and a member of SAP Lutheran Church. She served on the Transition Team, which ultimately recommended the co-pastor model to the congregation.

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