Church marks its 40th anniversaryAs one church marks its ruby anniversary, two couples who have helped lead it through the decades are celebrating their golden anniversaries of serving God.
By: Amber Kispert-Smith, Woodbury Bulletin
As one church marks its ruby anniversary, two couples who have helped lead it through the decades are celebrating their golden anniversaries of serving God.
Woodbury Lutheran Church is 40 this year and a celebratory service and all-church picnic are planned to mark the occasion.
At the same time, founding pastor Paul Pfotenhauer and his wife Rhoda, and assisting pastor Deane Schuessler and his wife Julie, both celebrate 50 years in ministry for the Lutheran church.
“We thank God,” said Julie Schuessler. “We have to give him all the credit for that, because we don’t pretend to have eaten healthily all these years, or exercised all we should have done!”
Although both couples have taken very different routes to arrive at Woodbury Lutheran Church, which is constructed on eight acres between Valley Creek Road and Afton Road, they had one very similar origin.
The two husbands had fathers who worked as pastors in Chicago; however, while Paul Pfotenhauer’s father worked on the north side, Deane Schuessler’s dad worked on the south.
Both Pfotenhauer and Schuessler felt called to study at seminary and graduated to become Lutheran ministers.
That’s where their paths split.
Schuessler and his wife of just a few weeks, Julie, headed off to Japan. While interning in Hawaii, Schuessler had felt inspired to apply for a missionary posting to Asia, and so the pair were assigned to Sapporo, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
“We were out there for 15 years, from 1958 to 1973,” recalled Deane Schuessler. “That was only 13 years after the Second World War had ended and the Japanese did not want to talk about it.”
The Schuesslers undertook two years of intensive language training, to equip them in areas in which previous missionaries had been lacking.
The Marrying Pastor
They found themselves assigned to the Sapporo Youth Center, spreading the gospel primarily among high school and college level students, who were desperate to learn English and study the bible.
Deane Schuessler became known as the “Marrying Pastor” for his role in bringing together many young couples through the youth center, in an area of Japan where many schools were still single-sex.
And the pair were under such pains to immerse themselves in Japanese culture that they bestowed a Japanese middle name upon each of their three children who were born to them in the country.
Meaning “truth/sincerity”, “hope” and “beautiful/grace”, the names Makoto, Nozomu and Emiko were given to their two sons Kevin and Joel and daughter Gay.
“They are popular and common Japanese names — it helped them to have an identity there,” explained Julie Schuessler.
“We wanted them to have some historical roots with the land in which they were born,” added Deane Schuessler.
In 1973, the Schuesslers returned, however, and headed to Minnesota, where Deane’s brother was pastor of a church in St. Paul.
He helped them find a posting with a church in Roseville, where the couple served for 11 years, before moving to another church in Inver Grove Heights for the next 13 years.
Finally, seven years ago, they found their way to Woodbury Lutheran Church, where Deane Schuessler had planned to retire, but couldn’t resist when asked to become assisting pastor on the leadership team.
His new role was more of a part-time position, meaning he could choose what he got involved in.
“I’ve had time to write a book, for starters,” laughed Deane Schuessler, who penned “Devoted To God And Each Other,” a marriage study for couples.
“I also have the right of first refusal, which means I don’t have to accept everything.”
Not that the Schuesslers have sat back on their laurels since arriving at Woodbury Lutheran Church; far from it, in fact.
One of the many ministries the pair has led is the regular visits to the Ramsey County Correctional Facility.
Deane Schuessler has been heading up the team which makes visits to the “insiders”, as they refer to the inmates, once or twice a month, also leading worship services.
A few months ago, after women prisoners were introduced to the facility, Julie Schuessler also got involved, reaching out to the 20 or so female inmates incarcerated there.
“I wouldn’t have thought when I was 70 that I would be starting a new jail ministry,” she said.
From small acorns
Talking of new beginnings, it seems a lifetime ago that Paul and Rhoda Pfotenhauer moved to Woodbury at the request of the Minnesota South district of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
Then, in 1968, Woodbury was a village of 900, and the Woodbury Lutheran Church had a membership of just two: Paul and Rhoda Pfotenhauer.
“I sat and cried for the first year, because I was the only member here,” explained Rhoda Pfotenhauer. “There wasn’t any church at all.
“I sat and cried, and then one day, Paul said to me, ‘You had better cry now, because one day all these people will be here, and maybe you will wish it wasn’t so busy.’”
The church office was in the Pfotenhauers’ family room, and as the church grew, a choir of up to 30 kids used to meet in their home, swelling their own brood of three.
These days, Woodbury Lutheran Church is the spiritual home of 3,900 members and has seen a number of additions to the original sanctuary which was constructed a year or two after the congregation first started meeting in the surroundings of Royal Oaks Elementary School.
The church bought another three acres to add to the original five, most of which was developed as a parking lot, which is now shared with the park and ride transportation program during the week.
Paul Pfotenhauer comes from a long line of pastors; he’s the 12th generation of pastors in his family, in fact, dating back to the 16th century, when his ancestors were in leadership with the Lutheran church in Germany.
He says that although Woodbury Lutheran Church may have grown exponentially since the very first days when he and his wife were the founding couple, its basic foundation has remained the same.
“I think our primary purpose here is really two-fold,” he explained. “One, we are an open church.
“That means we accept people where they are at and try to develop a community atmosphere where people can feel comfortable with their families.
“Two, we are Christ-centered and Bible-based, and in 40 years, we really haven’t changed that.”
Since his retirement from the senior pastor position at Woodbury Lutheran Church eight years ago, Paul Pfotenhauer hasn’t sat back and watched the world go by.
He and wife Rhoda will be taking their eighth and fifth groups respectively to Israel next spring, an expedition they have grown to love over the years.
And the couple spend each winter in Mexico, where they have become involved in setting up a seasonal church with about 100 other Americans who visit the area over the colder months.
As well as providing fellowship to one another, the group works in local orphanages and provide social outreach to the local population.
The Pfotenhauers’ hearts, however, will remain in Woodbury.
“We still live in our original house here,” said Paul Pfotenhauer. “A lot of changes and a lot of people have gone through that house.”
Sunday, June 15 is the day Woodbury Lutheran Church marks its 40th birthday.
Traditional services will be held at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. with an all-church picnic being held on the church grounds at noon.