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Leader of Lutheran parishes in eastern North Dakota withdraws from re-election

Bishop Bill Rindy

UPDATE:  The Rev. Mark Strobel's first name was incorrect in an earlier version, as was the number of congregations in the synod. The Rev. Matt Valan has withdrawn as a nominee.

Bishop Bill Rindy is poised to make an unusual move: step down as spiritual head of 95,000 Lutherans in 207 congregations in eastern North Dakota to go back to being a parish pastor again.

It means the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will choose a new bishop when it meets in assembly May 10-11 in the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

Four nominees will be introduced at forums this weekend across the synod.

Rindy, who turned 52 last week and was born in Mayville, N.D., was elected bishop in 2008 and was eligible to serve another six-year term.

But he told his people in a March 22 letter on the synod’s website that he had his name removed from the roster of nominees.

“A lot of people thought I would be standing for re-election,” Rindy said Mondayfrom his Fargo home. “In fact, I thought I would be for a long time, too. People were kind of taking it for granted.”

He talked with his wife Louise and with mentors.

“And I spent a lot of time in prayer.”

He decided on a Sunday night, Feb. 16.

“And I said I’m going to sleep on it. When I woke up in the morning I just had a lot of peace. My wife even noticed it and said ‘There’s something different about you. Did you make up your mind?’”

He quickly called the Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, head of all 4 million ELCA members, then told synod leaders and within a few days emailed the 208 ordained ministers in the synod.

A calling

The style of selecting a regional bishop in the ELCA avoids the trappings of campaigns or terms such as “running.”

It’s more about discernment, together as a church, as to who God is calling to lead the synod, Rindy said.

But incumbents still tend to carry the day, just as in more worldly elections.

Rindy wanted any pastors who had been nominated earlier in recent months to know right away he would not be on the ballot.

One of them is the Rev. Lynn Ronsberg, head pastor at Sharon Lutheran in Grand Forks.

Like many, she expected Rindy to be re-elected and credits him for making a hard choice.

“He talks about that sense of call. It would have been easy for him to just go through with this — chances are he would have been re-elected. But he lived what he says: If you are called, stay with that.”

Rindy spoke of missing parish work, not any burdens of the bishop’s work.

“It wasn’t so much the job. I like the job. It’s invigorating, it’s challenging, it humbles me,” Rindy said. “One thing that kind of tipped the balance for me in the last month or so — I’m typically in church on Sunday morning, preaching, being with congregations. Three Sundays in a row I was at different congregations and preaching. And people would come up after the service and say, ‘Thank you Bishop, for inspiring sermon.’

“And I would be standing next to the pastor, and then they would say ‘Pastor, you know my Mom is having surgery, can you pray for me?’”

As a bishop, he was in a different congregation or two every week.

“As a pastor in a congregation, you develop these longitudinal relationships. You do a wedding, you do baptisms, you do funerals. You are connected with a parish.”


The four nominees to succeed him will be introduced this weekend at four two-hour public forums across the synod, including one at 10 a.m., Saturday morning in United Lutheran Church, 324 Chestnut in downtown Grand Forks and one at 7 p.m., Saturday in Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, 612 14th Ave. N.E., Devils Lake. Forums also will be held at 7 p.m., Friday, in Hope Lutheran, 2900 N. Broadway, Fargo, and 2 p.m., Sunday, in Trinity Lutheran, 523 Fourth Ave. S.E., Jamestown.

The  nominees, so far, for bishop, besides Ronsberg, are the Rev. Chris Gaule, pastor of Grafton Lutheran; the Rev. Terry Brandt, an associate with Bishop Rindy in Fargo; the Rev. Mark Strobel, interim pastor at Martin’s Lutheran, Casselton, N.D. The Rev. Matt Valan, senior pastor at Lutheran Church of Christ the King in Moorhead, had been nominated but withdrew from consideration April 1.

Other pastors could be nominated from the floor during the May assembly.

Rindy, who was close to his predecessor Bishop Rick Foss — their grandmothers were neighbors in Mayville —  said he figured he was pretty familiar with a bishop had to do.

Until he was one.

“I thought I knew what the office entailed. But after coming into office, I was amazed at how little I knew about it.”

Compared with parish pastors, bishops deal with “more conflict, more complexities, and some of the hardest stuff,” he said.

Rindy was a high school math and science teacher before attending Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

“My training is as a mathematician and scientist, so problem-solving is something I’m wired to do,” he said. “So I was pleasantly surprised that some of the skills and techniques I picked up along the way applied nicely. This has been a really good fit. Everything that has gone into making me has been needed.”

Next assignment

The synod’s bishops wear a cross, with the names of their predecessors carved in the back and pass it on, sort of like a relay race baton, to the next bishop.

“I am absolutely convinced that God has someone lined up for the next six years.”

As well as something for him.

He’s already interviewed with a congregation and has had other contacts and expects to be back in a parish by late summer, somewhere.

Unlike bishops in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopal churches, Lutheran bishops do not keep the title for life.

“Generally, in Lutheran theology, you are what you do,” Rindy said. “I hope to be called a pastor again.”