Are there people in your life who crossed your path at a particularly crucial moment, changing the direction you’ve traveled ever since? Recently deceased Bishop Phil Wahlberg was one of those people in my life. Officially The Rev. Philip L. Wahlberg, Jr., I have always known him as Bishop Phil Wahlberg. He died Sunday, May 9, 2021 at age 97. His impact on my life and my family is too enormous to tally.
I first met Bishop Wahlberg in his Austin office in the 1982/83 academic year. Given the move to Houston was our family’s fourth move in five years, some of the details have gotten a little fuzzy. I had completed one year of seminary at Trinity Lutheran in Ohio, with not even the slightest interest in pursuing ordained ministry. I wanted to earn a master’s in something to qualify to teach creative writing at the college level. I’d already taught a few adult continuing education courses and loved sharing my love of writing with others looking for help doing the same.
Combining Two Goals
I had a wonderful childhood, surrounded by many people who loved and nurtured me. However, my family did not consistently participate in any faith community. I had questions. Many questions. I decided I could multi-task and get some of my thornier theological questions answered while earning a master’s in theology. Why not? Another dear friend and mentor, Dr. Alan Sager, taught at the seminary. When move number three took us to a community near the seminary, I called on him with the idea. He endorsed it. I enrolled. I loved everything about it. Near the end of the academic year my husband was courted to take a job in Houston.
I unpacked a new household full of brown boxes; enrolled the girls in their fifth school system; and found new doctors, dentist, etc. etc. Then I cried. A lot. I needed professional intervention. I got it in the form of a wonderful student advisor at the University of Houston/Clear Lake where I took a few courses to have something to do while the rest of the family was at work or school all day. She heard my frustration about not completing what I’d started in Ohio and sent me on a journey that led to Bishop Wahlberg’s office in Austin.
“No, You Cannot”
Bishop Wahlberg reminded me of my father. Stern and yet gentle and compassionate. Clearly in charge, yet also considerate. Thoughtful, with a delightful sense of humor. When Ohio mentor Dr. Sager told me about a seminary program in Austin, I called on the good bishop to inquire about enrolling in it to complete a master’s degree – still with no intention of becoming a pastor. I never doubted women could be effective pastors; but neither did I ever envision this woman would be one. For readers not familiar with the inner workings of the Lutheran church, those planning to attend seminary generally stop by a bishop’s office first.
He sounded exactly like my father when Dad would say, “No. You cannot do that.” I heard Dad’s voice when Bishop Wahlberg said something along the lines of, “I can’t endorse that. You’ll put yourself and all your family through all the expense and challenges and I won’t be able to find a place for you.” The bishop’s ‘no’ felt like a combination of a slap in the face and a bucket of cold water. Skipping over dozens of conversations and months of discernment, I enrolled in Lutheran Seminary Program of the Southwest in Austin as a candidate for a Ministry of Divinity degree and ordination as a Lutheran pastor.
Another Twist in the Transition
I moved into a dorm, completed my first week of classes, and joyfully headed home to the family for the weekend. We’d done it! We’d found a way through the maze of brown boxes. I was back on track with a clear plan for the future.
My excitement burst like a popped balloon as soon as I pulled into our Clear Lake driveway. Jim’s car was parked there, at 2:30 in the afternoon. On a weekday. That morning he’d been let go from the job that brought us to Houston a year earlier. He became the first person we knew to lose a job through a corporate reorganization.
His severance package covered household expenses through the end of the semester, so I stayed in school. That year “Mr. Mom” hit the movie theatres. We were unintentional pioneers in the changing roles parenting arena. The semester ended, with no new job. I went back to Bishop Wahlberg. “This has been fun, but I have a husband and two daughters and I need to be home with them.”
“Stay in Seminary”
Bishop Wahlberg’s immediate response was to request a copy of our monthly household expenses, telling me we’d traveled this path too far together for me to drop out now. He gave us the funds to cover our expenses for the next semester. “If you serve the church for three years, this is a grant. If not, this is an interest-free loan you’ll have to repay over time.”
Somewhere I still have the letter from him telling me I need not to repay the money. Upon graduation in 1985 it was time to present my portfolio to congregations in search of a pastor. Back in the mid-80s many congregations balked at getting the name of a female candidate. When they did, Bishop Wahlberg was rumored to tell them to let him know when they were serious about doing ministry. When one colleague from a denomination that still doesn’t ordain women complained his denomination permitted women to be ordained, Bishop Wahlberg told the colleague, “We don’t permit it. We promote it.”
Pastor to the Pastors
Bishop Phil Wahlberg was a forceful leader, but his true passion was serving the pastors of his synod as their pastor. No one I know ever really dared cross him; yet I think most of us felt confident we could confide in him when we needed help. He promoted women in ministry for as long as he served as Bishop and I’m sure in many ways after he retired.
I never did get to teach creative writing at the college level. But I did have a front row seat to the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which formed in 1987 as Bishop Wahlberg retired. Because of him I’ve worked with wonderful colleagues, met hundreds – perhaps thousands – of terrific men, women, youth, and children where I’ve served as pastor or capital campaign consultant. I’ve been the director of Lutherhill in LaGrange, an outdoor ministry site near and dear to Bishop Wahlberg. This place has become significant to pretty much everyone in my family. All this because Bishop Phil Wahlberg crossed my path when I was trying to figure out what I could do next and said “no” to my original plan.
Who are the path-changing people in your life?
Rest in Peace Bishop Wahlberg. Well done, good and faithful servant.
Read more about the early encounters between the Pilgrim settlers and the Pokanokets in my historical novel Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures. Available now in paperback Ebook and audio.
Bookshop.org (Supporting local Indie Bookshops)
Autographed copies available from BlueWillowBookShop.com/book/