PREPARING THE WAY
By ANDREW MCGINN
Pastor Dave Schroeder has a word of warning for anyone thinking about attending Sunday’s worship service at Abundant Life Ministries.
“I’m a crier,” Schroeder forewarned. “I cry at Hallmark commercials.”
“In Kenya,” he added, “they knew me as the crying preacher.”
That probably should have been warning enough, but lest anyone be triggered by the sight of an overly emotional 71-year-old man — hey, that’s where we are at decade’s end — Schroeder’s warning continued.
“I’m an ugly crier,” he stated.
“But,” he went on, “it’s who I am.”
Schroeder has earned this one — on Sunday, he’ll deliver his final message as senior pastor at Abundant Life, the culmination of a journey 37½ years in the making.
Come Monday, Schroeder will join the ranks of the retired, leaving the church in the hands of his eldest grandson, Pastor Isaak Wangler, all of 23.
“I want to look forward,” Schroeder said. “I don’t want to leave that Sunday looking back.”
Schroeder is more than happy, though, to reminisce about the past three and a half decades — a period in which Abundant Life outgrew a couple of temporary meeting spaces around town to become Jefferson’s most dynamic, and arguably misunderstood, body of Christ.
At the center of it all has been Schroeder, an ex-Lutheran plumber-turned-charismatic evangelical preacher who at times today sounds like a pastor at the very mainline churches from which Abundant Life lured its original members.
“The potential is always greater,” he said, asked how attendance is these days on Sundays.
Schroeder had been in talks with the church’s elders for a couple of years about retirement. After all, what good is it to have 14 grandchildren if you can’t up and leave town to see them?
“It feels good because I know it’s right,” Schroeder said. “It’s kind of nice they didn’t try to run me out. It was on my terms.
“For the well-being and health of the body, it’s good to have somebody younger, with new ideas.”
But if Wangler only continues to reap what Schroeder has sown, the body will be well nourished.
“It’s a huge honor,” said Wangler, who will be installed on Jan. 5 as Abundant Life’s new senior pastor. “I have a healthy respect for the position and what that means. I feel like I’m stepping into what I was made for.”
Forty-one years since growing out of home-based Bible studies, Abundant Life Ministries has always seemed to be just a step ahead of the denominational churches, be it with contemporary worship or lattes from its own coffee bar. The church has its own downloadable app — “ALM Jefferson” — and streams its Sunday and Wednesday services on Facebook.
“I can’t imagine spending an hour and 45 minutes looking at this thing,” Schroeder confessed, pulling a smartphone from his pocket. “But that’s the day we’re in.”
The message, he said, doesn’t change — the delivery of it does.
“We have to be willing to change,” Schroeder said. “The church needs to evolve with that.
“It’s got to be relevant.”
Abundant Life, however, remains in other ways a product of its time.
It’s safe to say that before the late 1970s, a Methodist in Jefferson was apt to be born and die a Methodist, and the same went for Presbyterians and Lutherans.
But, nationally, evangelical Christianity was sweeping into the mainstream. Jimmy Carter became the first president to declare that he was “born again.” The Moral Majority was coalescing. Even singer-songwriter Bob Dylan — whose music had provided the soundtrack to the radical social change of the ’60s — saw the light and started releasing records with titles such as “Saved.”
Closer to home, a new, nondenominational church — incorporated in 1978 as Loving Shepherd Fellowship — was beginning to take shape, but its members had to come from somewhere.
Most came from existing (and long-standing) Jefferson churches.
“To some degree,” Schroeder said, “we’ve been able to live that down to an extent.”
A native of rural, southern Minnesota, Schroeder himself had been a lifelong Lutheran — and a plumber by day at that for Shriver Construction in Jefferson — before being born again during a home Bible study.
“I tell people I didn’t leave the Lutheran Church because of what they taught,” he said. “I left because of what I felt they didn’t teach.”
People just like him, he explained, “felt like for the first time they really heard the Gospel.”
After 12 years as a plumber and with four kids at home, Schroeder was so moved by the spirit that he decided to train as a pastor.
“Our life totally changed,” said Schroeder, whose marriage to wife Becky is in its 52nd year.
For two years after his schooling, the Schroeders served a church in Wisconsin they founded.
Schroeder’s heart may have been full, but his mind was admittedly preoccupied by what his family back in Minnesota — all staunch Lutherans — thought of him leaving the only denomination they had ever known.
He remembers the day his grandpa gave him his blessing, saying, “It doesn’t matter what name’s over the door, just as long as you preach that Christ is Lord and that he was crucified on the inside.”
The Schroeders returned to Jefferson in 1982, when Schroeder filled a vacancy left by George Heil, founding pastor of Loving Shepherd Fellowship.
Within a year, Loving Shepherd would become Abundant Life.
“I thought that was really original,” he said of the name. “Now I realize there are Abundant Life churches all over the place.”
Under Schroeder’s leadership, Abundant Life grew from a temporary home in the former (and long-gone) Jefferson Civic Center on East State Street to a building of its own at 1308 W. Lincoln Way, built in 1985 on land gifted by the late Eldon Juhl.
“I was just a kid who grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota,” Schroeder said. “God’s made a way for me to have some tremendous opportunities.”
The church’s deep commitment to mission work has enabled Schroeder to preach on every continent except for Australia and Antarctica. (“I didn’t think I’d get too big of a crowd there,” he said of Antarctica.)
He also feels that his previous life as a plumber has served him well, enabling him to empathize with the everyday struggles of families here and abroad.
A retirement party thrown in Schroeder’s honor last week attests to his empathy. The party was thrown for him by inmates inside the medium-security Fort Dodge Correctional Facility.
Abundant Life’s prison ministry began about 25 years ago in Rockwell City, and later expanded to the prison in Fort Dodge.
“It’s not everybody who gets a retirement party from prisoners,” he reasoned. “The hard part is to remember it’s a prison.”
That said, when it comes to prison, he’s happy to have only ever been a visitor.
“I may have been lost,” Schroeder said, “but I was never in jail.”
One era ends — another begins
Pastor Dave Schroeder will retire Sunday from Abundant Life Ministries in Jefferson after 37½ years as senior pastor.
Pastor Isaak Wangler will be installed as the new senior pastor during a ceremony at 2 p.m. Jan. 5, with a reception to follow.
A community retirement celebration for Schroeder is scheduled for 3 p.m. Jan. 19 at the church, 1308 W. Lincoln Way, with a program in the sanctuary followed by dessert and coffee.