When I heard the number of nominations Rev. Matthew Harrison received for the office of Synodical President my mind went back to the first time I met Matt and Kathy. It was the fall of 1991. I was the Circuit Counselor of the Westgate Circuit in Iowa District East. At the time we were experiencing a shortage of pastors. Of the nine congregations in the Westgate Circuit five were without a resident pastor. So, in addition to serving my home congregation, St. John in Waverly, I was also serving as Vacancy Pastor of St. Paul, rural Waverly and St. Peter, Westgate. Now we were receiving two Candidates from Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne – Candidate Paul Mc Cain was called to St. Paul and Candidate Matthew Harrison was called to St. Peter. It was an exciting time, not only for the candidates and congregations, but also for me! Now perhaps I would be able to spend some time with my wife!
Immediately following the Ordination/Installation service the Harrisons received word that Kathy’s sister-in-law had just died of cancer. What was the new pastor to do? He had not even preached his first sermon! My counsel was that Kathy and the family needed him. The congregation had survived my pastoral leadership for several months so they could put up with me one more week! Pastor Harrison reluctantly agreed.
I didn’t have to be around Matt long before I realized that this young man had a remarkable grasp of Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. There was no doubt that he was an orthodox, conservative, confessional Lutheran Theologian, but was he a PASTOR? The one does not necessarily the other make! The first glimmer of hope came by way of a phone call.
Pastor Harrison had discovered that a young couple was living together without the benefit of marriage. Pastor Harrison called me to seek advice on how to deal with this situation. I must confess, I was very pleasantly surprised. The question was not, “Is this a sin?” The question was, how could he deal with this in a pastoral way. Matt was not simply concerned about the correct theological answer, he was concerned about how to apply the correct theological answer in a loving, caring, pastoral way. Not only is he a remarkable theologian, he has a pastoral heart!
In Westgate the morning gathering place for coffee was the local tavern. Pastor Harrison was frequently one of the guys that gathered to chat about the weather and whatever else was exciting in Westgate! The mark of a good pastor is meeting people where they are. That seemed to come naturally for Rev. Harrison. His pastoral concern for God’s people showed up again and again as we discussed matters of casuistry in our circuit conferences. Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that I never received one single phone call from any member of St. Peter complaining about their pastor!
Small town and rural congregations have learned that when they receive a talented young pastor in all likelihood the Lord is going to, sooner or later, call him to a larger and more challenging ministry. For Pastor Harrison that call came in 1995 to Zion Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana.
And so, once again I was asked to serve St. Peter Lutheran Church as vacancy pastor. It is funny how, as I grow older, I sometimes have trouble remembering important things, but some little incident is indelibly etched in my mind. One such incident occurred soon after I started serving at Westgate for the second time. I was there for some midweek evening event. As I was walking to the back of the church a young boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, stopped to tell me, “A lot of people think ‘Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old’ is hard to sing, but it ain’t!” There was no doubt in my mind that this boy had been sitting at the feet of Pastor Harrison who taught the kids to sing “Isaiah, Mighty Seer…” while strumming on his banjo! As I served the members of St. Peter I repeatedly heard what a good shepherd Rev. Harrison had been and how they wished he had not been called away.
In 2003, after I had become District President of Iowa District East and Harrison was Executive Director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care, Matt approached me about the possibility of Iowa District East teaming up with LCMS World Relief and Human Care to build a facility for a congregation in Palanga, Lithuania. He had visited Palanga and learned that the congregation’s church facility had burned to the ground in 1938. Under the Soviets they were not allowed to rebuild and then, with the economic disaster created by the Soviets, the congregation could not afford to build it themselves. Once again Rev. Harrison’s pastoral heart was showing through. These Lutheran brothers and sisters in Palanga needed a facility where they could gather for worship and from which they could carry out their diaconal ministry.
The writings Harrison has produced the last few years reveal, not only his theological expertise and pastoral heart, but also his humility and his great sense of humor! Check out his latest, “A Little Book on Joy.” (Lutheran Legacy)
I believe that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod needs a President who is both a superb theologian and an excellent pastor. I also firmly believe that the Rev. Matthew Harrison is such a man.
Rev. Gary M. Arp
Past President of Iowa District East