By Melanie Ave
“Hi there. Good to see you.”
On the first day of orientation in September, fidgety and excited new students filed into Sieck Hall to get their pictures taken and retrieve their mailbox numbers. Rev. Bill Wrede worked his way through the hallway, smiling and shaking hands along the way. “How are you doing?”
For the students from places like Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas, it was a warm welcome to Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
Wrede, the Seminary’s director of ministerial recruitment and admissions, had helped some of the young men move from being a name on a list to an enrolled student on the path to the Office of the Holy Ministry. Over the past several months and years, he had emailed and called them, and even sat in some of their living rooms, answering their questions about the Seminary, about pastoral ministry, about his own less-than-direct route to ministry. It was classic Wrede, easygoing, friendly and student-focused.
“He’s very much into the students,” says Diane Parker, Wrede’s administrative assistant. “He looks out for them.”
“Bill sees his work as more than simply getting students to the Seminary,” says Dr. David R. Schmitt, the Gregg H. Benidt Memorial Professor of Homiletics and Literature. “His work is actually supporting the Seminary in preparing people for mission and ministry in the Church and world.”
A love of church
Wrede grew up the third child of four in Ludington, Mich., a small harbor town on Lake Michigan. He loved school and he loved church.
“It was two more reasons to be around people,” Wrede says. “That’s what made the big difference for me at church and school. I just loved being there.”
His father was a general laborer for one of Ludington’s biggest employers, Dow Chemical Co. But it was his mom, a registered nurse at the local hospital, and his paternal grandmother — “both very devout Christian women” — who made the biggest impact on his life.
His grandmother hoped he would become a pastor someday. But it would take Wrede many years to see his own path to pastoral ministry in clear view.
The right time
After high school, Wrede received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Mich. He worked several jobs — from a youth leader trainer for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s (LCMS) Oklahoma District to a school sign language interpreter — before he ended up for the first time as a Master
of Divinity student at Concordia Seminary.
But after eight months, Wrede left the Seminary because the “time was not right. It was not in my heart,” he says.
Years later, Wrede was overseeing the Seminary’s Sign School when two professors sat him down for a talk.
“The conversation was as simple as, ‘Have you ever thought of coming back to the Seminary?’” Wrede remembers. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ One of them asked, ‘How about now?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ It was the right time. I had matured personally and vocationally.”
After having been classmates at Concordia Ann Arbor and again during Wrede’s first stint at the Seminary, Schmitt and Wrede were both at the Seminary again. But this time Schmitt, his former classmate, was one of Wrede’s professors.
Schmitt said the transition was easy for the two friends because of Wrede’s humility. “Some people can be quite uptight about an elephant being in the room and they will do everything they can to avoid approaching it,” he says. “Bill will come into the room and say, ‘Oh, look at that elephant. Man I wish that wasn’t there.’ He has a way of naming what is really going on in situations with a gentle humor that allows people to converse and be at ease.”
In 2000, Wrede received his first call as a mission field developer for the deaf for the LCMS Atlantic District in New York City. He was to serve St. Mark Lutheran Church for the Deaf in Harlem and St. Matthew Lutheran Church of the Deaf in Queens. With his 1995 Chevy Corsica loaded with possessions, the small-town-Michigan-boy-turned-pastor admits he was giddy on the drive from St. Louis to New York City.
‘A lot of blessing’
On Sept. 11, 2001, Wrede made his way from Long Island to Manhattan shortly after hearing news of planes hitting the World Trade Center. He had only been out of the Seminary a year.
Wearing a clerical collar and khakis, he grabbed some anointing oil and headed west on the Long Island Expressway. He was initially turned away from the city like other civilians, but was allowed to ride in with an FBI agent after police saw he was a pastor. The two towers burned with acrid smoke in the distance.
Wrede provided pastoral care for 12 hours that day on the streets near Ground Zero. He comforted people who came looking for the lost or missing.
“They would just come up and fall into my arms and say, ‘My coworker, my friend … was in the towers,’” he says. “I consoled them. I prayed with them. There was a lot of blessing that day.”
After the second tower collapsed, Wrede moved his ministry spot to the northwest corner of Ground Zero where rescue workers were being deployed. He was standing on the street, trying to decide what to do when the face of a firefighter appeared through the cloud of debris.
“He fell into my arms, sobbing,” Wrede says. “He said, ‘Father, there’s no one alive. Everywhere we looked, there are just dead people.’”
The firefighter standing before Wrede had just lost his partner, who was struck and killed by someone jumping from the falling building.
“I was the first person he saw after he made it out,” Wrede says. “We just prayed. I asked God to bless him. Then another firefighter came and then another one came. I’d anoint them with oil and bless them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I’d put my hands on their head or their helmet or their shoulders and say, ‘May God’s holy angels watch over you as you serve Him today.’”
After that horrendous day, Wrede returned to Ground Zero a month later as a chaplain for the American Red Cross at an on-site respite center for recovery workers. He then served as a chaplain once or twice a week at the Ground Zero morgue until it closed in June 2002. Wrede’s job was to lead the medical examiner and the rescue workers in prayer each time a body was retrieved.
“Sometimes, just being there is such an important part of what we do,” Wrede says. “You don’t have to have flowery words. You don’t have to have big profound stuff. You just have to be there and be the presence of God at those times.”
For the people
The name on Wrede’s office door at the Seminary reads “Father Ted.” He picked up the moniker during his New York City days, from friends at a pub he frequented who could never remember his real name or the fact that he was Lutheran not Catholic.
He accepted the call as a Seminary admissions officer in 2011. He was named director the following year and is now one of three full-time recruiters.
Just like in the months after 9/11, Wrede sees his No. 1 job as providing ministry to those around him, wherever that may be. Many times, he says, pastors have no idea the impact they have on others.
“You can’t be everywhere, but you just pray to God that you’ll be in the places where things will happen,” says Wrede, a baritone whose vocal chords were damaged from the 9/11 debris. “It just shows the importance of our ministry, bringing God to the people, leading with the Gospel but also investing in people in ways that stretch you as a pastor. God gives you the tools to be able to do it.”
At the Seminary, Wrede spends time having coffee, lunch and conversations with prospective students, current students and former students. He encourages them on their journey to pastoral ministry and places a priority on building relationships.
“If you’re not around the people,” he says, “you’re not going to be there for the people.”
And so it was, throughout orientation week, Father Ted was around the students, “the people,” who were figuring out the path to pastoral ministry just as he had years before.