Parts of Joshua Hileman’s life story could be taken right from an action movie or fantastical novel. As a U.S. Marine, he jumped aboard ships in the Mediterranean Sea, chasing pirates involved in human and drug trafficking and weapons smuggling. He never knew whether traps awaited him or what he would face once aboard. Later, while deployed in Afghanistan, he survived four improvised explosive device blasts and received a Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained while in combat.
He’s now studying for his Master of Divinity (M.Div.).
Rev. Martin Dressler, the son of a former atheist who attended Baptist schools as a boy, dreamed of becoming a concert pianist and wasn’t convinced of Lutheranism until college.
After earning an M.Div., he’s now studying for his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.).
Rev. Joseph Abuor was raised by staunchly Lutheran parents — in Kenya, Africa.
He’s now studying for his Master of Arts (M.A.).
These men are just three of hundreds of students enrolled at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis this academic year. They are all ages, from all walks of life, from all over the world, from many backgrounds. While different in many ways, they all share a commitment to serve God, to go wherever He leads and to live a life of significance because of and thanks to their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“When I hear these stories that bring men and women to our Seminary, it just amazes me how the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives,” said Dean of Ministerial Formation Dr. Timothy Saleska. “There are some with definite conversion experiences, people from the other end of life’s spectrum who come here. It just thrills me to hear about the people who are coming here to serve the church. Sometimes I scratch my head and think, ‘How in the world did this person get here from where they were in their lives?’
“You have people who were unbelievers 10 years ago, even atheists, who were touched by the Word of God by some person and brought into the church and brought into the faith and here they are. It’s amazing to me.”
Joshua Hileman remembers well the tug at his heart and the words shared with him when he was a high school sophomore by friends and family members: You would make a good pastor someday.
Growing up outside of Seattle, in Auburn, Wash., Joshua was active in his church and youth group. He recognized the ins and outs of ministry. He could see himself as a pastor. He even discussed the idea with his youth pastor.
Time, however, moved on and so did Joshua. The tug seemed to vanish, the words of encouragement toward pastoral ministry pushed down in his consciousness. “I was like, you know what, I’m going to do my own thing,” he recalls.
Someday became no way.
He got married, became a father, joined the Marines. During two deployments, he saw a lot of combat and “things that I think we’re not supposed to see.” It was the depravity of man, up close and personal. He saw people die and limbs blown off.
“When you’re faced with life and death on a minute-by-minute, second-by-second basis, your view of the world shifts,” he says. “You’re brought from this false sense of security to this understanding that there really is evil and sin in the world and death is definitely a possibility.”
Joshua received a Purple Heart for the injuries he suffered to his abdomen during combat. He chose to take a medical retirement from the Marines and complete a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He had a good job, a good salary, nice possessions. He was on the fast track. Still, he pondered the direction his post-military life should take and the old conversations of his youth eventually crept back.
And then …
“My son came over to me one day and asked, ‘Daddy, what does it mean to follow Jesus?’ He was 7. I just stood there,” Joshua recalls. “A weight just took over. I had this feeling that I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing.”
Many students come to the Seminary after being encouraged by a pastor, a teacher, a church friend or family member who saw in them gifts for the ministry.
That was true for Rev. Martin Dressler, pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Florissant, Mo., who grew up in North Carolina, one of two sons of a German father and South African mother.
Each Sunday, his father, a former atheist, would open up the Bible and lead the family in a study. “I knew that for him to take the time to do that, it must be very important,” Martin recalls. That weekly study grew in Martin a deep interest in theology.
Martin was only 13 when his father died from colon cancer. It was a difficult time. But his father’s last words to him one day before he died — “See ya bud.” — left Martin with hope. He knew he would see his father again.
“Having to wrestle with that and having hope in that situation became a driving force in my life,” he says. “We grieve,” he says, citing 1 Thess. 4:13, “but not as those who have no hope.”
The pull toward ministry and the desire to share the hope of Christ with others grew even stronger for Martin in high school thanks to weekly talks with his paternal grandfather.
“I was having a hard time deciding whether I should go into theology or music at that point,” Martin remembers. “My grandfather said, ‘I suppose ministry takes precedence although Luther did say music is the next best thing.’”
Martin decided to pursue a career in music when he enrolled at Concordia College New York, Bronxville. But it was not to be. As he stood in line during freshman orientation, he was told the college had just dropped its music major. “I was grateful that the decision was made for me,” he says.
It is a decision from which he has never looked back. The married father of four earned his M.Div. from the Seminary and received his first call to pastoral ministry in 2013.
Now he is striving to fulfill the vocations God has given him — husband, father, son, pastor and student.
“Ultimately I think this is something every human being wrestles with,” he says. “One of the things that being so busy has really forced me to reckon with is this idea of dying to myself. That’s one of the things that Scripture talks about all the time.”
The Ph.D. he will earn at Concordia Seminary is more than another academic title or diploma to hang on his wall. “I’m not doing it for its own sake,” he says. “It’s a means to an end, to become a better teacher, a better pastor.”
The desire to bring Jesus to people and share the hope that can only be found in the Gospel is what drives Rev. Joseph Abuor of Kisumu, Kenya. Joseph moved to St. Louis in August to begin the Seminary’s M.A. Program after having earned a diploma and degree in theology in his home country.
Joseph is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya, a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod partner church, and an instructor at Neema Lutheran College in Matongo, Kenya.
He is attending the Seminary to further his understanding of Scripture and to take that knowledge back to his church and to the people of Kenya. With his eye on the end goal, he has made the sacrifice to be apart from his wife and three children — admittedly a challenge — to complete his advanced degree.
For Joseph, living a life of significance means embracing “a life that has been salted and changed by the grace of God so much that one can’t help but share it with his or her neighbor.”
There is a great need for instructors and lecturers with advanced degrees at Neema, Joseph says, which attracts students from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zambia and Sudan as well as from throughout Kenya.
“People are perishing because of a lack of knowledge. Even the laity should be taught, not just preached to, but taught in sound Lutheran theology.”
“It is like we have a small island in Africa that can offer confessional Lutheran theological knowledge,” he says. “When I go back to Kenya, the church will count it as a blessing.
“People are perishing because of a lack of knowledge,” he says. “Even the laity should be taught, not just preached to, but taught in sound Lutheran theology. I am going to intensify the teaching of the laity so that they can be the correctors or the custodians of the doctrine. You can’t be a custodian of what you don’t know.”
Joshua Hileman is now in his final year at the Seminary. This spring, he will receive his first call to serve the Lord of the harvest. The path to a life in ministry has not been the shortest or the easiest for Joshua and his family.
The Hilemans are well-known around the Seminary for being the family whose moving van, car and all of their belongings were stolen during their move from North Carolina to the Seminary nearly four years ago. With almost no possessions when they arrived on campus, they moved into their apartment with camping chairs, a cooler and some borrowed beds for their children.
“We were just kind of lost,” he says. “We didn’t know what to do.”
It was not long until word of their situation spread, and they started receiving gifts and support from people and congregations all over the country. Normally on the other side of helping people, the family found themselves in unfamiliar territory. “God’s people rallied around us,” he remembers. “It was a humbling learning experience.”
Police in Tennessee and Georgia eventually found the family’s stolen car and their moving van. But almost all of their possessions — his wife’s wedding gown, his children’s toys, and his military uniform and Purple Heart — were gone. Joshua is now on the path to the parish. He and his wife, Christina, are looking forward to shepherding God’s people through the ups and downs of life.
“We’ve spent 90 percent of our lives in those struggles and hardships, in that muck and mire of daily life,” he says.
“We have a passion for sharing Christ with people who don’t know Him or who have been spurned or hurt by the church, or with people who have experienced loss. We too have experienced loss and we can speak into those moments.”
Someday is now for Joshua. He believes second-career ministry is exactly the path God had planned for his life. Despite the family’s early financial struggles as newlyweds. The life and death struggles he faced in Afghanistan. The four surgeries he has endured. And the loss of almost all of their positions.
“He’s brought me here to say, ‘You are not in control. I am in control. You are my vehicle,’” Joshua says. “‘You are one of many who I will use to grow My kingdom.’ It’s like He’s saying, ‘There are going to be challenges and you may not see hope in them. That’s good. Your hope should not be in those moments or things. It’s about you putting your faith and trust in Me.’”
Melanie Ave is communications manager at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.