Bishop Herb Chilstrom’s journey from poor, small-town boy to first presiding bishop of the ELCA began with a spiritual awakening at age 14. By the time Bishop Chilstrom ’54 reached college age his goal to become an ordained minister was clear, but the source of funds to pay for college was less certain. “There weren’t many scholarships at the time I attended Augsburg,” he remembers. Knowing that his parents wouldn’t be able to give him more than a five dollar bill every once in a while, he chose to attend the Lutheran college located in the heart of the job-rich Twin Cities: Augsburg. There, he knew, he’d be able to find a job – or two or three jobs (at the same time), as it turned out. That experience and a desire to help today’s students led the bishop and his wife, the Reverend E. Corinne Chilstrom, to establish the Corinne and Herbert Chilstrom Scholarship for students interested in social work or the ordained ministry. If you give a student some kind of financial support, he says, “It means you’re doing well, and we want to help you.”
A social conscience emerges
When Bishop Chilstrom arrived at Augsburg he began to realize that both his spiritual journey and his view of the world had been too narrow-minded. “I had too many pat answers,” he remembers. Augsburg professors like Joel Torstenson, sociology, challenged him to open windows to the world. “I wasn’t wealthy, but I realized I had the privilege of simply being white, and that opened doors that weren’t open for others. Joel impressed on us that we have a profound responsibility to those who did not have the advantages we had.” At Augsburg, says Bishop Chilstrom, he learned about Christianity’s call to fight injustice and how to live a courageous life. He began to develop the radical social conscience for which he later became known.
Those who do not learn from history …
“To be an effective pastor you really have to study the Bible and theology and church history, but you also have to have a much broader perspective,” says Bishop Chilstrom. “Sociology really broadened my world, and I fell in love with history, thanks to Professor Carl Chrislock.” He recalls Anne Pedersen, “the best English teacher in the world,” who opened his mind to literature and instilled respect for the English language. He was amazed by President Bernhard Christensen’s intellect. “It was awesome to hear him reach into the depths of his mind and spirit and pull poetry and prose and Biblical understanding together.” He remembers sitting in chapel and thinking, “He’s the kind of person I would like to be.”
Augsburg also provided opportunities to stretch his leadership wings. He became president of the campus youth group his sophomore year, and as student body president his junior year, he led the student campaign to raise funds for Memorial Library. He went on to earn degrees from Augustana Theologial Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary and his doctorate from New York University. He became a parish minister, professor and church leader, serving as the first bishop of the fledgling ELCA from 1987 to 1995.
Tither turned philanthropist
“After I had an enlightening experience as a teenager, one of the first things I discovered is that people who believe put their faith on the line by giving,” says Chilstrom. While still in high school he began tithing 10 percent. “I gave at least 10 percent all through my life,” he explains. “Now Corinne and I are able to give much more than that, and it’s a lot of fun.”