Retiring bishop moving up stream

By Leon Lagerstam,

ROCK ISLAND — Moving to a Minnesotan fishing cabin is making a bishop as happy as a clam.

Bishop Gary Wollersheim has led the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Northern Illinois Synod for the last 18 years and was an assistant to the bishop for eight years before that.

His impending retirement — to spend more time fishing and visiting grandchildren — means that when synod delegates meet for the 29th annual assembly June 16-18 at Augustana College in Rock Island, they will have to select a new leader.

Campaigning for the office is strongly discouraged, he said. Delegates use an ecclesiastical ballot to narrow the field to a select few, he said. Any ELCA ordained pastor is eligible.

“Eighteen years as a synodical bishop is a long time,” he said. “The average is about eight years or so. I’ve liked the work a lot, but I think it’s time to find someone else with a different set of gifts to help move the church ahead.”

Delegates also will honor Bishop Wollersheim and his wife, Polly, a longtime synod prayer leader, at 4:35 p.m. June 16, followed by a retirement reception and dinner that night.

“We’ve depended on God,” Bishop Wollersheim said. “And anything good that has happened is because God has been incredibly gracious.”

Two funds established in their honor also will be awarded during the assembly. One is titled the “Gary Wollersheim Rostered Leaders Educational Debt Reduction Fund;” the other is called the “Polly Wollersheim Fund for Literacy and Education — Arcot Lutheran Church, India.”

“We’re deeply honored and moved by that,” Bishop Wollersheim said. “Both causes are good. Our pastors carry a high graduation debt, and people in southern India need help and educational tools. Both causes are important to me and my wife’s heart.”

He said he and his wife plan to devote more of their heart and time to their five grandchildren. He also will stay on board for about a month to spend time with his successor, leading to a Sept. 24 installation at First Lutheran Church in Rockford.

Bishop Wollersheim was installed there Oct. 11, 1998. His retirement will come a year before Lutherans celebrate the 500th birthday of Martin Luther.

Bishop Wollersheim’s most important advice to his successor was to “remember it’s God’s church. And it’s been paid with the price of God’s son and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

“So, at the end of the day, put your head on your pillow and get some sleep.”

Bishop Gary Wollersheim

Address: Rockford.

Birth date: Feb. 25, 1951.

Favorite Scripture: John 3:16.

Favorite Biblical character I’d like to meet: John the Baptist .

One thing I feel strongly about: “I feel strongly that the church is vital and relevant and needed today, more than any other time in history.”

I wish I knew how to: Tie more fishing knots.

Article originally posted at on June 21, 2016. Reprinted with permission.