By Ivan Raconteur
After 17 years at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Lester Prairie, Pastor Gerald Schwanke is leaving to embark on a new career.
Schwanke, who grew up in southern Minnesota, spent two years at his first parish serving two rural congregations in Nebraska before moving to Lester Prairie where he has spent most of his career.
“It’s been a great location to share the message of Jesus being our savior,” Schwanke said.
He said the community has provided him with many opportunities.
One of the things he has especially liked about living in Lester Prairie is that he has been able to wake up each morning, put on his running shoes and run along the river or one of the local gravel roads. He said that other than an occasional meeting with an unchained dog, this has been a very peaceful way to start his days.
Schwanke recently completed a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling, with a focus on play therapy, at Minnesota State University - Mankato.
It took him four years to finish the degree, and he said the school was a good fit for him.
“They are such a compassionate group of men and women. The whole faculty has been great,” Schwanke said.
He is leaving St. Peter to work as a counselor at Thomas L. Price & Associates in Hutchinson.
His last day at St. Peter will be Monday, June 30.
Schwanke and his family will be moving to Mayer, where his wife, Nancy, has been a teacher at Zion Lutheran School for 15 years.
They have two sons, Andrew, 21, and Ben, 18, who are attending Augsburg College.
Their daughter, Vanessa, 22, was recently accepted at the Minneapolis Police Academy.
“Some people might have expected us to send our kids to school in Lester Prairie, but they accepted the opportunity we had to send our kids to parochial school,” Schwanke said.
He said this same kind of acceptance was shown by the Lester Prairie Police Department when his daughter made the decision to go into law enforcement.
“Even though she didn’t go to school here, the Lester Prairie Police Department welcomed her, took her by the hand, and helped her along the way,” Schwanke said.
Vanessa worked as a police reserve officer in Lester Prairie before being accepted in Minneapolis.
Despite the fact that his own children did not attend school in Lester Prairie, Schwanke has high praise for the school district.
“The school has been very generous about letting kids out for things like the free lunch program and other release time activities. You don’t find that in other schools and communities,” Schwanke said.
He added that he was skeptical about the free lunch program at first, but said it has been a great success, and is an example of the school and the community working together.
Schwanke also credits the students who have participated for the success of the program.
“The youth are very respectful of the volunteers and the building. They clean up after themselves, and they don’t leave without saying ‘thank you,’” Schwanke commented.
The same is true of the community in general, he said.
“The people in Lester Prairie are very polite. When they use the church for T-ball, early childhood screening, and other activities, they leave the church in good condition, pick up trash,” Schwanke said.
Schwanke is excited about the opportunity to begin a new career.
In July he will start building his client base and doing many different types of mental health counseling.
This will include working with children and adolescents in crisis, autism and Asberger’s Syndrome issues, and doing marriage and family counseling.
He will also continue to work with military families.
He has developed a program called “When the Cheering Stops” to help families adjust when a person who has been serving in the military returns home.
“Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to mental health issues,” Schwanke said.
Because of this, people are often reluctant to seek help.
“Family members and friends of returning military personnel need to keep an eye on those who have come back and help them to take the first step to get the help they need. Stay in close contact, and go with them if necessary,” Schwanke said.
“We will be working on parish and community education so we don’t stigmatize, but reach out to these people,” he added, noting that if someone has a physical problem, such as being on crutches, people will offer to help, but if a person has mental health issues, people may react differently.
Another challenge that Schwanke sees is that we live in a “quick-fix” society.
“A lot of times, with mental health issues, people will have to struggle with that for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Schwanke said.
While not ruling out the possibility of going into practice on his own at some point in the future, Schwanke said the office he will be working in has the benefit of a staff of therapists who have many years of experience in a variety of areas, which will allow him to give clients the best possible mental health care in a private and confidential environment.
What’s next for St. Peter?
Schwanke said after he leaves at the end of this month, St. Peter will be served by Dave Erbel, a vicar who will stand in for a pastor.
Erbel is still finishing school, and will serve a one-year internship at St. Peter, Schwanke said.
“He will be here about a year, and then he will be eligible for a call into the ministry here or elsewhere,” Schwanke explained.
He added that Erbel’s work at St. Peter will be supervised by Rev. Eric Nelson of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Lester Prairie.
Erbel is expected to start in early August, and a retired pastor will fill in at St. Peter until he arrives, Schwanke said.