Don Ehlers had a singular room to call his own when he was a young pastor in Fargo, N.D., 60 years ago, serving an internship just out of seminary.
Too self-conscious to practice at home, where the woman who owned the house could hear, he’d drive out into the country, pull off to the side of the road and preach to an empty field or whatever animal happened to be grazing the field.
“If there was a cow, that was the only thing that heard me,” Ehlers said. “I would preach that sermon to myself, basically, and would go through it until I had that sermon memorized.”
In June, Ehlers celebrated his 60th year in active ministry. The Nebraska native felt a call to the church from a young age, and that call pulled him away from the University of Nebraska after two years at the school.
After Fargo, he served in Lisle and Omaha, Neb.
By the time he arrived in Champaign to preach at St. John Lutheran Church in 1968, he no longer gave his inspiring 15-minute sermons to cattle.
His responsibilities grew, including a family life, and memorizing his sermons no longer became possible.
Over the years, Ehlers had chances to move to different locations across the Midwest, but an opportunity good enough to pull him away from a city he’d grown to love never came. So he stayed at St. John’s until he retired in 1997.
“It’s a great place to live,” Ehlers said. “I had several chances (to leave). I declined all of them. My kids were in different grades in school and they liked it here.
“I asked the (congregation) how they felt about it, and I didn’t detect any movement like, ‘We hope you take one of these because we want you out of here.’”
After spending 29 years at one church, Ehlers took on a new challenge, spending 10 years serving as interim pastor for churches around the area as they searched for a new pastor to lead them.
He made stops in small towns across the area, each time getting to know a new congregation before leaving.
In the years leading up to his 85th birthday, Ehlers decided to slow things down. Now, he preaches a sermon twice a month in the tiny, unincorporated town of Osman, where around 60 people from the surrounding towns come to the church.
“That’s a good way for me to bow out,” he said. “I’m 85, and it allows me to just dip my feet in there without any real pressure.”
Once again, Ehlers isn’t preaching to people, at least not directly. Because of precautions taken during the coronavirus pandemic, he now looks into a camera and preaches his message in the middle of an empty sanctuary.
“It’s really weird,” he said. “It’s harder to preach to empty pews than it is when there’s people there. I’m anxious to see some people in the pews again.”