Category: Current Events

Valparaiso University has stepped up to the plate and already has a plan to fill the void left by Rev. Darlene Grega’s death. In a press release on sites such as Facebook, University Provost and former Dean of Christ College Mark Schwehn has announced that Valpo has found a minister with strong ties to Valpo who will absorb Rev. Grega’s residential ministry as well as attending to the spiritual needs of the international students and GLBTQ community on campus:

April 19, 2010

Dear students, faculty, and staff,

I am pleased to announce that Rev. Phyllis Kersten will join the pastoral staff of the Chapel of the Resurrection beginning today, April 19, to provide additional support for our campus ministry. Rev. Kersten, a Valparaiso University alumna who most recently served as interim pastor at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Chicago, will support the chapel staff at least through the end of the academic year and attend to some of the areas previously served by Rev. Darlene Grega. This will include meeting with residential ministers, mentoring Fellowship House students, and working with international students and members of the GLBTQ community.

I am glad that a pastor possessing such experience, wisdom, compassion, and care for Valpo has come forward in this challenging time to join our campus community. Rev. Kersten has remained in very close touch with the University over the years, often staying on visits here with her good friend Louise Williams, former executive director of the Lutheran Deaconess Association, whom she worked with as a past president, vice president, and board member of the LDA.

Before serving as interim pastor at Luther Memorial, Rev. Kersten served 12 years as associate pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Ill., was vice president for communications for Wheat Ridge Ministries in Chicago for 18 years, and served on the Board for Missions of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. She is co-author of the Women of the ELCA Bible study “Companions on Your Journey” and of “Talented, Tired, Beautiful Feet,” a Bible study for women published by Concordia Publishing House. She also is the author of “Jesus Wept,” a three-part series on grief in Lutheran Woman Today, which won an award from the Associated Church Press.

Rev. Kersten has served as keynote speaker and Bible study leader at district and synod conventions of LCMS and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America women’s organizations; pastors, teachers, and principals’ workshops; and congregational planning retreats. She was a workshop leader at the 2009 Christian Women’s Conference at Valpo, and has served as a member of the LCMS Task Force on Women.

I and Valpo’s chapel staff look forward to working with Rev. Kersten and for her assistance in ministering to the campus community. Please join me in welcoming her to the University.


Mark R. Schwehn

Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

As a Valparaiso alumna, Rev. Kersten is a scholar and seasoned pastor. She is coming out of retirement to meet the needs of the university. She is an author and public speaker who has reached out to inner city youth. She bridges the gap between the LCMS and ELCA as her career is intertwined with both Lutheran Denominations. She is a strong woman who is a role model for all of the women of Valparaiso.

Rev. Kersten’s biography for 2009 Valparaiso University Guild’s annual Christian Women’s Conference lists her accomplishments and diverse career path:

Phyllis Kersten, M.Div.

The Reverend Phyllis Kersten is a Valparaiso University graduate (’61) and a 1996 graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and following her ordination served as Associate Pastor at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) until her recent retirement. She served as an adjunct professor at the Lutheran School of Theology and in 2006, was a recipient of Wheat Ridge Ministries’ “Seeds of Hope” award. Prior to her ordination, Phyllis served as Wheat Ridge Ministries’ Vice President for Communications, conducted research on Christian education in the inner city, and later did mission interpretation work as a staff member of the Board for Missions of the LCMS. As a new college graduate, she worked as a parish worker at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Detroit’s inner city and as an English teacher at Lutheran High School South, St. Louis, MO.

Phyllis has co-authored numerous books, including: R is for Religion, 26-session curriculum for inner-city youngsters (Morse Press, 1964); Talented, Tired, Beautiful Feet, a Bible study for women (CPH, 1985); Companions on Your Journey, Women of the ELCA 1990 Bible Study (Augsburg-Fortress); and The School as a Caring Community (Lutheran Education Association Monograph, 1986). She has authored articles for Lutheran Women Today, such as the Associated Church Press award-winning “Jesus Wept,” a 1991 three-part series on grief, and an April 2000 funeral planning article, and recently authored a chapter in a new book, Christian Education as Evangelism, (Augsburg, 2007). Phyllis has also written devotions appearing in My Devotions, Home Altar, the LCMS Youth Ministry Resources, Currents in Theology and Mission (October 1994), and Lutheran Woman Today (April 1995). She is the author of a hymn text “Wake Us, O Lord, to Human Need,” published in several hymnals; tracts for outreach in the inner city, published by the Concordia Tract Mission; and articles in a variety of church periodicals.

Phyllis has served as a volunteer in various church-related organizations, including Lutheran Mission Association (St. Louis, MO); Lutheran Deaconess Association (Valparaiso, IN); LCMS Task Force on Women; LCMS district mission and communications committees; new church design task force on communications; and women’s organization’s magazines.

There is no doubt that Rev. Kersten will be an asset to the University. What stands out to me in Provost Schwehn’s announcement is the fact that she came forward and offered her assistance to Valpo. No doubt she will play a role in the healing process. She will give many a voice that may be lost on campus.  She also sends the oh so powerful message that Valparaiso has not forgotten the young women of campus.

Kersten is a welcome addition to Valparaiso, and I look forward to hearing more about her accomplishments from the Chapel of the Resurrection.

It has been a week since Valparaiso University Pastor Darlene Grega took her own life. And slowly, the Valparaiso community struggles to deal with her loss and finds a way to move forward.

Unlike my time at Valpo, there is now the internet (email on the university level was just in its infancy for students my senior year) to quickly spread information. With good intentions, the Valparaiso leadership let the campus know of her passing. Regretably, the first communications omited the fact that her death had been a suicide.  Students found out through the news and internet that she had taken her own life.  I’m not sure why the university didn’t disseminate that news right away. Maybe it was that paternalistic response to protect the students. 


The official letter to the Valparaiso Community from President Mark Heckler:

April 7, 2010

Dear Friends,

With profound sorrow, I must inform you that Pastor Darlene Grega has passed away. 

Pastor Grega was a beloved member of the Valparaiso University family, and we mourn the loss of someone who cared deeply for the members of this community.  Our sympathy and prayers are with Pastor Grega’s son,
Nathan, her extended family, and her many friends here at Valpo and beyond. 

I invite all members of the campus community who desire to come together for support and to remember Pastor Grega to join me at tonight’s Celebrate! service at 10 p.m. in the Chapel of the Resurrection or at tomorrow’s morning prayer service at 11:15 a.m. in the chapel.  Chapel and counseling services staff will be available at both of these services and offer support to anyone in need during this time of grieving.

Pastor Grega has been a friend to many and generously served our campus community since joining our chapel staff less than two years ago.  In particular, she provided significant counsel and support to women and to the LGBTQ community on our campus and built relationships with our international students to help them feel welcomed here. Pastor Grega provided leadership for the University’s residential ministry and the Fellowship House. She counseled many others.  

As a caring community, I ask each of you to support and care for your fellow students and colleagues as we mourn for Pastor Grega.  I encourage anyone in need of spiritual or emotional support to speak with
Pastor Joseph Cunningham or Pastor James Wetzstein by contacting the chapel office at ext xxxx, or to speak with our Counseling Center staff by calling ext. xxxx.  If you need to speak with someone during non-business hours (5 p.m. to 8 a.m.), you may contact Director of Counseling Services  at (219) 464-xxxx during the next 48 hours. Additional information about Valpo’s counseling services is available online (link omitted.)

Pastor Grega will be remembered for the many lives she touched and the myriad gifts she shared with our community.  We must now care for one another and those loved ones she leaves behind. May God bring comfort
and peace to all who mourn and may God’s boundless grace and thepromise of Easter extend to our beloved sister in Christ Jesus.


Mark A. Heckler

It’s not the first time Valpo has faltered in disseminating information to the student body. When I was a resident assistant at Lankenau Hall, then an all-women’s resident hall, we got to meet racially-motivated violence head-on. The only African American Resident Assistant’s door had been torched. At first the university refused to acknowledge the racist overtones. But after a week of student protests, including a sit-in at the administrative building–Kretzmann Hall–the school really opened a dialog about race relations and hate crimes. So something positive came from that sad and ugly experience.

It seems like Valpo is experiencing these growing pains once again. The students are adults, and it is comforting to know that despite the initial blunder, the school has quickly circled the proverbial wagons and is providing nurturing pastoral and psychological care for its students. The school has established a very visible support network of counselors–starting with the peer levels with contacts in each resident hall and academic department, to resources within the Chapel all the way to the formal office of counseling services. It may not seem like much, but  there are even identified peer counselors for the pre-seminary women who looked up to Grega as a friend and role model.

Pastor Grega will be laid to rest today. Valparaiso has chartered a bus that left in the wee hours of the morning for anyone who wanted to journey to Ohio to pay their final goodbyes. This Sunday April 17, there will be a memorial service in the Chapel of the Resurrection to celebrate her life and accomplishments. I’m not sure if it has ever occured before, but Bishop James Stuck of the ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod will preside over the service with univesity professor Dr. Fred Niedner preaching. It is comforting to know that VU is allowing the students to be full participants in the grieving process.

Valparaiso University Professor Walt Wangerin, Jr. wrote an essay in 2005 that many blogs are citing this week called Comfort for Those Who Grieve a Suicide.

Save me, O God,

for the waters have come up to my neck.

The event of a suicide encompasses, I believe, not one, but two separate griefs, each distinct from the other by cause and effect. The first of these, often too brusquely dismissed, caused the suicide.

I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;

I have come into deep waters,

And the flood sweeps over me.

The second grief is that which is caused by the suicide. Moreover, this particular grief is distinct from our more general mournings because it resists–it undermines–our more general comfortings. How do we return to life again when the death seems to have been a willful act of our beloved?–as though the heart had chosen to cut itself out of the body.

 I think Wangerin summed it up best. There are two griefs in play. The first, we may never know the answer to–Why. It is hard to imagine anyone so hopeless than the only way out is for life to end. There are lots of reasons–chronic illness, crippling depression, and stress of life, work, relationships that can put someone over the edge.

Pastor Grega definitely has those stressors as both an ELCA minister and only female to preside in the Chapel of the Resurrection. As reported earlier this year (and reprinted this week) by Pretty Good Lutherans,  Missouri Synod President, Rev. Dr. Gerald Kieschnick had the chutzpah asked Pastor Grega to not play a role in the worship services celebrating VU’s 150th Anniversary because the LCMS does not have an “altar and pulpit fellowship” with the ELCA. Of course this was sandbagged on Rev. Grega only minutes before she was to play an integral role in the worship service in her own church as a Valparaiso University Pastor. Mind you that prior to Rev. Grega’s tenure, the Chapel of the Resurrection has been staffed exclusively by ELCA clergy but the Chapel has never been a Missouri Synod congregation.

Supposedly it had everything to do with her ELCA rostering and nothing to do with her gender. But as we all know, it is very hard to separate gender politics when the LCMS refuses to allow women to serve as rostered clergy while the ELCA has been raising women up to serve proudly for almost forty years.

*insert intense displeasure male privilege and see future discussions regarding this in more detail*

Needless to say I am saddened that the University allowed this to happen. But this is one example of how the weight of the world weighed down on her. In addition to being a role model for every woman–ELCA, LCMS, WELS or other–that dreamed of becoming a rostered pastor, or any woman for that matter that tried to shatter the glass ceiling. She took on the role of spiritual advisor and advocate for the GLBTQ community at Valparaiso that, despite progress, is still a marginalized population.

And I’m not sure if you can partition the griefs into her grief and the university’s grief. They seem intertwined..

But how does a campus move forward after something so tragic. Finals are quickly approaching. Students will once again scatter to the four winds a month from now. It is true Valpo will never be the same, but how can it become stronger as a result of Grega’s passing?

Open dialog is the first step. Suicide is not a dirty word. It is something that needs to be faced head on. Just as in the  example above regarding the RA and racial violence, hopefully this tragedy will get the community speaking. How can we prevent any more loss of life? What are the signs of suicidal behavior.  How can a school move past its grief and move toward healing?

Next the school cannot forget everything good that Grega has given the university. I am hopeful that VU will continue to call an ELCA minister to its roster of University Pastors. It needs that voice in the Chapel of the Resurrection. More over, I am hopeful that VU will call a woman to fill that role.  They need that glass ceiling to remain wide open and not closed once again. They need to give each woman on campus a voice in the Chapel. They need to reach out to the GLBTQ community with a bold leader. They need to give the international students that may not normally have a voice one that will sound loud and clear.

They need to keep Pastor Darlene Grega’s ministry alive so that hopefully there is no more tragic loss of life.

While Valparaiso University is not affiliated with any one Lutheran denomination, it has long had a very strong (and German) LCMS presence. Every presiding pastor of the Chapel of the Resurrection had been a Missouri Synod ordained minister including the beloved Rev. OP Kretzmann who was the president of the university while my mother was a student here in the Sixties, who through his 28 years of service to the school still remains one of the major influences at Valparaiso.

Until Darlene Grega.

In 1997 the university officially changed its policy to allow not only Non-Missouri Synod Lutheran clergy to serve in the Chapel but it finally opened its doors for female pastors to serve both in the Chapel but at the level of University Pastor. Needless to say, I had been one of many alumnae that cheered loudly when this was announced.

Rev. Grega was the first–and only–woman to serve as a University Pastor. Needless to say, Grega broke down many barriers and the proverbial glass ceiling of the Chapel had finally been broken!

Former university president Rev. Dr. Alan Harre, himself an LCMS pastor led the way to create an endowment fund to pave the way for an ELCA pastor to serve at Valparaiso.

On November 2, 2008 Rev. Grega became that pastor that so many alumnae had dreamed of.

From her biography at the Chapel of the Resurrections website:

Pastor Darlene Grega is the mentor for Fellowship House and the Residential Ministers (a.k.a. Piece Core). She leads the planning for the Chapel’s discernment retreats and has an abiding commitment to the spiritual needs of international students on our campus having worked, before ordination in 2006, over 20 years primarily with international students. She loves reconnecting at VU with the international community and offering them hospitality and helping others learn from them. A Valpo grad herself, she remembers the spiritual formation she received here and looks forward to being a new face in a crowd that is welcoming and committed to walking with you during your tenure here. By the way, you will also find her walking her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Muffin, around campus, and keeping up with her son Nathan, a senior at the college of William and Mary who is studying neuroscience.

And in another first, this past Sunday, she was the first female pastor to ever preside over the Easter Sunday celebrations and worship in the Chapel. ask any alumni, nothing can be compared to Valpo’s Easter worship!

Yet sometime this week, Pastor Darlene Grega died. The Porter County Coronor’s Office has ruled her death a suicide.

Valparaiso President Mark Heckler has issued this statement:

Pastor Grega was a beloved member of the Valparaiso University family, and we mourn the loss of someone who cared so deeply for the members of this community. Our sympathy and prayers are with Pastor Grega’s son, Nathan, her extended family and her many friends here at Valpo and beyond.

Pastor Grega has been a friend to many, and generously served our campus community since joining our chapel staff less than two years ago. In particular she provided significant counsel and support to women on our campus and built relationships with our international students to help them feel welcomed here.

It is obvious that Pastor Grega was a loved and valued part of the Valparaiso family. She provided to pastoral care to many, and was also a resource for the GLBT students on campus.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson has issued the following statement regarding her passing:

Darlene’s call to serve as the first ELCA pastor on the staff of the Chapel of the Resurrection has been the occasion for renewing and deepening our relationships with the University and its extended family of alumni and friends.

We have rejoiced in the strength of her service as university pastor with students, faculty and staff — a ministry marked by her distinctive gifts of warm hospitality, gregarious compassion for the suffering and tenderhearted, and tenacious advocacy for those who have often been kept at the margins of Christian community and public life.

Although the news of her death comes as a deep shock and disappointment, we entrust her to the mercy of God shown in Jesus Christ and share with you our hope in the promise of Christ’s Resurrection.

Pastor Grega was not a University Pastor when I was a student at Valpo back in the early Nineties yet I join the rest of the Valparaiso Community and mourn her passing. It always tragic when someone feels so hopeless that the only solution they see to end their own pain and suffering is to take their own life. Mental illness is an unforgiving bedfellow and can strike anyone regardless of age, gender or station in life. I mourn her passing as a fellow alumna, and my thoughts and prayers go out to the campus that has lost a dynamic and compassionate leader.

OP Kretzmann led Valparaiso during the height of the Atomic Age and nudged the school toward the Twenty-first Century. In moments like this, his voice still rings true:

If we are to survive the Atomic Age, we must have something to live by, to live on, and to live for. We must stand aside from the world’s conspiracy of fear and hate and grasp once more the great monosyllables of life: faith, hope and love. Men must live by these if they live at all under the crushing weight of history.