Day in the Life: Pastor serves community, congregation with help from above
Every morning, Pastor Ryan Schroeder rises before the sun to sit alone in a makeshift office under the stairs of his New Richmond home. With nothing but a steaming cup of tea, a Bible, a notebook and candlelight, the 5 a.m. prayer hour is the only constant in his day.
“It might sound trite, but prayer is the one thing that stays the same,” he said. “I do it religiously, habitually, every single day.”
By the time Schroeder hears his 4-year-old son, Noah, thundering down the stairs at 7 a.m., he knows it’s time for quiet reflection to give way to the day’s work. Two hours later, he is showered, fed and on his way to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, where he serves as head pastor.
“The rest of my activities depend on the day of the week,” Schroeder said as he settled into his cozy office. “But there are always unexpected things popping up that God has for me to do. That’s one of my favorite things about this job — it keeps me on my toes.”
The space where Schroeder works is sprinkled with pastoral items — Bibles, hymnals, commentaries — but it is also home to a few unconventional displays, like the teetering piles of stones on Schroeder’s desk and cabinet.
“They’re cairns,” Schroeder explained. “When people hike, they place rocks along the path to help others know they’re going the right way, because someone has gone before them. I like to think of them as a metaphor for my faith journey.”
With a bachelor’s degree in theology, Schroeder taught seventh grade for two years before deciding to pursue a Master of Divinity degree. His wife had received a job in St. Louis, Mo., which happens to be home to Concordia Seminary.
“I figured if a seminary was right in my backyard, I might as well go,” he said. “In some ways, I was testing God to see if He would get me through, and He did.”
Looking back, Schroeder said he has evolved much since his ordination in June 2012. When Pastor Matt Hein stepped down as head pastor of St. Luke’s just a few months ago, it was up to Schroeder to fill the void and pick up many of Hein’s administrative and community duties.
“The most important thing I’ve learned as a pastor is I can’t rely on myself,” Schroeder said. “I have to concentrate much more on being a good father and husband, and I have to listen for Jesus when he’s saying, ‘slow down.’ You can never turn off the pastor button, but I’ve learned to ask for help often.”
At the same time, Schroeder rarely fails to offer his own help. Even as community members and church employees popped in and out of his office throughout the morning, Schroeder took the time to help with the hanging of a new painting — one the pastor did himself. A self-proclaimed “recreational painter,” Schroeder recently finished a three-piece canvas display featuring Jesus’ face amidst a whirl of reds, greens and yellows.
“Painting and mowing the lawn are my two forms of therapy,” he said. “As a pastor, my work is never really done. But when I set down my brush at the end of a painting, I get to feel like I have completed something.”
At 11 a.m., it was time for Schroeder to make his way over to the house of an elderly parishioner no longer able to attend church. Armed with a Bible and communion box, he ignored the shrill barks coming from the screen door and let himself inside, greeting the dog by name.
“Buddy!” he exclaimed. “You got a haircut!”
After giving the dog a pat on the head, Schroeder seated himself at the kitchen table and picked up a conversation as if he had just been there yesterday. The parishioner, a kind-hearted, graying woman, happily told him about the lives of her children and grandchildren before the dialogue took an unexpectedly serious turn.
“Do you think I’ll ever get over losing my husband?” she asked Schroeder, who is many years her junior and has been married just eight years himself.
“I still blow him a kiss every night, hoping the angels will take it up to him,” the parishioner continued. “He was the one.”
With a gentle and practiced tone, Schroeder affirmed the woman’s grief and offered some comforting words before administering communion and ending the visit with prayer.
According to Schroeder, being with people in moments of crisis is the most difficult part of his job.
“You want to offer hope to people who are broken,” he said. “But ultimately, there is no earthly comfort that can take away the grief, pain and sorrow. Some pastors say they grow numb to things like funerals. Not me. That grief is fresh every time, even though the reality of death stays the same.”
By noon, Schroeder was off to an invite-only meeting with Congressman Sean Duffy. While it’s normal for the pastor to have business meetings on weekday afternoons, this was the first time Schroeder had been invited to participate in a congressional meeting with area faith leaders.
Pastors from New Richmond, Star Prairie, Balsam Lake and Hudson met with Duffy in an effort to combat hunger, poverty and homelessness across the county.
According to Schroeder, St. Croix is the fastest-growing county in the state and the fourth-most affluent. The panel discussed root causes of poverty — lack of employment opportunity, breakdown of the family structure, mental and physical illness — before agreeing to meet again with thought-out solutions.
“I’m excited about the government’s response to these issues,” Schroeder said. “When legislators and faith clergy unite and aim toward the same target of humanitarianism, things can really get done.”
Because he wants to be available to people during their lunch breaks, Schroeder doesn’t go home for lunch until 2 p.m. Today, he had a few hours to eat and spend time with his family before returning to the church around 5:30 to prepare for the Wednesday night service. By the time worship ended at 8 p.m., Schroeder had put in a 12-hour day.
While Wednesdays are by far his longest workday, they are mercifully followed by Thursday — his day off. That day of “Sabbath rest,” as Schroeder calls it, refreshes and prepares him for the rest of the week. Whether he’s visiting a care facility on Friday, appearing at a youth group event on Saturday, meeting with parishioners on Monday or attending a 6 a.m. Bible study at McDonald’s on Tuesday, Schroeder rarely has a spare minute.
In fact, when he’s not dealing with present duties like leading services and working in the community, Schroeder is looking to the future. The church’s biblical namesake, Saint Luke, was a physician, and Schroeder doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Westfields Hospital is right across the street. With two years of ministry under his belt, he’s ready to further the church’s relationship with the hospital and the senior housing facility in its backyard.
“Compassion for other people has to be a big part of what we do,” Schroeder said. “Showing hospitality, extending mercy care and reaching out to community organizations are some of our biggest goals.”
With his eyes trained on earthly service and his ears open for heavenly intervention, Schroeder never loses sight of his primary mission.
“I have been called to be a living reminder of Jesus and to pronounce forgiveness,” he said. “I am a spokesman for the church, a champion of the ministry and a community hub. But mostly, I am here to be present with people and see how God is working in the lives of our faith family.”