Retiring after 18 years, Pastor Mark Ziemer reflects on time at Grace Lutheran
Celebration in his honor Sunday, Aug. 25
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Co-Editor
After 18 years of service, Grace Lutheran Church Pastor Mark Ziemer is retiring. His last day at the church will be Sunday, Sept. 8.
All are invited to attend a celebration in Ziemer’s honor at Grace Lutheran Church, 111 W. Washington Ave., Tomahawk, Sunday, Aug. 25. The celebration will begin at 11:30 a.m. with a program, followed by highlights from Ziemer’s time at Grace, music and skits. Afterwards, attendees are invited to enjoy a potluck meal.
Ziemer’s history with the church began long before he arrived in the Northwoods. “I come from a family that has been deeply embedded in two things: in the church and in the land,” he says. “My parents were farmers, and when I (looked back) at my family history, I discovered that whenever there was more than one person in the family, the others became pastors, or deeply involved (in the church).”
He recalls pastors and other family members involved in the church gathering at his family’s home during the summer, where he heard stories about “embracing life, people and causes, and awareness of where our nation was, and the world. That intrigued me.”
Seeing pastors significantly involved in people’s lives, and in the larger society and culture, had a lasting effect on Ziemer, leading him to pursue a life in ministry.
Ziemer was ordained in 1979. “Half my ministry has been in the 20th century, and half in the 21st century,” he notes. He served in Blanchardville, Wis., southwest of Madison, from 1979 to 1987, and in Marion, Wis., southeast of Wausau, from 1987 until 2001, when he came to Tomahawk in September of that year.
Since Ziemer arrived in Tomahawk, with Ziemer leading the way, Grace has forged relationships with churches and organizations both within the Tomahawk community and across the world.
Ziemer notes that Grace’s commitment to the community as a whole has lead the church to become involved in numerous charitable projects and organizations, including Grace House, the Tomahawk Food Pantry, Tomahawk Area Interfaith Volunteers (TAIV), the Associated Clergy of Tomahawk, the Happy Kids Backpack Program, and the Salvation Army. He adds Grace has worked hard to develop a relationship with St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Tomahawk, something he calls “remarkable,” given the long history of the two denominations butting heads. The churches now do five Lenten worships together.
Grace has forged a 20-year relationship with Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Central Milwaukee. The 53206 zip code, where the church is located, has the highest incarceration rate in the United States. 60% of all males in the zip code are either in jail or have been in the past. (See a story from Co-Editor Jed Buelow on Greater Galilee’s recent visit to Tomahawk in the Wednesday, Aug. 28 edition of the Tomahawk Leader.)
Ziemer notes that Grace has also developed a bond with Lekubu Parish in South Africa. Ziemer visited the parish for nine weeks in 2018, a time he says he’ll always treasure. Members of the parish plan to make the journey to Tomahawk for a visit in 2020.
Reflecting on how much has changed within the church since his ordainment, he notes both of his sisters are on their respective Synod councils in Milwaukee and Madison, and explains that women were only beginning to be ordained around the time when he was appointed. Ziemer also describes the “huge cultural shift” from the era when predominately white men held positions of power within the church, adding that none of the four major officers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, one of the largest denominations in the country, are white males. Three women and one African-American man fill the roles.
Ziemer describes the ministry as “God’s mission,” something that “isn’t centered on a building, or a certain stamped-out way of doing worship, but attending to the deep, spiritual longings that all human beings have.” He views the church as “a deep, loving, caring community that values God’s word (that seeks) to live that out in a very aggressive way in terms of loving and engaging with the world.”
He notes that in his opinion, the church must avoid generating the type of divisiveness that is seen in today’s political climate. “The church needs to be the avenue that challenges and informs a healthy community, and starts telling people, ‘Start paying attention to others.’ But the church has to do that by not creating the very same thing, like a building where only those who are in the building are right.”
When looking back at his time at Grace, Ziemer says it’s the people he’ll miss the most, both in the community and the staff at Grace.
“One of the notable things is Debbie (Hetzel, secretary) being here before I came, and continuing on after I’m gone,” Ziemer says.
“I have seniority,” Hetzel quips with a smile.
“One of (Ziemer’s) greatest gifts to the congregation has been helping us stretch ourselves,” states Wendy Black, Lay Pastoral Assistant. “By the time our youth are in confirmation, they’re encouraged to get out of their comfort zone, try new things, explore God’s world, and explore who they are in God’s world. I have a different lens for the world and for ministry because of his influence.”
“When he first came here, he was so joy-filled, and he’d be like that all the time. Nobody’s like that all the time!” Hetzel says. “He’s very true to who he is. He will refuse to see no one. His door is always open.”
Ziemer says being a pastor is an incredible privilege, noting the unique duties of performing baptisms and officiating weddings, along with being at someone’s side during their final moments of life.
Last year, Ziemer and his wife, Claudia, purchased a farm near Gays Mills, Wis., northwest of Madison, next to their daughter and son in law’s farm, where they plan to operate an organic farm. Ziemer also hopes to be an interim pastor in retirement.
In Ziemer’s absence, Grace will form a call committee and create a profile in preparation for calling its next pastor. Pastor Gary Brandenburg, who is currently serving at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Wausau, will fill in as interim pastor beginning Oct. 1.
“We are challenged to see God all over the place,” Ziemer says. “How can we engage and enhance the spiritual depth of people, awareness of love, peace, hope, joy, and then form that community? By listening, not saying, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong,’ but challenging each other in our unique walks.”