In Memoriam: Elmer W. Matthias
Dr. Elmer W. Matthias was what came to be known in Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) circles as a “system” person, meaning his path of education from the local elementary school days would progress into one of our LCMS prep schools, and, if on the way to pastoral preparation, graduating ultimately from the seminary in St. Louis. Elmer, a pastor’s son, went from a one-room school in Riceville, Iowa, to graduate from Concordia College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Concordia Seminary equipped him to be a pastor. He graduated in 1945.
Elmer did not take placement into a congregation immediately upon graduation, as was the usual route, but he remained at the seminary for a year of graduate work. His first placement was to a mission church in Galena Park, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Upon acceptance of his call, he was ordained in Galena in September 1946. During his ten-year tenure at Peace Lutheran Church, his service among God’s people brought them to complete a building program that erected a church building and an elementary school. Elmer’s ministry was blessed with the congregation becoming self-supporting in this period of his pastoral service.
In 1956 Reverend Matthias accepted the call to become senior pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Anaheim, California, and served there for 22 years. During his tenure at Zion the church grew along with the community. He led the work to build a new sanctuary on East Street in Anaheim to accommodate a congregation that had grown to over 2000 members.
During his time in Orange County, Reverend Matthias was instrumental in the founding of Lutheran High School of Orange County. He served as circuit counselor and district vice president for the Pacific Southwest District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. He worked tirelessly at the synodical level to lead the church to establish an institution of higher education in southern California. His efforts resulted in the founding of Christ College, Irvine, now Concordia University, Irvine. He served as an original founding member of the Christ College Board of Control from 1967 to 1978.
While serving Zion Lutheran Church, Reverend Matthias began studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and received the degree of Doctor of Ministry in 1977.
In 1978 Dr. Matthias accepted the call to serve Concordia Seminary in St. Louis as associate professor of practical theology. This is when I came to know Elmer and Ruth Matthias, since I too was called to Concordia Seminary in 1978, and we were installed in our positions there in the opening service for a new school year by Dr. Paul Ph. Spitz, Missouri District President. Elmer served as the director of the World Mission Institute from 1979-1981 and as director of continuing education and parish services from 1981-1985.
He was instrumental in the establishment of the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree to the seminary’s graduate offerings, and he served as the first director of the D. Min. program, from 1983-1987. During his nine-year tenure on the faculty he conducted frequent church growth workshops at regional congregations. Both the Doctor of Ministry degree program and principles of church growth made some seminary faculty members and some church leaders nervous and even perplexed, as it remains still in some circles. Elmer worked diligently to keep all things Lutheran while maintaining that the Lord gave the church the Great Commission, and it means giving the grace of baptism and the gift of his teaching to all humankind, attended by his promise of the abiding power of his presence.
During Dr. Matthias’ seminary tenure, he and I served together on the called faculty for the department of practical theology. Often Elmer would display his keen and acute sense of pastoral ministry during sessions, keeping everyone on track with the real business of a seminary, pointing to its major purpose, namely, to prepare men for the holy ministry of word and sacrament in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Our tenure as professors began in the rebuilding process after the LCMS crisis in the mid-1970s. We were also social friends, mostly resulting from our mutual asset of parish ministry experience on the faculty.
Following his retirement in 1987, Dr. Matthias returned to Anaheim and continued to serve as an interim pastor at several congregations in the area. He also served Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ontario, CA, as assistant for pastoral care. He was called to glory on July 20, 2012 after several years of declining health.
Elmer William Matthias, the third child of the Reverend Arthur William and Elsie Harder Matthias, married Ruth Delores Weinhold on November 12, 1947 in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, where Ruth served as a nurse. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, sons Bruce (Sonja) and Steven, and grandchildren Lauren, Jason, and Andrew. Elmer and Ruth were a couple who together demonstrated the joy of ministry, a life filled with grace and warm hospitality, and the love for people that comes from God’s great love for them, and for all.
In a word, Pastor and Professor Elmer Matthias was a “churchman,” one of those pastors whom some of us were fortunate to serve with as young pastors, men whose service went beyond the congregation to projects like high schools and colleges, who supported district and synod and the work of the church-at-large with sound doctrine, a mission spirit, and evangelical care for souls. This generation of pastors embraced one another, though sometimes in disagreement, encouraged each other, cared for one another’s families, and helped their peers in ministry when they encountered difficulties and problems. They trusted one another.
Rev. Dr. Matthias’ legacy is more than pastoral and professorial. He was a mentor of pastors. His district president, Rev. Dr. Larry Stoterau, of the Pacific Southwest district, said at Elmer’s funeral how noted he was “as a pioneer in both church growth and in the Doctor of Ministry degree program. Elmer was always willing to mentor and encourage young pastors. He was seen as an encourager of other pastors, too. He loved being around pastors.”L. Dean Hempelmann, S.T.M., Ph. D., D.D. Las Cruces, New Mexico
Dr. Matthias died on July 20, 2012, aged 90 years. An obituary was published in The Orange County Register on July 24, 2012.