A Q & A With Bishop David Zellmer, Bishop Constanze Hagmaier

Bishop Constanze Hagmaier and Bishop David Zellmer

Continuing God's Work: SD Synod Says Goodbye to Bishop Zellmer, Welcome to Bishop Hagmaier

The Rev. Constanze Hagmaier was elected June 1, 2019, to serve a six-year-term as Bishop of the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The election took place during the synod assembly, held May 31 and June 1 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Bishop Hagmaier succeeded Rev. David Zellmer and took office on Sept. 1, 2019, with an installation service on Sept. 7, 2019.

The South Dakota Synod is composed of 205 congregations across the state of South Dakota with over 100,000 members. The bishop serves as the synod’s pastor and is called to administer sacraments, preach, provide pastoral care, advise, ordain, advocate, interpret, and serve as the ecumenical officer.

We sat down and got to know both bishops.

Rev. David ZellmerBishop David Zellmer

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota while my dad was attending Luther Seminary. I spent most of my childhood in Minot, North Dakota.

Q: Where did you receive your education?
A: I finished high school in Ponca City, Oklahoma and then graduated from Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford with a Bachelor of Science in Experimental Psychology and Sociology. I then received my Master of Divinity from Luther Theological Seminary and was ordained in the American Lutheran Church (a predecessor church body of the ELCA.)

Q: What is your connection to Augustana?
A: My mom (Ila Johnson from Mitchell, South Dakota) and dad (Bruce Zellmer, Moville, Iowa) both met at Augie when they were both members of the Augustana Choir. Mom was an alto and dad was bass. Dad’s roommate flipped a coin to see who would call Ila. So, if it weren’t for Augie, I would not be here!

Q: What is the partnership with ELCA/Augustana?
A: Augustana University is one of 26 colleges and universities in the ELCA. At ELCA colleges and universities, students are educated for a sense of calling or vocation, opening the path toward a meaningful life of contribution to the common good through whatever career they choose. It has been a great relationship with the university. During my time as bishop, I worked most closely with former President Rob Oliver. Together we were able to sign an agreement between the university and the South Dakota Synod on the building where the synod office resides. We also worked closely on creating the Kairos program for seminary education in conjunction with Sioux Falls Seminary President Greg Henson and the Luther House of Study. 

President Oliver also served as chair of the “Listen! God is Calling” campaign, which received pledges nearing $4 million. These funds will be used to help recruit new pastors and deacons to the South Dakota Synod, lower seminary debt, and provide seminary scholarships for generations of leaders to come.

During the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I worked with Dr. Paul Nesheim who coordinated the choral composition competition that resulted in the commissioned piece, "O Glorious Word of Life" by Steven Aldredge. Dr. Nesheim did a fantastic job of organizing the mass choir to premier that piece at our synod-wide Reformation 500 worship service at the Sioux Falls Arena.

In 2017, I participated in the inauguration of President Herseth Sandlin. I have admired her leadership and public service from the days I served as the senior pastor at Lutheran Memorial in Pierre. She was also present at my installation to the Office of Bishop when she served in Congress. She is a wonderful asset to this institution and I am grateful for her leadership.

Q: How long have you served the ELCA?
A: I have served as an ordained pastor for 38 years. I started parish ministry in 1981 in rural Aberdeen, South Dakota at a three-point parish (Scandinavia Lutheran Church, Bethany Lutheran Church and Bethesda Nursing Home). After my first call, I then served Trinity Lutheran Church in Mitchell from 1985-93. In 1993, I was called to be the Senior Pastor of Lutheran Memorial in Pierre. In 2007, I was first elected as Bishop of the South Dakota Synod. In 2013, I was re-elected for a second and final term.

Q: What has been your greatest joy while serving your term?
A: One of the greatest joys serving as the bishop has been an eyewitness to the amazing ministries in the ELCA and being able to see what the church is doing in the country and around the world. The second best is getting the right person at the right place at the right time and seeing what the Holy Spirit can do. The third was getting the synod back to work in 2011 after the 2009 Human Sexuality vote by the Churchwide Assembly. We were able to create a new mission statement and vision for the synod as well as onboard communities of faith to this new vision as we moved forward as the church. The fourth greatest joy was the gifts received during the “Listen! God is Calling” campaign to do the work necessary to raise future leaders of the church. Finally, it has been a blessing to have the support of friends, family, and colleagues to do this ministry for 12 years. Without them, this work would not be possible.

Q: What were some of the challenges you’ve faced during your term?
A: Some of the challenges in this ministry included the constant travel and time away from home and family. It was also hard to maintain friendships due to lack of time. The 2008-10 recession was tough for many reasons. It was then followed by the 2009 vote to allow LGBTQIA+ to serve as pastors and deacons. The combination of the recession and congregations choosing to leave the ELCA resulted in a loss of one-third of the mission support received. It went from 2.4 million in 2009 to 1.6 million in 2010. There were also challenges in finding new pastors and deacons to serve in the synod due to a decrease in seminary enrollment and dramatic drop in seminarians’ willingness to serve in South Dakota. 

Q: What advice do you have for incoming Bishop Hagmaier?
A: Pick really good staff to work with. Give them the resources they need, clear direction, and then move out of their way.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: I will take four months off of work; then we will see. Being a pastor is one of the best vocations. I’ve had an incredible life because of this work. I love being a pastor and it’s been a joy for me and my family. I deeply appreciate the communities of faith that have invited me to be their pastor or as the bishop. Pastors are the only group of people that get invited into being a part of their lives. I would invite people to explore that call to a vocation in ministry.


Bishop Constanze HagmaierBishop Constanze Hagmaier

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born and raised in Walsrode, Germany, a small community in the state of Lower Saxony.

Q: Where did you receive your education?
A: I attended the Ruprecht Karls University in Heidelberg, Germany, where I graduated with my Master of Divinity degree in 1999.

Q: How did you end up in the United States/South Dakota?
A: I had the opportunity to be a Rotary exchange student in 1987-1998 and attended Brandon Valley High School as a junior. It was there that my mentors, the late Rev. Don Niedringhaus, David and Jean Brunkow, and Tim and Pam Homan encouraged me to find a place in the church. Upon my return to Germany, I pursued the call and when my family was granted an immigration visa in 1999, we took our then 6 month-old son and started an adventure that was spirit-driven and has led us here.

Q: Please share a little bit about you personally (ie: family/pets/hobbies/etc.)
A: My husband, the Rev. Dirk A. Hagmaier, and I met in college during our theological education. We married in 1996. Our son Paul was born in 1999, our foster son Lymann, who is a member of the Omaha Nation Tribe, joined our family in 2012. In 2015, when he turned 15, our daughter Emma was born. Paul now lives in Germany and trains to be a cabinet maker/carpenter, Lymann attends Haskell Indian Nations in Lawrence, Kansas and hopes to become a teacher on the reservation, and Emma attends preschool and loves all things that involve glitter. I am an avid runner, only for leisure, not competitive, but have put running on hold to be able to spend more time with my daughter. She has developed a love for running, so I am sure, in the near future you’ll find us both running side by side. I also practice yoga, love to cook and bake, read crime novels, nurture relationships and am always enjoying a good conversation.

Q: How long have you served the ELCA?
A: My husband and I were ordained on February 10, 2001 at NeSoDak Bible Camp, but we started serving as interns for the Waubay Lutheran Parish in October 1999.

Q: What has been your greatest joy, so far, professionally?
A: My joy was and continues to be to work with the people God places in my life. I especially enjoy working with little humans, as faith is so concrete, and they have so much to offer and teach.

Q: What are you most looking forward to doing while serving in South Dakota?
A: Meeting the people across South Dakota, being with them, serving them, experiencing with them what God is up to these days.

Q: What are some long and short-term goals for the South Dakota Synod?
A: Today’s church is the place where community in the truest sense can be experienced. It is my hope that during my tenure we are able to create spaces where we show up for our neighbor’s sake, not my own; where we practice empathetic and active listening for my neighbor’s sake and not mine. We have a lot to learn from the early church where, even under trying circumstances, the church grew because they trusted the Word of Life to actually do what it says, create life. We need to nurture that trust on all levels of the church. Because the world and culture around us are rapidly changing, we need to be able to nurture our leaders with what they need to master those ever-changing waters with confidence and hope. Spiritual care for leaders and congregations is important in an ever-changing culture with a solid spirit-led vision for the church of South Dakota.

Q: Anything else you want our readers of The Augustana to know about you/ELCA?
A: I would like to thank Augustana University for the partnership and will welcome the opportunity to learn more about Augustana, its people and how we can be a witness together.