Answering the Call: Robin Steinke '80

As the newly named president of Luther Seminary in
St. Paul, Minnesota, the Rev. Dr. Robin Steinke ’80 reflects on her journey.

autumn/winter 2014

When the Rev. Dr. Robin Steinke was named president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in June, she became the first woman in the Seminary’s 145-year history to be named to the position.

A first generation college graduate, she is also the Seminary’s first president to have once worked as a middle school band director and to have later served as an executive for one of the nation’s largest financial services companies.

Her story, she says, is one of bumps and nudges and hints and whispers – and the courage it takes to step out and pursue a call, or in Steinke’s case, multiple calls, with nothing more than a leap of faith.

“I’ve never thought, ‘I wonder what I’ll do after this.’  I’ve embraced God’s sense of wisdom, or God’s sense of humor, and have tried to tend to the call before me in a given day. That has served my baptismal vocation well,” she said.

Her Journey, Part One

Steinke grew up in Courtland, Minnesota, a small town near New Ulm, as the second of three children. She loved music and considered a career in teaching, but because no one in her family had attended college, she looked to her future with uncertainty.

She chose Augustana, she said, because she was interested in exploring a place out of state.

“Sioux Falls qualified,” she said, laughing.

She majored in music, counting Dr. Harry “Doc” Krueger and Dr. Leland Lillehaug among her most influential mentors.

After graduating in 1980, she took a job as the band director at Dickerson Middle School near Atlanta, Georgia.

Three years later, she was contemplating returning to school to pursue a master’s degree when a friend suggested she explore a career with American Express.

“I just laughed and said ‘I didn’t know the difference between a stock and a bond.’ But, I investigated and it seemed like a place to make a difference in people’s lives. And, it provided me an opportunity to learn a lot about a field I didn’t know much about,” she said.

She left teaching and went on to spend the next eight years as a stock broker, financial planner and trainer for American Express Financial Advisors.

Her Journey, Part Two

While at American Express, she served on the board of Lutheran Ministries of Georgia, a statewide social ministry organization dedicated to developing creative solutions for homelessness and unemployment.

Both her home pastor and the bishop suggested that she go into ministry.

“I said to him, ‘I am in ministry.’  By virtue of our baptism, we bear witness to God’s work in the world by being the hands and feet of Christ in whatever we do.”

Still, she considered their repeated suggestions seriously. She enrolled in a year-long Greek course at Emory University to “see how it felt” and, after being transferred to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for her work with American Express, she continued to take classes at Luther Seminary.

After being transferred for work again – this time to Columbus, Ohio – Steinke enrolled at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus where she earned a Master of Divinity and a Master of Sacred Theology. She did this while still working for American Express.

From there, she ventured across the Atlantic to pursue her Ph.D. in theology from the University of Cambridge in England.

When she returned to the U.S. in 1998, she accepted a call from Hope Lutheran Church in Annandale, Virginia, to serve as pastor for a few years and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania. She would spend the next 15 years at Gettysburg, serving as a professor of theological ethics and public life and as dean of the Seminary.

Then she received the call from Luther.

Her Journey, Part Three

“It’s a great adventure. Every day is different,” Steinke said of her new role at Luther Seminary. “I get to meet a lot of wonderful people – students, staff, faculty, donors, alumni, community leaders. I’m thrilled to be here.”

While she’s excited about her new role, Steinke is also frank about the issues facing higher education today, particularly for students pursuing paths in ministry.

“The real question is, ‘how do we solve those issues creatively in order to educate people for Christian leadership; how do we creatively adapt?’ We need to think outside the box,” she said.

“It’s clear that many young people are not coming to worship in a congregation in traditional ways. It is exciting to lead Luther Seminary as we work with young people to discover the different ways in which God is at work in our world. This generation is very interested in volunteerism; serving overseas; finding and knowing their purpose in the universe. That’s really interesting and exciting.”

“Luther has really been an innovator in the combination of online and residential courses that create more pathways to theological education in a greater variety of forms. The question is, ‘how do we continue to offer that innovation in a way that’s sustainable?’”

Steinke also recognizes the need for Luther to serve as a resource for existing church leaders.

“It’s asking, ‘how do we stir up the imagination?’  We need to get out of our self-contained boxes and find collaborative ways to prepare leaders. We need to ask ourselves, ‘what does it mean to prepare leaders for the church? How do we think about it in new and innovative ways?’”

“Certainly we have congregations across this country who are deeply engaged. Yet, we need to open ourselves to some holy imagination to see what this looks like in the future.”

Challenges aside, Steinke is the first one to admit her less-than-obvious journey to seminary president is what makes her well prepared to address the tasks at hand.

“Most people think the best preparation for being seminary president was my work as a pastor or being at American Express,” she said. “Really though, it was being a middle school band instructor.”

“Middle school kids are tough. Most people either love ‘em or hate ‘em. I loved ‘em. I had 200 students who’d never held an instrument before coming into my band room and within three months we had a Christmas concert. That taught me organization and the ability to think on my feet. I think the most important dimension of adapting to multiple vocational trajectories is the gift of a great liberal arts education, where thinking deeply about things that matter is fundamental. That way of being transfers to multiple disciplines and I am very grateful to Augie for that gift.”

Her Current Journey

“I’ve always felt a sense of calling – to use my gifts in service to the world. It wasn’t a calling to be a pastor in a church, in the beginning. Initially, it was to be a teacher. All of my jobs have been rich places to use my gifts and experience deep joy along the way – all of them have been vocation – a calling to something beyond self-interest to service. Ultimately it’s about where you find joy in using your gifts in service to others,” she said.

“At the end of the day, it’s about imagining how to stay true to your mission.”