“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” begins the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, an Old Testament book of the Bible.
The seasons are indeed changing for Pastor Mark C. Urlaub.
After serving the congregation of Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Vinton for 33 years, Pastor. Urlaub will give his final sermon the morning of April 28.
The time has come for the beloved pastor and his wife LuAnn “to pluck up what is planted”--as Ecclesiastes further states--and blossom elsewhere.
“They were shocked, but not surprised,” Urlaub said of his congregation following the announcement of his retirement plans back in January.
Urlaub and LuAnn took a couple of hours last Friday [April 5] to reflect on their time at Bethlehem and to discuss what lies ahead.
“It’s a purely personal decision when you retire,” Urlaub said, “and it’s a tough decision. You’re ordained for life...I still like what I do…[but] our congregation is strong and healthy--better able to handle a transition.”
The decision to retire has been part of the pastor’s thinking for at least a year, he said.
But the Urlaubs concede it would have been hard to retire no matter when they chose to do so--they’ve spent most of their lives at Bethlehem.
The couple grew up together in the northeast Iowa town of Garnavillo.
They were members of the same church, St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was ministered by Urlaub’s own father, Rev. L.C. Urlaub.
As a “pastor’s kid,” Urlaub says he always had a sense he would be called to the ministry--his grandfather was a Lutheran pastor, too.
Urlaub and LuAnn did not date in high school--Miss LuAnn Kraus was four grades behind Mark Urlaub.
During a brief visit home from seminary one weekend, Urlaub says he called LuAnn up--she was home from college as well.
As Urlaub explains it--in his calm, thoughtful style of speaking--he simply needed a date and he liked Miss Kraus.
Unfortunately for the young seminarian, LuAnn initially said no.
“It was particularly bold of him to call me,” LuAnn recalled, “we still had a party-line!”
But the young nursing student quickly changed her mind, she said, canceled her plans for that evening, and called him back.
The two have been together ever since.
Urlaub graduated not long after from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque in 1980, with LuAnn receiving her nursing degree from Lutheran Hospital School for Nurses that same year.
Urlaub was ordained Sept. 8, 1981 at his father’s church by Bishop Paul M. Weger.
The Urlaubs then spent four years in Cedar Rapids at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, before accepting a call to be Bethlehem’s pastor.
He began officially leading the church on Dec. 1, 1985--his installation taking place during a massive snowstorm.
A lot has happened during Urlaub’s 33 years at Bethlehem, both professionally and personally.
When the couple moved to Vinton, they were first-time parents to son Stephen and LuAnn was pregnant with their second child, Rebecca.
They would welcome a third child, David, while at Bethlehem.
In 1988, the Lutheran Church in America (LCA)--which Bethlehem was affiliated with--transitioned to the synod it is today, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), effectively becoming the largest Lutheran church body in the U.S.
In 1997, the congregation made the decision to build a new church in stages--a rather monumental task.
Urlaub saw the congregation through both building projects.
The church as it stands today was dedicated on Palm Sunday, March 16, 2008.
The Urlaubs moved out of the church parsonage over 13 years ago and have owned their own home ever since, meaning they do not have plans to move at this time.
“That’s the benefit of owning our home,” LuAnn said.
But the Urlaubs cannot stay at Bethlehem, despite the deep roots they’ve planted there.
“We will need to become a member of a different congregation,” Urlaub said, “that’s going to be hard.”
“It will be hard to separate our identity,” LuAnn surmised.
But Urlaub strongly believes the congregation “needs the chance to deepen their relationship with a new minister,” as well as “debrief” after such a long tenure with just one pastor in the pulpit.
In December of 2005, Urlaub was asked to write an article for the Cedar Valley Times in celebration of his 20th anniversary at Bethlehem.
He wrote at the time, “Pastors are privileged to share in some of the most significant moments of people’s lives. Some of them are joyous; some are not. You feel them more personally with people you know.”
He also wrote, “[S]ometimes the pastor is both minister and mourner.”
Asked if those words still ring true today, Urlaub answered in the affirmative and added that he has buried some very special people through the years.
“I can see May,” LuAnn said, “but it’s April that’s hard.”
The couple does not have any definitive plans come May, but they do hope to travel some.
LuAnn will soon be leaving her position at Virginia Gay Hospital where she works in employee health and infection control, while continuing to work as needed for St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.
Urlaub hopes to spend more time outside--he enjoys hunting and being on the river, experiencing the outdoors in any way he can.
The Urlaubs also hope to visit their three adult children more--only one of whom remains in Iowa--which would also mean more visits with their first grandchild, Henry, who is just 20-months-old.
Bethlehem Lutheran Church will be holding an Open House on Sunday, April 28 from 1:30-4:30 pm to honor “The Reverend Mark and LuAnn Urlaub for 38 years of dedicated ministry,” according to a church announcement.
It will be, in the words of the Bible,
“a time to break down, and a time to build up;
“a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
“a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
After 33 years, a time to say goodbye.