As he nears the completion of his 40 years of Lutheran ministry for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Rev. David Laabs continues to live out a childhood career vision.
Rev. Laabs, who has spent the past 20 years as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Kiel, says he knew from some of his earliest memories that he wanted to be a pastor.
As he nears retirement, Pastor Laabs has a sense of fulfillment looking back on that dream.
Rev. Laabs is a native of New London, WI, where he was a member of Emanuel Lutheran, a church of more than 3,000 members and one of the largest in the whole church body.
Attending Fox Valley Lutheran in his high school years, Laabs set his eyes on Northwestern University in Watertown for his collegiate education, then moved on to seminary at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon.
By the time he graduated in 1978, he was called to serve as a missionary pastor to southeast Alaska, serving a territory 100 miles wide by 400 miles long.
Based in Sitka, Alaska he served as a traveling pastor to churches made up mostly of transplanted Lutherans from the Midwest.
His tenure in Alaska lasted for eight years, with interesting stories. One of his church efforts there included a startup congregation of a mere five families. They began their work in 1979, and finally built their own church five years later.

Called to Tacoma
Pastor Laabs was called from the Alaska experience to serve an established congregation in Tacoma, Washington.
There he served for 10 years before being asked to take on the role of development director for Evergreen Lutheran High School.
His duties included fundraising and enrollment. “I truly learned a lot from that experience,” he said. “Much of what I learned helped me when I arrived in Kiel.
During his tenure as the development director, he reached out to many churches in the Tacoma area, preaching in as many as 30 different churches.
His travels instilled a love for the Pacific Northwest, which he maintains to this day.
“We loved the area and we loved to travel. You could go an hour west to the ocean, an hour east to Mt. Rainier or a couple of hours north to the North Cascades,” Pastor Laabs recalled.

Kiel extends the call
Eventually, in 1998, Rev. Laabs would receive the call to take on the pastoral role at Trinity Lutheran Church in Kiel, a small community back near his home.
His return to Wisconsin provided an unforgettable experience.
He was installed the week after the Kiel Picnic, in the muggiest weather a Kiel summer can provide.
As Pastor Reiter was doing the blessing and laying on of hands, the tornado siren went off. “It cut him off, but he started back up a second time,” Rev. Laabs said. The siren got the last word, sounding yet another time during the blessing.
Soon the local police department appeared at the door, encouraging the congregation to move things to the safety of the church basement, where the installation was completed.
Of course, Rev. Laabs chuckled, no tornado ever came through the community that day.

Congregation was ready
The excitement of a storm warning was quickly forgotten, as the new pastor dug into his work with a congregation ready to embrace some major projects.
With an upstart school in its downtown location, the Trinity Lutheran congregation was face with the challenge of expanding the facilities.
“The planning process was already in place for several months, but I recall attending the first planning meeting and asking the question, ‘How do you eat an elephant,’” he said.
“You do it one bite at a time, and some of the old timers understand we are still chewing.”
Pastor Laabs experience as a high school development director proved invaluable to the process.
“We had a lot of challenges, including ADA requirements and a facility that had three elevation differences. Remodeling was going to be complicated,” he noted.
“But we were fortunate in that the Kuester family offer us land as a donation, and that pushed us over the edge,” the pastor said.
Trinity Lutheran spent the five years from 1999 to 2004 planning and preparing to move to its current location, with expanded school facilities.
In 2004, the congregation’s dream became reality.

Acclimated to Kiel
For Pastor Laabs, the second half of his career, spent in Kiel was quite different than the first half.
But, he likens it to the small town atmosphere he experienced as a kid.
“I have enjoyed, and still enjoy the people that make up small communities like Kiel. You walk down the street and you seem to know everyone. You can’t go anywhere without seeing your church members,” he said.
Over the 20 years, he has served in Kiel, Pastor Laabs has grown to enjoy working more each year with the shut-ins and elderly people of his flock.
He has also grown to appreciate the deep nature of the extended family ties that permeate his faith community.
“I have also enjoyed being closer to the heart of our church body,” Rev. Laabs said. His ordination is through the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a denomination with many sister congregations in close proximity to Kiel.
“Manitowoc County is full of WELS churches, and we also have nearby chures in Cleveland, Howards Grove, Plymouth and Sheboygan,” Rev Laabs noted.

Loves planning worship
Rev. Laabs acknowledged that one of his great joys in ministry comes from the worship and worship planning regimens.
“I truly enjoy worship and planning for worship,” he said. Serving a congregation with musical talent and an appreciation for diversity in worship has been a blessing for Rev. Laabs. He has also served for 12 years as the district worship coordinator for the WELS churches in the area.
Rev. Laabs’ wife, Sharon, is equally dedicated to worship. She has been a huge help to the process, serving as a director for the church’s music programs, scheduling organists and planning for soloists and other accompanists.
“She has been very helpful to me in this regard,” Rev. Laabs said.

Retirement nearing
As he celebrates the milestone of 40 years in ministry, Pastor Laabs is also looking to the next juncture of his career—retirement.
He plans to retire at the end of August, or whenever the congregation’s new pastor arrives to take the reins.

Rev. Laabs and his wife have purchase a home in the School Hill area where they intend to enjoy their retirement.
He plans to catch up things at home, but also intends to do a limited amount of consulting to congregations—especially in the area of stewardship.
Pastor Laabs also expects to be available for occasional substitute preaching.

Reflections on service
As Pastor Laabs nears retirement he looks back with gratitude.
“Forty years of doing anything can be a real challenge, and I have seen people leaving ministry, or getting burned out. I am thankful to be able to have served in one career,” he said.
“I have been fortunate for the past 20 years here in Kiel to have a very positive relationship with our congregation as a whole,” Rev. Laabs said. “It always makes ministry easier when you have a positive relationships.”
Rev. Laabs shares the pride of his congregation in the growth and success of Trinity Lutheran School.

“We have a pretty good school here, and we have had a good staff right along. This has certainly been a positive boost for our congregation,” he said.