Zion Lutheran Church Gnadenberg, in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, is a little church with a big heart.

The congregation of 32, which is part of the Angaston Parish, has never had an LCA pastor come out of its ranks. So, about 20 years ago, Zion members decided to offer some support to a pastoral ministry student during his studies.

Since that time, Gnadenberg in Moculta has supported four Australian Lutheran College (ALC) – formerly Luther Seminary – students through their journey to become pastors. With a little help from their friends at Zion, pastors Keith McNicol, Greg Fowler, Tim Ebbs and Geoff Schefe have graduated, been ordained and begun serving the church in parish ministry.

Since last year, Gnadenberg has given its backing to second-year ALC student Chris Johnson.

Zion chairperson Andrew Koch says in each case the congregation had sought ALC’s recommendation of a student who wasn’t local and would benefit from having another ‘family’ behind them.

‘We’re just trying to help particularly a student that has come from further afield, doesn’t have any family living close by and who is missing that local support’, Andrew says of the project which has contributed around $12,500 in monetary gifts toward student expenses over the years.

‘It’s not only financial support – it’s also prayer support and we try to have them up a few times a year engaging with different members of the congregation, so that by the end of their course they feel at home with the congregation and we feel at home with them. It’s also about friendship, mentorship and all of those sorts of things.’

And Chris Johnson is from about as far ‘further afield’ as you could get, hailing from Walla Walla, in Washington State in the United States. He doesn’t have Lutheran church heritage from the US; his Lutheran origins are within the LCA, since moving to Australia in 2005.

Gnadenberg raises funds for what members call ‘sem student support’ through an annual auction following a winery church service and lunch at Henschke Cellars in nearby Keyneton. The Henschke family are members at Gnadenberg.

The winery service and lunch began 27 years ago as an outreach of the congregation, looking to attract people who wouldn’t normally go to church.

After the auction idea was born, it became a natural link to supporting future pastors.

Each family from Gnadenberg is asked to donate an item, with visitors often contributing, too.

Chris has attended the past two winery services and auctions with his wife Melissa Juergensen. He has spoken to the gatherings as part of his connection with the congregation, and says Gnadenberg’s gesture of support is incredibly moving.

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