The Rev. William E. Lesher died January 23. He served as president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) from 1978-1997, the seminary’s longest-serving president. He was 85 years old. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, A. Jean Olson Lesher and their sons, David and Gregory, and three grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at LSTC in February.
“Bill Lesher was a larger-than-life figure in theological education way back when my teaching career began,” said James Nieman, president. “His unparalleled tenure of leadership in two seminaries, including our own for 19 years, is hard for someone in my role to fathom today. It afforded Bill the opportunity to implement a vast range of innovative plans that still stamp our school’s character -- perhaps the most remarkable being his wide-open welcome of Seminex. I am grateful to God for Bill’s gifts of vision and commitment, and will miss his wide smile, caring words, and joyful heart.”
Philip Hefner, professor emeritus of systematic theology and senior fellow of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, said, “In the last months of his life, Bill Lesher spoke of moving into the Immensity. He lived a life of immensity, his death is an immense loss, and he blessed us immensely.”
Legacy of innovation and cooperation
During his 19-year tenure at LSTC, Lesher shaped the seminary in ways that are still being lived out today, more than 20 years after his retirement. He helped develop and support coursework for effective urban ministry, the advancement of cross-cultural consciousness and global mission, and the ethical and social implications of the faith. Lesher was instrumental in establishing the Association of Chicago Theological Schools (ACTS) one of the largest and most effective consortia of seminaries in North America. He also helped establish the Chicago Center for Religion and Science, which is now the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. In cooperation with Catholic Theological Union and McCormick Theological Seminary, he made LSTC a partner in the Chicago Center for Global Ministries.
“Bill is and will be remembered for his unquenchable energy and sense of humor, his passion for influencing both LSTC and ATS Standards to reflect the global character of the best theological education, and the way he challenged LSTC to stretch and respond to what he was always dreaming for us to do,” said Kathleen D. (Kadi) Billman, John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Pastoral Theology and director of master’s programs at LSTC. She was one of the first female faculty members at LSTC, appointed during Lesher’s presidency.
Ralph Klein, Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, said,“Bill was a boundless source of new ideas to make theological education come alive. He often inspired potential new additions to the faculty with his vision. I remember a number of occasions when a committee thought they were stuck with no way forward. Bill would pop into those committees and by the end of the hour they had new energy and new assignments. Both Bill and his wife Jean were passionate about caring for international students and their families. With Phil Hefner, he was the driving force in founding of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science.” Klein served as academic dean during the last nine years of Lesher’s tenure.
Passion for parish, Parliament of the World’s Religions
Before being called to serve as president of LSTC, Lesher served as president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary for five years. He anchored his ministry in his experience as a parish pastor at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Chicago and at Reen Memorial Church in St. Louis. He graduated from Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary, one of LSTC’s predecessor schools, in 1958, and served as associate professor of parish renewal at LSTC in the early 1970s.
Lesher served on numerous commissions, boards, and task forces in the Lutheran Church in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran World Federation, and in his local community.
After his retirement in 1997, both Lesher and his wife became more deeply involved in the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Their global experiences and travel before and during their time at LSTC helped them imagine what they might do to encourage interfaith understanding and action. He emerged as a spokesperson for the Parliament and served as chair of its Board of Trustees from 2003-2010.
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The Lutheran School of Theology (LSTC) is dedicated to bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Based in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, it is the leading urban Lutheran seminary training students for purposeful vocations in the global community. Aligned with its Lutheran heritage and built on a foundation of intellectual rigor, LSTC’s innovative, nationally recognized curriculum gives students skills for visionary Christian leadership in the public sphere.