Pastor’s Perspective: Jeff Backer

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Pastor Jeff Backer is a 2018 graduate of our seminary program, and he currently serves a specialized ministry call at St. Dysmas Lutheran Church, the congregation behind the walls of the South Dakota State Penitentiary system.

He recently shared his story with us, as well as some of the things he appreciates most about our ministry. 

We’re grateful for Pastor Jeff’s dedication and his gracious testimonial. Keep reading below. 

Tell us about yourself and your current role.

I’m a second career pastor. I have been ordained now for six years. My wife of 28 years, Marnie, also works in the church. She is at Spirit of Joy Lutheran (Sioux Falls), and we have two kids — an adult son in Helena, MT and our youngest, who just graduated from Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, and is headed to Minnesota State University – Mankato this fall.

I’m currently serving my second call since ordination. I first served First Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls as an Associate Pastor of Evangelism & Outreach. 

I am now called to specialized ministry with St. Dysmas Lutheran Church and St. Dysmas of South Dakota. My role is divided 50/50 as senior pastor and development director. Our staff of eight people provides weekly worship services, Bible studies, and pastoral care in Sioux Falls, SD; Springfield, SD; and the Minimum Unit in Yankton, SD. We also provide weekly Re-Entry classes and accompaniment to those transitioning out of incarceration.

As development director, my role involves fundraising and going out to tell the St. Dysmas ministry story. I am blessed to be invited to nearly 50 congregations a year to preach and tell what God is doing in our contexts. The other part of my development role is to manage the business of the ministry and all that entails.

St. Dysmas Lutheran Church is unique in that we’re an actual incorporated congregation of the ELCA. Most of the prison ministries currently in the ELCA are “recognized worship communities” and are generally an outreach component of an outside congregation. I am also one of the only pastors in the ELCA that is entirely dedicated to and called by a prison congregation. 

How did you first get connected to Luther House of Study and begin the path toward ministry?

I did not grow up in the church but married a cradle Lutheran. At a certain point, Marnie had started to audit classes through Luther House to explore a theological education component for her staff at the church she was working in. She had taken the Reformation course a couple times by that point, and during our discussions after she attended class, I had questions that came up regarding denominational differences and what a life of faith looks like from a Lutheran lens, and she said, “You just need to take a class and figure out your questions.”

Back then, Chris and Sarah used to do something called “The Skinny,” sort of a “Why am I Lutheran” class during J-term, which went over the basic elements of Lutheranism. I came out of that class with a lot more questions than answers.

One day, Chris and Sarah asked Marnie and me if we’d want to go to lunch with them. I fully knew they were going to try to get Marnie to go to seminary, so shortly after we sat down, I said, “Okay let’s get to the elephant in the room.” 

Chris said, “Jeff, you’re going to seminary, you just don’t know it yet.”

I went through every excuse — no time, no money, I can’t quit my job to attend seminary, besides, I did not want to be a pastor — and he responded, “No, those aren’t excuses.” So, I spent some time discerning, and had conversations with Chris and with Bishop Zellmer at the time, and they just kept telling me to take the Reformation class; but to actually do the work. Don’t just audit it, actually buckle down and do it.

I came out of that class with some answers, but I still had a lot more questions. Questions like, “Why are we not hearing what I’m learning here out in the church world?” So, I kept taking classes, mostly in Lutheran Systematics. The next thing I knew, I had taken a tremendous amount of the Lutheran element of seminary classes, really just trying to figure out who I was and what faith meant to me. I still had no intention of ever becoming a pastor. 

At the time that I started seminary, you still needed to physically go to some classes. My peers and I were the last of the “traditional track” students. Distance learning, and especially the Kairos model, were just coming into play, but it really wasn’t a viable option for completing my M.Div. 

I ended up having to use several seminaries to complete my degree, and Luther House created opportunities and pathways to allow me to do that. They gave me a path that didn’t require me to quit my full-time job and have to go somewhere. 

Tell us more about when you realized you were being called to ministry.

Some people have dates that they talk about being “saved.” I don’t specifically remember the date, but I do remember the place.

While I was in seminary, Bishop Zellmer asked me to start helping congregations in need, and I served 28 different congregations from doing pulpit supply for a Sunday or two, to serving in some long-term gigs. About three years in, I was serving at Salem Lutheran in Mt. Vernon, and one Sunday, while I was in the pulpit, I literally suffered the Gospel in that moment. All of the things I was fighting against fell away, and in that moment, I knew this is where I was headed.

Being trained in theology is great, but what really clicked for me was preaching the good news to someone sitting in the second pew and watching, and hearing, the Gospel function on that person in a powerful way. When I finally came to grips with that myself, I knew I was headed into vocational ministry.

What are some of the challenges you face in your call at St. Dysmas?

Pastoral care and confidence takes on a whole new meaning in my world. 

Personal confession takes on a whole new meaning in my world! 

As a pastor in South Dakota, we actually have more protection of confidence than an attorney does, which creates a weird tension inside the system that I’m constantly navigating. There are things that I have been told that I wish I didn’t know, but it’s important to the pastoral care element.

The incarnational presence of having a pastor to talk to is unique inside the walls, which is part of the reason why we still have the presence on the inside that we do. Ask yourself, what is the church for? It isn’t for culture issues, it’s not to focus on a social gospel. It is to preach the claiming promise of Jesus Christ, to administer the sacraments, and to forgive sins. 

I continually speak against the voice of guilt and shame; I get to tell people who have been told they are unredeemable that they are forgiven and have been claimed and redeemed in Jesus Christ. There is no doubt the Holy Spirit is present inside the walls. I watch it happen every day to people the world generally views as less than. 

As a pastor, how have you benefited from Luther House’s teaching and resources?

On a personal level, it helped me to understand my own confession. It certainly guides my voice in proclaiming Jesus Christ in the world. What I learned at LHOS is so different from what I encounter the church generally teaching and preaching; and it is grounded in the truth of Scripture, and it’s that truth that truly makes a difference in people’s lives — in how they live, but also certainly in their life of faith. The ministry and mission of LHOS continues to fuel that element of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. 

The resources Luther House offers provide a couple different things. Obviously in theological conversations, it helps keep things contextually fresh for me, and it keeps me out of the gutters of what I call “cultural ministry.”

Once I moved beyond the seminary aspect, there is also the relational aspect with Chris and Sarah. You know you always have someone in your corner, not just from a theological perspective, but as an everyday reality. If I’ve got something on my brain, I know I can always call them. A lot of times, I find engaging with them, or listening to LHOS resources is a recentering place for me. When I personally need to hear the gospel, or if I’m struggling with something, I know who to seek out.

I am in 46 congregations each year telling the St. Dysmas story, and I can quickly recognize when someone has been involved with Luther House. There’s a pastoral presence and a pastoral voice that exists that is just … different. I can sense it very quickly in conversations. It’s amazing to encounter that and to know it’s not just about a specific pastor being sent out, but that the church itself has benefited. 

Is there anything specific about the education you received through Luther House that has been particularly helpful in your context, within the walls of the prison?

First of all, when I step into the pulpit in the prison, I don’t have to convince the guys that they’re sinners. They wake up in that reality every day, but they absolutely need to hear that God is for them, that the certainty of forgiveness is there, that they are not redeemable, but they have been redeemed. And that’s the thing I came out of Luther House with — that voice. The primary difference in “that voice” is to actually give to Christ to someone, rather than just tell them about Jesus Christ

There is a text from Isaiah that says, “The word of the Lord goes out and does not come back empty.” (Isaiah 55:11) I literally witness this every day. People come and hear what they hear in our context, and they’ll tell other guys, “You’ve got to go hear this. Don’t just trust me in this, go and listen for yourself.” 

The benefit of the Lutheran tradition is that we preach certainty, not speculation, not an opinion, not something to be debated. It’s kind of like John the Baptist standing in the Jordan River, saying “Repent, and believe the good news. It’s here for you now.” That’s the same thing I get to do. 

What does your ministry need from people who are reading this? What do you want them to know?

I want to share the invitation to experience the power of the Gospel. Come and see.

Ultimately, I want people to know the invitation is always there to experience the Gospel in a place where the consequence of sin is not just an idle thought — it’s literally the walls and bars of a cell.

I’d love for people to understand that the Holy Spirit is very alive and active there. The Word that we’re given, that we put our trust and hope in — you get to witness it differently by coming and being part of that.

If you want to come as a group or if you have a passion to come individually, reach out to us, and we’ll make sure you have the ability to do this. 

Visit St. Dysmas


Thank you for reading Pastor Jeff’s story.

If you’re interested in hearing more from pastors, check out the following:

Additionally, if you’re a LHOS pastor willing to share your story, please reach out to sarah@lhos.org. We are always looking for stories and testimonials of any length.

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