Southern Prairie District to welcome new superintendent

February 04, 2015

By: Christa Meland

After four years as Southern Prairie District Superintendent, Rev. Phil Strom plans to retire this summer—and Rev. Fred Vanderwerf has been appointed to succeed him in that role. The transition will take effect July 1.

Strom was ordained as an elder in 1981 and became a superintendent in 2011 after serving in a variety of appointments. Vanderwerf, who was ordained in 2003, has been serving at Hilltop United Methodist Church in Mankato since 2008.

Strom’s passion has been reaching new people for Christ—and that passion has been evident in his work and leadership.

Meanwhile, Vanderwerf—who grew up in Windom—describes himself as a “missionary at heart” and a “United Methodist through and through.” He spent nine years as a missionary in Ukraine and is passionate about cross-cultural ministry and sharing the gospel.

“No matter what I do, I cannot not tell people about Jesus,” he said. “I love to reach new people. I love to go into cultures I’ve never been and discover cultures I never knew and see where Jesus left his fingerprints.”

Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough said Vanderwerf is uniquely gifted for his new role.

“I have come to know Fred as a highly effective pastor with a vibrant spirituality and passionate heart for the least, lost, last, and excluded,” said Ough. Fred has excellent relational and administrative skills, is visionary, and has demonstrated the ability to develop lay and clergy leadership and to form disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I look forward to the energy and creativity he will bring to the Southern Prairie District and the Minnesota Cabinet.”

Fred Vanderwerf’s ministry

Vanderwerf first sensed a call to ministry in his late teen and college years. But it wasn’t until his early 20s when he moved to Alaska and tried to run away from the church that he knew for certain that’s where he belonged.

While spending three months as a salmon fisherman there, he came to a realization that changed him: “All I could do was talk to people about Jesus,” he said.

He earned a master of divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky in 1999—seven years after he earned a bachelor of arts from North Central College in Illinois. Then from 1999 to 2008, he served as a missionary to Ukraine, where he planted both a campus ministry and a church.

Vanderwerf is currently working on a doctor of ministry degree at Asbury and studying cross-cultural evangelism. His thesis is about embracing the role of learner. Whereas Jesus spent more than 30 years learning about the world and the people around him before preaching, he says we often expect people to assimilate to our culture rather than assimilating to theirs.

“For us to reach the growing, non-believing world, we need to know the language of the non-believing world,” he said.

Vanderwerf said the phrase that comes to mind when he reflects on what he hopes to bring to his new role is “better ingredients, better pizza” (the slogan for Papa John’s). Some of his goals include encouraging Southern Prairie clergy to be engaged in regular cross-cultural involvement with the non-believing in their mission field, actively recruiting new clergy at seminaries with strong programs, pairing the appointments with the most potential with the recruits with the most potential, championing the Walk to Emmaus as an effective tool for catalyzing the faith and leadership of pastors and other church leaders, and helping to launch a campus ministry at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Vanderwerf will continue to live in Mankato, and he’ll continue to be involved with Hilltop UMC in a visioning and mentoring capacity.

Strom said Vanderwerf is well suited to the role of district superintendent.

“His own faithful posture toward Christ shapes all of who and how he is,” Strom said. “Fred loves to smile and laugh and relate to people, making him welcome and popular and well positioned for leading. Fred is also strategic, clearly setting meaningful goals and finding credible pathways to reach them.”

Phil Strom’s reflections

Strom says the highlight of his current appointment has been getting to know so many caring and committed pastors who are working to reach new people in their mission fields.

“My heart breaks for those who live without the light of Jesus Christ in their … everyday lives,” he said. “There is so much challenge and question in our world, and for people to live apart from the promise and power and presence of Jesus is a tragedy.”

When asked about the most important thing he’s learned during his time in ministry, he says it’s that “God’s purposes being more of a priority than my preferences is a posture or perspective that is not widely embraced, even in the church,” adding: “Sacrificial giving of my time and talents and treasures is an essential mark of a growing disciple, and we must be modeling and teaching this all the time.”

Strom said the thing he will miss the most is daily contact with so many people who want to serve Jesus, but he’s excited to re-enter that dynamic in the local church.

“Phil Strom has served the Southern Prairie District with distinction, providing exceptional spiritual and temporal leadership,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough. “His passion for the transformative power of the gospel, collaborative leadership style, and heart for local church vitality will be missed at the Cabinet table and across the Southern Prairie District.”

In his retirement, Strom looks forward to morning coffee on the porch, quality time with his wife Alice, more regular visits with his 11 grandchildren, and traveling in the U.S., perhaps for weeks at a time. The Stroms expect to move to Northfield within the next few years.


Here are some fun facts about the incoming Southern Prairie District superintendent:
Family: Wife, Stacy; two sons, Levi, 11, and Madden, 9
Favorite scripture: Micah 6:8
Gifts cited by colleagues: Authentic, humorous, makes things happen
Favorite book: The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
Favorite movie: “Simon Birch”
Hobbies: Playing in a (non-gambling) pub poker league, rollerblading with his oldest son, playing board games with his youngest son, playing Wii games with both kids
Favorite food: Grechka (roasted buckwheat)
Someone he admires: Darrell Whiteman, missiologist and former professor of cultural anthropology at Asbury Theological Seminary (“He changed the way I understand ministry and mission,” Vanderwerf says)
Something interesting most people don’t know: He often says “y’all” and opens his banana the opposite way from most Americans (something he learned while traveling abroad)

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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(612) 870-0058