ELCA NEWS SERVICE
August 23, 2010
40 Years Later, ELCA Pastor Elizabeth Platz Still Serves Maryland Students
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (ELCA) -- For nearly 45 years, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Platz has served here at the University of Maryland (UM), quietly influencing generations of Lutheran students to remain active in the church and in service to others. Those whose lives she has touched speak highly of Platz's influence on them, her dedication to the church and some wonderful home-cooked meals she serves to hungry college students.
In 1970 the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) ordained Platz at UM's Memorial Chapel, where she serves today. Platz, the first woman ordained a Lutheran pastor in North America, has served her entire ministry as UM Lutheran campus pastor. On Nov. 22 this year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will mark the 40th anniversary of her ordination.
Before she was ordained Platz served five years as assistant Lutheran chaplain at the university, after earning a bachelor of divinity at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (LTSG), an ELCA seminary in Gettysburg, Pa. Looking back, Platz, a native of Pittsburgh, said she couldn't have imagined becoming ordained.
"I came to it slowly," she said. "Never underestimate the persistence of God."
It was her academic interest in theology that brought Platz to the seminary, after which she thought she would teach or serve as a Christian educator. People such as the Rev. Eric W. Gritsch, now retired LTSG professor, and the Rev. Donald R. Heiges, LTSG president, prepared her way toward ordination, she said. What finally brought Platz to become a candidate for ordination was the call to serve as a "steward of the Holy Mysteries," the Eucharist or Holy Communion.
"That's why I finally came to being called to the ministry," Platz said. "The pastor is an instrument. The pastor's 'I-ness' is to be put aside … for the total focus is on the altar and the cross." Forty years later, she is still overwhelmed when the Communion liturgy begins. Celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion and preaching the Word of God remains her calling.
Others see that quality in Platz. "What she brings to the church is the notion of church leadership as servanthood -- both a servant of the gospel and the people of the church -- in little practical ways and in larger ways," said the Rev. Richard H. Graham, bishop of the ELCA Washington, D.C., Synod, and a longtime friend of Platz's. She also embraces and upholds a variety of worships styles, he said.
Graham said Platz has been "a faithful and good example" to those whom she serves. Anyone who has ever been around Platz knows she loves to cook for others, he said. She provides a home-cooked meal for Lutheran students at the university nearly every Tuesday.
That was one of many qualities that Veronica Weber, Middletown, Md., remembers from her years at the university and at the Lutheran Campus Ministry there.
"One of the wonderful things was how she opened up her home to us," said Weber. "We were just welcome there. She cooked wonderful meals for us."
When Weber graduated in 2006, she recalled how Platz blessed and sent the Lutheran students to the next stage of their lives, a longtime tradition Platz celebrates with them every spring. She presents each student a card with a personalized message. "I still have mine," Weber said.
Weber is one of 10 former UM Lutheran Campus Ministry students who have studied to become pastors during Platz's tenure. Weber, a student at Luther seminary, an ELCA seminary in St. Paul, Minn., was an intern pastor this summer at Advent Lutheran Church, Boca Raton, Fla. Platz's leadership and her truth-telling preaching meant a lot to Weber when she was a college student.
"Beth never sugar-coated life. She helped us to be grounded in what was real. She strengthened our faith by letting us know it would be tested," Weber said.
Nick Asendorf, who was president of the Lutheran Student Association at Maryland this past academic year, said it's the passion Platz brings to her calling, her love for the students and her calm demeanor that are among her finest qualities.
"She has spent 40 years devoting her life to the Lutheran ministry at the University of Maryland," he said. "Countless times, she tells us it's the students who make her job worthwhile. She truly cares for every student."
Platz was married in 1988 to the Rev. Wofford K. Smith, an Episcopal Church pastor. Smith died less than two years later from cancer. Platz remained at Maryland, and said one of the reasons for that is the energy she gets from interacting with students.
"My congregation keeps changing," she said. "To be able to be with young people and watch them change over four years and mature -- it's exciting." Platz said that one of her most important roles as a campus pastor is to see that when the students leave the university "they are engaged and active Lutherans."
While in school UM Lutheran Campus Ministry students sponsor two after-school programs. Each week on Wednesday during the academic year, some 30 student volunteers tutor children at La Sagrada Familia, a ministry serving Salvadoran refugees in nearby Langley Park, Md. On Fridays, through a partnership with a Langley Park elementary school, the Lutheran Campus Ministry students bring about 20 at-risk children to Hope Lutheran Church, College Park. Each child is matched with a university student, each of whom helps the elementary school students with math and reading.
"I made sure I didn't have any Friday classes," Weber said of the Hope Lutheran ministry. "It was the most amazing thing."
One of Platz's longtime friends is Dr. Joan Hult, an author, scholar and teacher known for her pioneering work to help the passage of Title IX, key legislation to promote equality for women in intercollegiate sports. Hult met Platz in 1968, when she joined the University of Maryland faculty and Hope Lutheran Church after a 10-year teaching career at the ELCA's Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn. Hult was present at Platz's ordination and the celebrations that followed.
Platz's knowledge of the Bible makes her an ideal Bible study leader, she said.
"I like her best in that role. She knows the Bible backward and forward. She understands what all of this means for today and how it affects our Christian (lives). I just think she is marvelous at that," Hult said.
Hult also recalled Platz's service as interim pastor at Hope Lutheran Church when its senior pastor, Graham, was elected in 2007 to his current call as bishop in Washington. The church was involved in an extensive renovation program at the time. "Our church never would have finished the renovation if it had not been for Beth," Hult said.
Platz also served as interim pastor at another Lutheran congregation following the sudden death of its pastor from a heart attack.
During her career, Platz served on the Commission for a New Lutheran Church -- which laid the foundation for the ELCA -- served on churchwide boards, the synod council of the ELCA Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod, and the planning committee for the recent ELCA Delaware-Maryland Synod assembly. Because of her role as a campus pastor, she is asked to serve on many university committees, including one that secured child care for students and faculty, and most recently, one that is overseeing the development of a "contemplative garden" near the campus chapel. Platz also was tapped to lead a prayer when President Barack Obama visited the campus.
Platz, 69, is welcoming students for a new academic year and thinking about a transition to the next phase of her life. She said she and her directing committee are talking about the next Lutheran campus pastor at the university, possibly to be called at the end of the 2010-2011 academic year. She'll likely stay on another year to help in the transition.
What will Platz do next? "I was saying to my niece, 'This is a big question for me. I am what I do. The church always has something for you to do.'"
Photos of the Rev. Elizabeth Platz, including photos taken at her ordination, are at http://tiny.cc/qtag5 on the Web.
Information about the Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University Maryland is at
http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~lutheran/ on the Web.
For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or email@example.com