In his 31 years at the helm of Hosanna! Lutheran in Lakeville, pastor Bill Bohline has seen the congregation grow from 65 to more than 6,500.
"All of Lakeville has the deepest respect for Bill. He is a class act all the way around -- a man of deep faith," said Mayor Mark Bellows, who pastors a church near Hosanna. "I never heard anything but kind words for him."
Bohline grew up next door to John Grygelko, who would coach Bohline's wrestling team at Robbinsdale High School to several state team titles. His future wife cheered him on at wrestling meets. He learned about team values and about self discipline by cutting his weight for matches. He learned about God from his parents and a grandmother who read him Bible stories and prophetically called him "my little preacher boy."
But Bohline wanted to be a doctor when he enrolled at the University of Minnesota. Biology and organic chemistry were not his friends, and he graduated with a degree in psychology. He enrolled at Luther Seminary in St. Paul but "felt like an outsider" among students who liked talking about Greek and church history. He earned his divinity degree and interned as a youth pastor.
"Finally, I thought maybe this is where I should be," Bohline said. "I'd still say I was short of a calling, but I believe with all my heart God wanted me to be a pastor."
After three years at a Minneapolis church, Bohline and his wife, Nancy, a registered nurse, got a call from Bishop Herbert Chilstrom, then leading the Minnesota Synod of the Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The bishop asked the couple to consider starting a new church in Lakeville.
Being a semi-introvert, Bohline would not have placed door-knocking high on his list of enjoyable activities. The couple talked and prayed about it and made a decision: "I thought this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is a young man's calling. I was 31. We said yes."
They packed up their 4-year-old daughter (a son came later) and bought a house in Lakeville, where they still live. In January 1980, Bohline put on his beige shoes and began knocking on more than 3,000 doors.
In March, about 65 regulars attended the first service in an elementary school. "I thought, 'I'm no longer alone ... These people are really going to do it,'" he said.
While skiing at Buck Hill, Bohline met the owner, who agreed to let the fledgling congregation meet in the chalet during the off-season. By November 1980, Hosanna! Lutheran was officially organized with 180 members and, in 1984, the congregation built a 500-seat church (now Nativity Episcopal) across Interstate 35 from Buck Hill.
In 1996, the church bought 22 acres in Lakeville for a 1,000-seat sanctuary, and over the next seven years bought 36 adjacent acres and added a youth wing, gym and a nearly block-long atrium around a 2,500-seat worship center.
Today Hosanna -- ranked among the 10 largest ELCA churches in 2010 -- is a busy place, with a community clothes and goods closet and free community dinner on Tuesday nights. A recent youth event started with footballs flying in the sprawling parking lot, where eight buses with trailers waited to deliver junior high boys to a weekend retreat on "Becoming a Man of God."
Bohline is an innovator who started commissioning Hosanna members to meet leadership needs, said Dave Glesne, longtime senior pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fridley.
"He's a man who has caught God's vision for himself and the church he leads. He has the tenacity to follow that vision through difficult and good times."
Bohline said his church began commissioning its own pastors about a dozen years ago, when it created a prayer and care position better filled by a member than by synod-offered seminary graduates. The congregation approved, and extensive training, called Potter's Wheel, is provided for commissioned pastors, who can conduct funerals and weddings and do some teaching and preaching, although Bohline and another ordained minister do most of the preaching.
When then-ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson got wind of the church's first commissioning of three women in 1999, he called Bohline and church leaders to his office. "We were censured and admonished," Bohline said. "It hurt."
Current Bishop Peter Rogness later lifted the censure, said bishop assistant Beth Helgen. However, Hosanna left the denomination about two years ago.
That's about when youth pastor Ryan Alexander, 36, and his wife arrived at Hosanna after serving 10 years at other churches. He said Bohline's strength is shepherding members and staff in sermons and in person. "He knows when to protect and when to push and prod you," Alexander said.
Bohline credits God and his staff and persistent outreach efforts for Hosanna's growth. "It's never been about me," he said. God "knows how to compensate for my weaknesses and bring the right people alongside me. He has brought great people here."
Bohline said he wouldn't trade his journey with Hosanna for anything:
"To invest your life in a way that goes on for years, and to touch thousands of lives, is a great blessing."
Jim Adams • 952-746-3283