Paul M. Youngdahl, senior pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis -- considered the largest Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregation in the country -- died on Monday, according to church officials. He was 73.

Youngdahl and his father, Reuben Youngdahl, are credited with helping build the well-known church into a congregation of nearly 13,500 baptized members.

At 6-foot-7, Youngdahl not only was a towering figure on the basketball court but his skill as a leader made him a towering figure in the church, said the Rev. Stephen Cornils, an associate pastor at the church. Youngdahl oversaw a staff of 900 employees, tending not only to the big-picture planning for the church but also keeping track of myriad organizational details.

"He was extremely thoughtful and attentive to remembering the important things in people's lives," Cornils said. "Everyone received a birthday card. That's 13,000 people. He was very much interested in a personal ministry and didn't want this to be thought of as a large machine but rather a personal, connected organization."

Youngdahl showed an extraordinary amount of love and loyalty to the staff and congregation, Cornils said. "And because of that he gained an extraordinary amount of trust. ... If you came here with a personal problem, there no judgment from him. He welcomed you with God's grace and kindness."

Tom MacNally, chief operating officer for Mount Olivet, said Youngdahl died unexpectedly after suffering from an existing thoracic aneurysm. He said the church's finance committee planned to meet Monday night to discuss the church's immediate future: namely who will take over in the interim and how the congregation will go about selecting a new senior pastor.

Paul Youngdahl began serving at Mount Olivet as associate pastor in 1968 before going on to become senior pastor in 1974, steering the vibrant church that his father had led before him. Reuben Youngdahl, whose brother Luther W. Youngdahl was Minnesota's 27th governor, arrived at the church in the late 1930s and was senior pastor until 1968.

Paul Youngdahl has nurtured the faith of thousands of people, said ELCA presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. "Pastor Youngdahl challenged all to be generous stewards of God's bountiful gifts, not only supporting Mount Olivet's ministry but the mission of the church throughout the world."

MacNally said the Youngdahls attracted congregants to the church with their eloquent preaching styles. Paul Youngdahl was also instrumental in getting worshippers involved in education and music programs to complement what they heard each Sunday from the pulpit.

"He had a real heart for young people," said Bishop Craig Johnson, bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod ELCA, who was an associate pastor at Mount Olivet for 14 years. "A lot of his ministry was spent surrounded by youth." Youngdahl spent 10 weeks each summer as director at Cathedral of the Pines youth camp in Lutsen, Minn.

Away from the church, Youngdahl was involved in a variety of civic and community organizations. He also was a devotee of sports.

"We planned the church schedule around the Vikings," Cornils said. "And he loved basketball. Even in his 70s, he still enjoyed playing a game. He was the oldest guy on the court by far."

Funeral arrangements are pending. Youngdahl is survived by his wife Nancy; sons, Aaron and Peter, and daughter Kristi; and three grandchildren. • 612-673-4352 • 612- 673-4788