Facing the end of his life, the Rev. John Hogenson-Rutford, senior pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, was determined to “finish well.” After he developed an inoperable brain tumor that affected his speech and mobility, he continued to “preach,” using his Caring Bridge page and a website, pastorhogenson.com, to share sermons and uplifting stories.
“Even though John didn’t have a voice, he still had a message,” said his wife, Ruth.
That message, to assure people that they were loved and that God could use them as they were, became his final mission. “It was like he had a whole new ministry,” said the Rev. Dennis Johnson, interim pastor at Mount Olivet. “He gave so much encouragement to people facing tough times.”
After his tumor was discovered in May 2015, and he suffered a stroke, Hogenson-Rutford, a marathon runner and avid bicyclist, worked tirelessly at therapy and rehab in hopes of returning to his church. “His ultimate goal was to get back to the pulpit at Mount Olivet,” said Ruth.
He battled for 18 months before dying at age 58 on Jan. 4, just five days after he decided to end treatment. “As he was going to hospice, he was giving me things he’d written,” said Ruth, along with instructions, such as “This is for after I die.”
Hogenson-Rutford was born in Owatonna and grew up in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood, where he met his future wife. They attended Gustavus Adolphus College together and married right before he began his studies at Luther Theological Seminary.
He had a gregarious personality and enjoyed practical jokes. When his daughters had sleepovers, a favorite prank was to make buttermilk pancakes, pour the leftover buttermilk into a glass for an unsuspecting guest to drink, then wait for the reaction.
He was known for welcoming congregants on the street or in the church parking lot. “It didn’t matter if it was 30 below, John was out greeting people,” said Ruth.
His passion for outreach was boundless. “He believed that religion was not some sort of fantasyland but had real applications for the broken and the hurting,” said the Rev. Mike Carlson, of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Mahtomedi. Sometimes his vision ruffled feathers. “Whenever he started talking about investing in the poor, that can create a stir among the comfortable,” Carlson said. “But he got the church inspired.”
When Hogenson-Rutford was a pastor in Grand Marais, he started a service designed for people who didn’t generally go to church, which brought some unusual visitors into the sanctuary.
After one such service, Ruth overheard a woman say, “The scum of the earth are here.” When she shared that comment with her husband, he was pleased that the service had served its purpose of inviting outsiders in. “He wanted to make sure faith was available to everybody,” she said.
At St. Andrew’s, where Hogenson-Rutford served as senior pastor from 2007 to 2014, he started a homeless shelter and a Community Resource Center that provided immediate necessities like food and winter clothes but also follow-up assistance such as job coaching to help ensure people didn’t end up homeless again. “He didn’t want to just give them things but figure out how to help them move ahead,” said Ruth.
In addition to his wife, Hogenson-Rutford is survived by three daughters, Kelly McKenzie, Jana and Kate Hogenson; grandchildren Connor and Megan; brother Matt; stepbrother Chris Nelson and stepsister Katie Gonzalez. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 14 at Mount Olivet, 5025 Knox Av. S., Mpls., with visitation one hour before the service.