Cory Rajek led his parting service at the Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pierre on July 4, and his last official day as senior pastor was July 11. The following day was Rajek’s first with the Office of International Mission of the Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod, and his new calling in life — teaching future pastors from his eventual international home-base of the Luther Academy of Latvia in the capital city of Riga.

He will go from Pierre’s population of 14,000 to Riga’s 600,000. He also goes from four and a half years as senior pastor of a church with a baptised membership of around 1,900 to serving as Theological Educator and Pastor at the Luthor Academy of Riga which covers most of Eurasia.

“I am perfectly happy and content here. I was not looking for this, it kind of fell upon me,” Rajek said. “It’s a win-win. If I stay here or go to Latvia, the Lord blesses his people. I go where the Lord sends me. It’s considered a career missionary position. Though pastors tend to never retire, if you go by the retirement age of 67, I have about 21 more years to go.”

The recruitment call from the executive director of the synod started with two questions. One, do you have a Doctorate — which was already known. And two, would you consider a missionary call — which is a given for Lutheran pastors.

In order for the university to be accredited, all the instructors including Rajek have to reside in the European Union.

Rajek’s family was initially pretty shocked, but is now on board. His wife, Jenny, is excited to take on this new challenge. Their older daughter, Emiley, 17, is currently enrolled in an international online school. Their younger daughter, Alexis, 15, will go from T.F. Riggs High School to the International School of Riga, which does follow the American model of education.

“Once we found out, it was sad. We wanted him to stay forever,” office administrator Helen Kiepke said. “We are going to miss him, but the job is right up his alley.”

Kiepke said since COVID has been lessening, the church’s two Sunday services have been seeing about 230 parishioners total, and the Wednesday service is also growing again, though many people are still participating in the livestreamed services.

A decline in pastors and an increase in demand prompted this calling to teach upcoming pastors. Rajek said more and more people are being converted into Christianity, but there are fewer and fewer pastors. He added the pandemic heightened this, and a new expansion is seen in all of Eurasia. Rajek’s already enrolled future students are from all over the world, mostly from Pakistan to Ireland.

“I will primarily be training pastors, but will also be a pastor and training church planters. As things open up from COVID, we will reconstitute the English-speaking in-person church,” Rajek said. “There is a high demand for American English. My predecessor says English has become the preferred language of the Eurasia region, everybody under 40 is fluent in English. English is a prerequisite for students to attend university. As I understand it, they want to learn what is spoken here in America since it is the land of opportunity. My responsibilities include, in essence, explaining theological concepts in simple English terms.”

Rajek said theology can be broken down into four main components — Old and New Testaments languages, practical, historical and doctrine.

Rajek will not be in Riga for about another six to nine months. In the meantime he must work and travel out of the International Center in St. Louis, developing a financial and prayer support network. Primarily this funding for his missionary posting will come from South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin congregations, and classmates from seminary. Explanation of his work will be presented to various congregations in-person. A certain percentage of funding must be continual gifts.

The Mission Central in Iowa assists in this, helping raise “millions and millions of dollars for missionary work,” Rajek said. Continuous donors are put on a mailing list to show how their dollars are working.

Back in 1999, Rajek was installed as the vicar of Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pierre. After serving a year, he returned to Concordia Seminary to finish his studies. He later returned to Pierre as senior pastor.

Included in his farewell to his congregation and to Pierre, Rajek said, “...There has been a spiritual renaissance of sorts with Luther Academy of Latvia. With the emergence of COVID-19, the need for instructors in the program has grown beyond the wildest dreams of the Church….Those of you who know me well, know of my love for education and learning…. While my deployment will not come for several months, I do ask that you keep my family in your prayers during this transition…”

Until Rajek’s position can be filled, Associate Pastor Samuel Handschke is absorbing the senior pastor’s responsibilities at the Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Del Bartels | 605-224-7301

Reporter Del Bartels, a born and raised South Dakotan and a graduate from Black Hills State University, was the editor of a weekly newspaper for 17 years.

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