The good news: University Lutheran Church welcomes Emily and Zachariah Shipman


During a service last Sunday (Feb. 18), Zachariah Shipman, the new associate pastor of East Lansing’s University Lutheran Church, preached to the congregation, “Who can be saved? This is a question that still plagues people today, and, sadly, when humans try to make this determination on their own, it causes great strife, pain, and despair … but this is the good news of Jesus: You can’t save yourself if God chooses to do it anyway. Your salvation has already been achieved. All that needs doing has been done by Jesus. God’s love for you is enough. God’s grace is enough.”

Shipman, 35, grew up on Air Force bases. Although his family worshipped as Lutherans, he noted there wasn’t much choice when it came to church services.

“They just lumped all the Protestants together, so you had that or Catholicism,” he said. He experienced a variety of worship styles within Protestantism, but he ultimately realized, “Yeah, I think I really am a Lutheran.”

Specifically, he said he values the beliefs Lutherans have about God and the concept of eternal salvation.

“The theology is what draws me in. So often in the media, we see Christians condemning others, but that’s not scriptural. Lutherans don’t believe that salvation is something we can earn by our own merit. We believe that God chooses to love us.” He laughed a little and then continued, “We’re not, like, trying to win a contest.”

Shipman is joined at University Lutheran by his wife, Emily Shipman, the church’s new senior pastor. The couple was formally installed in their positions Feb. 11.

Although she grew up in Minnesota, Emily, 37, has lived all over the world, including six countries in Africa as well as New Zealand and Malaysia, where she and her husband completed their seminary internships in Kuala Lumpur.

“There are a lot of different kinds of Lutherans. We are in the ELCA, which is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” she said. “Churches have a lot of ‘churchy’ language, and ours is a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Basically, that means everyone is welcome here. We welcome people in the LGBTQ community.”

According to the ReconcilingWorks website, Lutheran congregations are considered Reconciling in Christ partners if they meet four requirements: clearly stating a welcome to LGBTQ+ people, along with a strong commitment to racial equity or anti-racism; allowing the church sanctuary to be used for LGBTQ+ weddings and blessings; making a meaningful annual contribution to the national Reconciling in Christ program; and being open to calling LGBTQ+ people and people of color to lead the congregation.

Emily said that since she began her position at University Lutheran, she’s been impressed by the work the congregation does and how active the members are in the wider community.

“We have a group for almost everything,“ she said. “We have a racial justice group; we have Food Movers, which is partnered with the Islamic Center; we have the Earth Keeping Team, which is focused on the environment. This congregation is working on getting better at loving people and serving people.”

The couple has two young children, and during our interview, Zachariah sat with their son, Theo, at a children’s table in the front of the church sanctuary while Emily and I sat in a pew. They’re funny and friendly, and it’s clear that Zachariah really likes telling stories from the Bible. At one point, Emily asked me, “Do you want that much detail? He’s really going into detail.”

The Shipmans were “installed” after “answering the call” to serve at University Lutheran. I asked about the churchy language: How do you “answer the call”? Is there a phone involved? And how do you decide when you want to leave your current position?

Emily said the process for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastors to join a community is based on a mutual decision between the pastors and the congregation.

“We are not placed like in some faiths. We have to express that we want to be somewhere, and the congregation has to express that they want us there, too,” she said.

Before moving to East Lansing, the Shipmans led four churches throughout a rural community in North Dakota for nine years. Although they spoke positively about the experience, they said they had hit a wall and were looking to make a change.

“We had a hard time getting people to volunteer for things,” Emily said. That’s not so at University Lutheran, where “the support and enthusiasm that people have is amazing.”

“We interviewed with over 30 congregations,” said Zachariah, who mentioned that most of the interviews were done via Zoom.

According to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America website, the faith is organized based on nine geographic regions, and then by synods. Using the Find Your Synod tool, I was able to confirm that Michigan has three synods: Southeast Michigan, North/West Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. According to data from the site, our region’s synod has seen a steady decline in participation over the past decade, decreasing from 24,036 active participants in 2015 to 16,195 active participants in 2022.

The Shipmans said University Lutheran’s most recent service had more than 100 attendees and featured a lot of music, including a local high schooler performing on the flute.

“Campus ministry and music are two strong passions of this church,” Emily said. For the Lenten season, she said the church is hosting 30-minute noon services on Wednesdays and serving soup and bread for lunch. The services will explore the Holden Evening Prayer, a contemporary Lutheran worship service that includes songs, psalms and prayers. She also said that the preaching this season will include teachings from the 1978 book “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth,” by Richard Foster. During Sunday services, the church offers Communion to all who attend, and everyone is welcome to participate, including children if they have their parents’ permission.

As I left our interview, Zachariah called after me, “Feel free to come whenever you want. The music is really good.”

Emily quipped, “And the preaching is OK!”


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