Esko pastor leaves legacy of loving nature and people

Pastor Jeff Walther was known for his involvement in the community, his love of nature and his passion for ministry.

The late Pastor Jeffery Walther prior to officiating an outdoor wedding. (Photo courtesy of Christina Walther)

Christina Walther remembers exactly where she met her late husband of 27 years, Pastor Jeff Walther.

She was a student at Concordia College in Moorhead, and Jeff attended Concordia University in St. Paul. Jeff was recruiting for a program called Christian Ministry in the National Parks and they both ended up serving in Grand Teton National Park. Jeff was recruiting for a program called Christian Ministry in the National Parks and they both ended up serving in Grand Teton National Park.

"That's where we first got to know each other 29 years ago," Christina said. "It became a place we kept going back to after we were married."

That summer Christina got to know Jeff and two of his biggest passions in life: preaching and sharing God's word and outdoor ministry. Those passions and a call to ministry brought the couple to serve at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Esko. Jeff was pastor for 20 years until his death due to complications from COVID-19 in October.

Jeff was born and raised in Wadena, Minnesota, where he graduated before heading off to Concordia University. After college, he served Grace Lutheran Church in Central Islip, New York, and as alumni and church relations director at Concordia University.


He later returned to the theme of nature when he completed his doctorate degree. His thesis focused on preaching outdoors in the Bible.

"It was a huge part of his life," Christina said. "He loved to be out in nature, taking in and seeing different aspects of God's creation. We'd go hiking in Jay Cooke, or visit the parks on the North Shore and camp, or pick a lake and go kayaking."

Jeff was also really into nature photography, and Christina said he'd always have his camera around his neck, ready to capture a photo.

During his time as pastor, Jeff became fairly well-known in the Esko community. He'd get to know students through vacation Bible school, confirmation classes and going to sporting events. He participated in mock interviews with high school students each spring and helped out with the baccalaureate service. He liked to visit people, whether or not they attended his church, according to Christina.

"He was just a really friendly person. Everywhere he went he was able to strike up a conversation. He’d get to know people at the grocery store. I mean, it was just the way that he was," Christina said.

And the community came together to show their support for the family as well after Jeff, Christina and their son, Alex, came down with COVID-19 in September.

"People — not just from the church, but from all over the community — started bringing meals to the house," Christina said. "I still have a freezer full of meals. It was tremendous. That's one of the cool things about Esko; it's one awesome community where everyone goes out of their way to help each other."

Losing Jeff has been difficult for all who knew him.


Pastor Bruce Bergstedt, of the Esko Apostolic Lutheran Church, said Jeff's death is being felt throughout the community.

"I’ve had some losses in ministry before, but none that have affected me like Jeff. He was unique. We were able to talk about anything. It was just a privilege to know him," said Bergstedt. "Esko is going to miss Jeff."

Bergstedt met Jeff shortly after he began ministering at St. Matthew's. He said they hit it off right from the start thanks the their shared interests in ministry and nature. The two would frequently golf together and spent time talking about all facets of ministry. Although they served in different denominations, they found they had more things in common than separated them.

"We'd plan our Advent and Lenten services around materials that Jeff had access to through the Missouri Synod," Bergstedt said. "Although we served in different branches, there was still a feeling of togetherness in faith."

Jeff was also known for "not being afraid to look silly" Christina said. He'd do things to make kids laugh at vacation Bible school or break into song and dance at the grocery store if a good song came on.

It's that attitude toward life Christina said the family is holding on to.

"We're definitely navigating a new path right now, but just remembering that example of Jeff's joy and faith in his life and combining that with the strength from God, we'll make it," Christina said.

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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