The Rev. Dr. Russ Seger of Chadron was joined by his family and many friends in observing the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a minister of the gospel on Sunday, June 5 at the Chadron Congregational, United Church of Christ, at Fourth and Chadron Avenue, where he has served more than 20 years.
It was a festive occasion that featured some outstanding music. The Seger family joined forces to sing a gospel hymn. There also was a duet by the Segers’ daughter, Kelli Juhl of Hot Springs, and her daughter, and an emotional solo by Russ and Linda’s son, Jeremiah, who lives Des Moines, where he has his own construction business and sings in a community choir.
Russ expressed his appreciation to the audience for coming to share in his celebration and told numerous stories about his long tenure in the ministry that has been far from normal.
While he was ordained 50 years ago, it was about 63 years ago when realized that the ministry was the direction his life was headed. He recalled that when he was 10 years old after he had sung a solo at the church he was attending in Rapid City. a lady in the congregation came forward. placed her hands on him and said, “Russell, I think you have been called to the ministry.”
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Truer words were never spoken. The fall of 1967 after he had graduated from Rapid City High School, he enrolled at Open Bible College in Des Moines. He graduated four years later, was immediately licensed as a minister and ordained a year later—in 1972.
He’s either been receiving more training or preaching ever since, and says it’s been an awesome experience, much of it uncharted, but always productive and fulfilling.
Seger related that while his parents did not attend church regularly, but they made sure he went to Sunday school.
“They didn’t have to ‘make me go’,” he said. “I wanted to go. I liked the people and enjoyed what I was learning.”
The training included lots of Bible instruction and memorization of a verse each week, he said. “All the verses were from the King James Version, of course. It’s amazing. They come back to me when I need them. I’ve always been grateful for that basic Bible instruction. Faith anchors our lives and gives us stability in God’s love. Faith goes beyond what I can describe, but it sustains me.”
The best thing about enrolling at Open Bible College, Seger says with a smile, was meeting his wife, Linda, who also was a student there. He calls her “a remarkable human, who besides being the mother of our (two) children has been my teacher and provided tremendous support.”
They were married before they graduated. After receiving their degrees—his in Bible and theology and hers in education and guidance—they moved to Cuba City, Wis., to pastor a small church.
Before long, a member of the congregation died. Seger says preaching funeral sermons was not something he had studied. He sought the advice of the undertaker, but was told “I’ll take care of the body, you take care of the family.”
“I soon learned I was undertrained for my job, so after two years we moved back to Des Moines so I could have more training and earn a master’s degree at Drake University, which was affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination,” Seger related. “They did not accept all the credits I had earned at Open Bible College, and made me take more undergraduate work before I could start my master’s program.”
Seger spent 3 ½ years at Drake earning the second undergraduate degree in psychology and the master’s degree in theology. All that time he also was pastoring a nearby church, “so we’d have something to live on.”
The Segers’ next move was to the University of Dubuque, a Presbyterian institution about 190 miles northeast of Des Moines, to study for a doctorate. He was there five years, completing the work in December 1986, and, again, was a busy pastor at a nearby church as well as a graduate student. His ministry broadened there.
While his first funeral sermon some six years earlier may have been a struggle, since then he had become absorbed by topics such as death and dying along with grief management. As he looks back on his life, he believes two tragedies he witnessed as a youth had honed that interest.
One was the suicide by his step-grandfather and the other the gruesome death of one of his elderly newspaper route customers, who stepped off the sidewalk onto the street and was immediately struck by a payloader, a large dirt moving machine.
“Those are things you never forget,” he noted.
The University of Dubuque had no courses that focused on such adversities and how they could be managed, but Seger found a professor, Dr. Herbert Anderson, who appreciated Russ’s interest, and told him perhaps they could create such a curriculum.
“We did that,” Seger said. “I did lots of reading and research. It helped shape me as a minister and has led to many remarkable and powerful experiences.”
After receiving his doctorate, the Segers returned to Des Moines, where he was the pastor of the Avon Community Church and also became the first chaplain at the Des Moines General Hospital. During the 8 ½ years he filled the latter position, he conducted at least 1,200 funerals. He also worked closely with doctors and other hospital staff, trying to help them realize, in his words, that death is a one-on-one matter, its inevitable and it’s not a sin to die.
Russ chuckles when he recalls making the latter statement during a staff meeting, and one of the doctors jumped from his chair, pounded his fist on the table and shouted, “It is in this hospital.”
Since 1995, Seger has been a member of the Federal Emergency Management Team, certified as a grief and trauma counselor. That same year, Seger was part of the team that went to Oklahoma City following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building where 168 people died.
Two years later he was sent to Guam, where a South Korean airliner had crashed on a U.S military base, killing 229 of the 254 who were aboard, according to Wikipedia. His duties included sorting through the wreckage and identifying the bodies the best he could.
“South Korea wanted us to bury the plane with the victims in it,” Russ relates. “That’s not the American way. An important part of the healing process is for the family to have a connection with the corpse. Our job was a challenge. We didn’t have enough body bags and no refrigeration.”
That was one of four major plane crashes that Seger has helped with. He also took a leave of absence from his pastorate in Chadron and spent three weeks in New York City following the destruction of the Twin Towers and the death of more than 3,000 on 9/11. That experience included both helping identify the victims and working with grieving survivors, helping them begin the healing process.
It was Linda’s idea that the Segers leave Iowa in 1999 and come west. She wanted to teach on the Pine Ridge Reservation. When she signed a contract, Russ said, “I had to find a job.”
The church, which held Chadron’s first gospel services in 1885, was looking for a pastor. Russ was offered the job on an interim basis fort 1999-2000 and he accepted. But the church in Iowa where he had been serving, required him to return there the following year before he could move to Chadron permanently in 2001.
When he returned, the church board gave him permission to utilize his vast training and experience to also serve for the chaplain for the town, the fire and police departments and the community’s Hospice program. Depending on the circumstances, the latter can be nearly a full-time job in itself, although on the average Russ says he spends from six to eight hours a week in that duty.
“It can be an awesome task to walk alongside someone in the shadow of death,” Seger notes. “It often opens the door to great friendships as I share with them during what is often the most important and also the most difficult time in their life.
“It’s often a wonderful opportunity for me to help them. I often hear confessions and learn about unfinished businesses they want to resolve. That’s called clinical debriefing. I have heard stories that will break your heart. Sometimes I cry with them. I also answer many spiritual questions. I listen carefully, but try not to be judgmental.”
Because of the relationships Seger has developed with the ailing person, he often preaches their funeral sermon, particularly when they don’t have a church home. He said that’s usually between 25 and 30 annually in Chadron.
Of course, not everyone who dies has been in Hospice care. Tragically, that happened to community members recently. Just a few days after Seger was recognized for his 50 years as an ordained minister, he was asked to conduct the funerals for Les Ouderkirk, who had died unexpectedly while on vacation with his wife, Kimberly, the pianist for the United Church of Christ, and also for Chadron businessman and Dawes County commissioner Levi Grant, who was died, along with his companion, Mimi Wheeler Groves, in a motorcycle wreck in Utah.
He knew both men well and their deaths were a shock to him, like they were to everyone else.
Russ said he relies on his long-standing faith to get him through the emotional trials he encounters. “Without that faith, it would be incredibly difficult to see beyond the present,” he added. “When I know God is with me, I believe I can survive all disasters.”
Russ’s relationship with his United Church of Christ congregation, is a blessing, he emphasizes.
“I love Chadron and I love this congregation. I would trust them with my wallet,” he said with his ever-present smile. “I share in both their joys and their sorrows.”
Now that he’s observed his milestone anniversary, he knows the question will be asked, “How much longer will you continue being our pastor?”
“I plan to stay as long as my health is good and I feel I can be effective,” he responded. “I know it will be at least another year because Linda has signed a contract to teach at Red Shirt again this year.”