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The Rev. Herbert Chilstrom, a Minnesota native and former Lutheran bishop, is being remembered for his faith, his quiet wisdom and for helping lead the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America through its early years after forming.

Chilstrom, 88, died Jan. 19 in his Arizona home. He was a careful thinker, a gentle mentor and a pastor who truly made the word "evangelical" — sharing the good news — the center of his life, said Bishop Jon Anderson of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA.

"He had a passion for gardening and, in many ways, that's what he was doing — he was a gardener," Anderson said. "He sowed the seeds of the gospel. His theology emphasized God's undeserved love for us."

Born in Litchfield, Minn., Chilstrom graduated from Augsburg College before entering the seminary. He served as a pastor in Pelican Rapids, Elizabeth and St. Peter, Minn., until he was elected bishop in 1976 of the Minnesota Synod of the Lutheran Church in America.

He held that post when his and several other Lutheran denominations merged in 1987 to form the ELCA, bringing together more than 5 million members. Chilstrom was soon elected to be the first presiding bishop of what had become the fourth-largest Protestant denomination in the country. He served until 1995.

He was the exact right person to lead the ELCA in its early years, said Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. "He was a deeply faithful man, a churchman in the best sense of the word," she said. "When you talk with folks who were here during that time, you can see that his sense of calm and his conviction that this merger was a match made in heaven helped build excitement and confidence."

He was a polished writer and speaker who could easily talk with popes, presidents and business leaders. "But he had this way about him, where he never put on a professional facade, and you just knew he was a salt-of-the-earth Minnesotan," Eaton said.

Chilstrom is survived by his wife of 65 years, Corinne; daughter, Mary Cress; son, Christopher Holt; and four sisters.

He and Corinne, also a Lutheran pastor, wrote and spoke openly about the loss of their son Andrew, who died by suicide not long after leaving for college in the 1980s.

"The way he and Corinne were willing and able to be open and honest about that, I have found so important to all the challenges of my life and as pastor," Anderson said.

From early in his tenure as presiding bishop, Chilstrom worked to bridge gaps and build relationships with other denominations and faiths. He became a powerful advocate for the full participation of gay and lesbian members and pastors in the church, and fought against a proposed ban on same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

In 2013, he wrote an op-ed published in the Star Tribune saying that it wasn't until he became a bishop in the mid-1970s that he began meeting gay and lesbian members of his congregations. "They told their stories — tales of heartless rejection and accounts of persistent faith. I listened and asked questions. It was a step," he wrote.

In retirement, Chilstrom and his wife split time between St. Peter and Arizona. He became a master gardener and one of the most active volunteers on the Gustavus Adolphus College campus in St. Peter. He stepped in for about a year to help run the college's Linnaeus Arboretum while it was between directors. He spent countless hours tending the garden, said Thomas Young, vice president for advancement at Gustavus.

Gustavus will hold a memorial service at 1 p.m. Feb. 15.

In the foreword to his autobiography, Chilstrom said he believed himself to be an "evangelical conservative with a radical social conscience."

"The most radical word we can speak is a word of hope," he wrote.

Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882