Whitefish Bay Patch is launching a recurring Q&A feature with people in the community, and we are starting with Rev. Seth Dietrich from .
How long have you been involved with Christ Church?
In 2007 I came to Christ Church from the Washington, DC, area where I went to seminary. I have been the head pastor since 2009.
Where are you from originally, and what did you do prior to coming to Christ Church?
I was born and raised in Austin, TX, but I have parents from the Midwest, and my family would travel up to Evanston, IL every summer to spend time with my father's family. Coming from the Texas heat, the Chicago-area seemed like a paradise on earth. These summers helped influence my choice of college, and I attended a small Christian liberal arts college called Wheaton College in the western suburbs of Chicago. I met my wife, Maggie, and earned a degree in English, and we both worked at a camp in northern Wisconsin leading wilderness trips similar to Outward Bound. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life except maybe write a novel — which turns out to be quite difficult. Who knew? I followed my wife to Madison for her graduate program, and for a couple years I sold health insurance to small businesses. Then I ran a meal program for homeless adults with severe mental illness. All along there was a subtle inner-whisper that I should think about becoming a pastor. I avoided it until I couldn't any longer.
Why did you decide to become a pastor?
When my best friend asked me that question after I told him I was thinking about pursuing ordination, I told him that I sensed that there was this great all-consuming Love at the heart of existence (this is how I conceive of God), and I wanted to drop everything and pursue that Love with everything I had. At the same time, I was working with homeless men and women with severe mental illness, and I felt like I wanted to provide them with both physical and spiritual resources. Going into ministry seemed like a good road.
What is your favorite thing about Christ Church? Is it different from other churches?
It's really an amazing collection of people who are always making room for more people. I think it's always been a place where you can be yourself — introverted or extroverted, liberal or conservative, strong in faith or riddled with doubt (I think many of us are both at the same time).
One of my favorite things about the place is how we go from music that is largely grounded in a dynamic, classical choir and robust organ for nine months of the year to a summer service in our garden with guitars and sometimes banjos or accordions or whatever other things we can come up with. The congregation makes the transition effortlessly back and forth, which never ceases to amaze me.
In what ways are you involved in the Whitefish Bay or Milwaukee community?
There are many, many people in the church who are giving to Whitefish Bay and Milwaukee in very profound ways. This is a church that helped found ministries in Milwaukee like the Gathering and Our Next Generation tutoring program. On the whole, we draw people who want to put their faith into action. Personally, I am on the board of Sojourner Family Peace Center, which works to create communities free of domestic violence. I also serve on the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. This gives me the opportunity to form friendships with Muslims and Jews and other Christians and to stand together with them for human dignity and social justice.
What influences you or inspires you?
I'm inspired by artists and musicians who take great creative risks knowing there will sometimes be catastrophic failures. I just saw a PBS documentary on the band Pearl Jam, and this was a dominant theme. I'm inspired by martyrs like Archbishop Oscar Romero, who gave his life standing with those who were poor and marginalized (I wish I had just 10% of this kind of moral courage). I'm inspired by ordinary people who show incredible grace and kindness even under great stress (sometimes I get cranky at the smallest things). Mostly, I'm inspired by this Jewish guy, Jesus, who lived and breathed love, and who, I believe, is mysteriously still alive.
You're known for your down-to-earth personality (at least from what I've gathered). Where did that come from, and how do you think it helps you connect with people?
I don't know where my personality comes from. My parents, I guess. They are pretty amazing, down-to-earth people. My father was a theoretical mathematician who didn't get tenure and he says it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He decided to design and build houses instead.
What is your hope for the future of Christ Church Episcopal?
My hope is that we are just getting started. I just hired a young associate pastor from Duke Divinity School (his name is also Seth — what are the chances?). I hope we can continue to expand in all kinds of directions: as a force for good in the greater-Milwaukee area, in children's education, in interfaith exploration, in different kinds of music. We have some great momentum around caring for creation and sustainability. My greatest hope is that all of us imperfect people who have wandered into this community are continually shaped into people of compassion and hope and peace.