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Third President of Concordia University Irvine

March 13, 2023 - 6 minute read

Concordia Third's President, the Rev. Dr. J.A.O. Preus III(shown on  left), entered into his eternal rest on August 4, 2022. 

Though I never formally enrolled in any classroom where Jack taught, his friendship and mentorship shaped my theological mindset and my pastoral practice. I met him in the mid-1990s while visiting Concordia Seminary, St. Louis as a guest speaker. At the time, Jack was serving as chair of the department of Systematic Theology (1992-1994) and then as dean of the faculty (1994-1998). Jack transformed my way of thinking about the Lutheran Confessions, and thus, the trajectory of my vocation.

Connecting the Dots

J.A.O., Jacob Aall Ottesen — Jack’s father, of the same name, was a former president of The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS). His grandfather, also of the same name, was a former governor of the state of Minnesota. Beyond his impressive family pedigree, Jack earned his own indisputable credentials. B.A., M.Div., S.T.M., Th.D. were the letters that followed his name.

For Jack, intellectual curiosity was not a mere amusement of the academically inclined, it was part of his vocation, a necessary component of his calling, so that the theology he loved might contribute meaningfully to the world God loved, for which Jesus Christ died. 

Jack’s wife of 47 years, Sherry, whom he met when they were students together at Lutheran High School South in St. Louis, humbly says it this way, almost as an understatement: “He paid serious attention to what was going on in the world.” 

Jack’s theological writings attest that the Confessions were meant to be confessed to be used in engaging all the daunting dilemmas of real life in this complex world. 

"There are huge global issues of which we remain ignorant and even unconcerned. We have barely paid attention to the challenges brought by a veritable paradigm shift in the philosophy of language, by the claims of postmodernism, by the debate raging in the world about the uniqueness and universality of Christ, by the landmark work being done on the doctrine of the Trinity, by the shift to post-colonialist approaches to missions—and many more such challenges. We must avoid becoming parochial and thus irrelevant. We have too much to contribute to these debates to keep ourselves ghettoed off to the side, dealing merely with our own peculiar issues."

It was not about either being an effective pastor or being an astute theologian. It was both! Jack not only insisted that we should “connect the dots,” but for me and for many, he showed where the theological dots were located and how confessional theology was meant to be a source and resource for preaching, evangelism, and community engagement, in urban ministry settings in the U.S.A. and around the world.

Sherry recalls that Jack was “always out in the world.” He served his nation as a Navy reservist in Operation Desert Storm. He also had a passion for travel, to “lift up what Lutherans are doing globally, in Europe, Eastern Europe, but also Latin America, all parts of Asia, and Africa; Jack treasured the work they were doing in their countries.” He traveled to and taught in many of these places. This cosmopolitan confidence was driven by Jack’s conviction that the promises of God are meant to be revealed in Christian witness.

A Model for Leadership

It is no wonder Jack became the president of Concordia University Irvine. His temperament and talent were suited for a place of faith and learning that holds this as a value: “Commissioned by Christ to make disciples of all nations, we lead lives of love and service towards others.” At Concordia, the Word inevitably meets the world.

During his tenure, Concordia established the School of Theology (now Christ College), Center for U.S. Missions, School of Business and Professional Studies (now the School of Business & Economics), the Nursing Program, as well as a host of graduate study programs in education, theology, coaching, business, and international studies. He was instrumental in establishing Concordia's first endowed professorship, the Harry and Caroline Trembath Professor of Confessional Theology. He also worked to establish missionary and student exchange opportunities in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand; and served as a consultant and a speaker on the intersection of contemporary culture and faith.

As a former college president, I have a profound awareness of the winsomeness and courage it takes to lead faithfully while working at these “ragged edges” of academia. Universities exist, as Martin Luther says, “for the sake of the church.” In this pluralistic world as it is, Lutheran colleges and universities are at their best when they are unafraid to be at that tip of the spear, where Christ and culture intersect. I believe the Holy Spirit desires to use Lutheran higher education to engage the world with outreach and evangelism — especially among those who are not typically like us.

Dealing with Difference

Jack was committed to the arduous work of discerning the distinctions between our human, tribal truths and transcendent truth. Tribalism not only leads us to exclude others, but can also keep us from being fair-minded in dealing with different perspectives. More perilous than this, tribalism keeps us from seeing that truth that transcends our moment in history, our human limitations, our range of relationships, or our geographic location. Preus offered this caution:

"If we ever act as if we have a corner on the truth, or as if we are the teachers to whom the rest of the world must simply listen, we will be acting in a way that is less than wise and less that respectful, and certainly out of sync with the example of the Formula [of Concord]."

The truth, Preus argued, is not merely the opposite of what is false, but transcendent truth is that which is “clearly attested to by Scripture and the analogy of faith as expressed in the ecumenical creeds.” While he was innovative as a visionary leader, he was likewise vigorously dedicated to the Reformation’s return to the foundation, to the core, to the Gospel, which is the forgiveness of sins. It wasn’t either innovation or tradition, it was both/and, each in their right place.

As the president of Concordia University Irvine, Jack’s 1998-1999 inaugural theme was “Claiming Our Heritage, Shaping Our Future.” This phrase was axiomatic for his 11 years as president. Honored to be an inaugural speaker that year, I learned that Jack’s disavowal of sectarian tribalism went beyond religion to other categories that humans use to divide themselves. Jack urged me to stretch the thinking on campus regarding different cultures. “It’s good for the future of the church,” he would often say. Or to quote him directly from his seminal work, Just Words:

"We have different genders, races, ethnicities, ages, sizes, abilities, families, interests, occupations, and a hundred other distinctions that mark each of us as unique. However, the diversity that God created as good, we have, through our sinfulness, turned into something that divides us. Rather than rejoicing in God’s diversity, we view others who differ from us with suspicion, ignorance, and even hatred."

In these hyper-partisan 2020s, the church has an opportunity to be a force for good. The culture is fallen, broken, divided. It cannot heal itself. Without Christ, people cannot forgive or be at peace. We need the Reconciler to overcome the sins of division, discord, and distrust, and to unite us “in the most profound way.” Only in Christ, Preus compellingly reminds us, will we be free to see our differences “not as sources of division, but as God meant them to be: sources of delight.”

Life Has Overcome Death

Holding on to the hope of the resurrection are: his wife, Sherry; children Dr. J.A.O. “Jack” (Anna) Preus IV, Emily (Steven) Donoso and Rebecca (Joseph) McAllister; and eight grandchildren, who were the delight of his life. A simple set of adjectives are used by Jack’s family to describe his care towards them: “always affectionate, jovial, and complimentary.” 

Jack knew and loved both the Word and the world. But he also knew where life was to be found:

At best, our lives in this present age are only a faint image of the life to come. ...“Where, O death, is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). Life has overcome death. Therefore, death is no longer the doorway into the unknown, much less into nothing. Rather, death is our portal into life, life eternal with Christ in heavenly bliss and happiness in the presence of Him who is life.

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