Feeding the spirit, feeding the hungry — for Bob Engbrecht, both are God’s will
As printed in The Marketplace July/August 2017
For many people, one “calling” in life is enough. Bob Engbrecht has had two — one to pastoral ministry, the other to feeding the world.
Today, at age 78, Engbrecht has retired from one but not both.
He still lives on the farm he grew up on near Marion, South Dakota. Now he rents out the 600 acres on which he raised corn and soybeans for many years. His eyes light up as he talks about the vintage Farmall tractor standing proudly at the entrance to his farm. And he still serves as a visitation pastor, mostly to the elderly, bringing spiritual comfort and his own brand of warm exuberance to residents of three care homes in southeastern South Dakota.
“I grew up on this farm,” he says, gesturing to the outbuildings and the Farmall. “It was my Dad’s farm. This was where I grew into my calling to be a farmer — working alongside my Dad, getting involved with 4-H and FFA,” referring to two historic agricultural organizations, 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America.
While farming remained part of his personal and spiritual DNA, Engbrecht also sensed a call to pastoral ministry.
As a young man he studied at Grace College of the Bible in Omaha, planning to become a spiritual counselor. The 1967 Six-Day Arab-Israeli war delayed some of those plans, as it did for many who followed Dispensational theology and its emphasis that “the end times are near” and “this was no time to start a career.”
With the preparation he had, Engbrecht took a position with a community church in Iowa. While there, he continued his studies at Dubuque Theological Seminary and gained a broader outlook.
His ministry included pastoring Reformed and Mennonite churches and working in eldercare, including administering a nursing home and hospital. From 1992 to 2007 he pastored the Salem-Zion Mennonite Church in Freeman.
Meanwhile his wife, Joanne, was diagnosed with Alzheimers, and Engbrecht became her primary care-giver for 10 years. She died in 2005.
In 2007 he married Marla, who owns a farm in Nebraska that also produces corn and soybeans.
Some four years ago Engbrecht accepted a half-time visitation position from Salem Mennonite Church in Freeman (a sister congregation), making regular rounds providing comfort, healing and restoration.
“Ninety percent of my time is visitation,” he says. “I preach maybe three to five sermons a year.”
“And he’s very good,” interjects Marla. “Every time I hear him preach I learn something.”
Engbrecht keeps active in his so-called retirement. He no longer maintains the dog kennel business he ran for 35 years, raising Shih Tzu, Pekingese, silky terriers and Bernese (named after the Swiss canton), but still supervises a few litters a year. He also tends 10 hives of bees and produces golden honey for home use as well as for donations and gifts.
Through it all, farming has remained part of the mix. He sees it as another spiritual calling, thanks to the influence of his father.
“He had a heart for people who were hungry,” says Engbrecht. Though he didn’t speechify on his calling, he expressed his vision “while fixing a machine or cleaning the barn.”
Engbrecht remembers a prolonged dry spell. When rain finally fell on some nearby land but not on theirs, his father mused, “It’s important that people get rain because people need to be fed.”
“He was farming to feed people,” Engbrecht recalls. “He felt that he had a call like unto the call of a pastor. For him, that calling was to feed the people of the world.”
Engbrecht learned lifelong lessons. He learned that farming was a noble endeavor. The soil — “the place where it began” — became part of his stewardship. “Soil, ground, agriculture — that’s what sustains us.”
To this day, Engbrecht sees work and worship as intertwined. “It’s important to be able to express what you believe in your work. As a farmer, you are doing God’s will when you feed people. Agriculture is a calling. Food production is a calling.”
He jokes that he has never fully appropriated the biblical parable that says you can’t serve two masters. “It didn’t work for me,” he says. “I have loved both.”
Retirement hasn’t dimmed Engbrecht’s view of his agricultural calling. He wants his estate to continue to uphold his values long after he’s gone. For him that means supporting projects with long-term transformational impact — “not just gratis gifts but helping others to help themselves.”
His stewardship vision gained focus on a trip to Guatemala in the 1990s where he saw hands-on development. Later he purchased shares in MiCredito, a Nicaragua microfinance institution started by MEDA.
He plans to turn his 600 acres of farmland over to MEDA in coming years while honoring relationships with his current tenants and thus continuing to support family farms. Upon his death, the proceeds will support MEDA’s global agricultural programs.
“He has arranged the stewardship of his land so that it ends up in the hands of families who share his work values and also helps tens of thousands of families on the road out of poverty and onto the path to hope,” says Mike Miller, MEDA’s senior director of resource development.
Miller notes how Engbrecht’s long-range vision aligns with MEDA’s perspective. “Much of our work is helping smallholder farmers to have sustainable livelihoods through better access to markets, financial services, appropriate technologies and environmental best practices. Concurrently we share our values: stewardship of land, human and financial resources; and go the second mile to create opportunities for the poor to realize their God given potential.”
“I see MEDA as the connecting link,” says Engbrecht. “It made sense, logically and spiritually, to do it. Giving land to MEDA is a way to feed people long-term.”
His gift will bring both his callings into final convergence.
“I am a steward of what God has entrusted,” he says. “I didn’t have children, and here’s a way to extend my life’s efforts.” ◆