National Lutheran Schools Week: Alumnus and classical education advocate Rev. John Mark Bussman followed God’s call to serve the church and Lutheran schools
John Mark Bussman ’07 originally expected to serve in the pastoral ministry as a second career, but a series of events and following God’s calling led him to realize he should serve the church in his primary vocation of pastor sooner than he expected.
Bussman began his college career at the University of Alabama studying chemistry.
“I knew that one day I would wind up at the seminary,” he said. “But I very quickly realized I wasn’t in the proper vocation. When I decided to leave the University of Alabama, I sought a university with the best Biblical language professors and applied to Concordia Nebraska.”
Bussman has a bachelor of arts degree in history from Concordia Nebraska, a master of divinity from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and he is currently in the writing process for his doctor of ministry from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.
“My favorite thing about Concordia Nebraska was learning the Biblical languages from the greatest of all time: Dr. Meehl and Dr. Blanco,” he said. “Drs. Meehl, Blanco and Phillips were especially helpful in keeping me on track and encouraging me to keep moving forward into the pastoral ministry. I still have all of their class notes and speak to Dr. Phillips on a regular basis.”
Since Bussman came to Concordia Nebraska as a transfer student, he had all of his basic level classes complete, and he had a clear idea of his vocation and path.
“Once I arrived, I was able to be completely focused on my pre-seminary and history classes and looking for ways to apply them to the pastoral ministry,” he said. “I think most of all my time at Concordia Nebraska made it clear that you can't ‘do church’ on your own. You need the community around you. I also became more than convinced that Lutheran worship is liturgical worship.”
Following graduation, Bussman worked for a time as a substitute teacher and tennis coach at the high school he attended and also worked salvaging wood for a local antique shop. He began his studies at Concordia Seminary in fall 2008. Following his time at the seminary, he was called to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School in Cullman, Alabama, where he has served since 2012.
Lutheran education has a long history in Cullman, Alabama. The city was founded in 1873 as a post-Civil War colony by Colonel Johann Gottfried Cullman and incorporated 1874. A mixed-confession German congregation called St. John's Protestant Church was founded that year. In 1885, the congregation became vacant and secured the services of a Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod missionary to north Alabama named Rev. Ferdinand Engelbert. Doctrinal differences became pronounced, and Rev. Engelbert and members dedicated to the Lutheran faith departed and started St. Paul's Lutheran Church. Rev. Engelbert founded St. Paul’s school in 1887, with classes first being held in the church building. In the 1890's, the school had enrollments of 50 to 70 students. The school was closed in 1916 and did not reopen until 1954 following World War II. Written records are sparse, but this may have been due to anti-German sentiment, competition from public schools, lack of funds, or lack of teachers. The school has been in operation since 1954, and will celebrate 70 years of non-stop instruction in 2024.
“When I arrived I was the sole pastor overseeing the church and school. At that time, our music director, principal, and most of our school staff were not members of our congregation,” he explained. “I focused very heavily on catechesis from the beginning. My time was almost split 50/50 between the church and the school. I did the best I could in the early days to make it around to all of the classrooms for religion and began leading a daily morning assembly for singing and catechesis with the students. This has now transitioned to daily Matins. Since the early days, we have called an associate pastor – Rev. Christopher Clark - to serve as cantor and to lead all choirs. We called another associate pastor - Rev. Richard Gaub - to serve as headmaster of our school and a deaconess – Kate Phillips - who serves as one of our teachers. All of this movement has been intentional so as to further unify our church and school and move in a classical direction.”
The renewed focus on classical Lutheran education at St. Paul’s possibly had its roots in the differences between congregants at St. John's and St. Paul's. The late 1950's and 1960's were boom years of enrollment for the school, and Rev. Bussman’s grandfather Theodore (Ted) Bussman was principal of the school during this time. Personal differences caused a division in the church and also led to the formation of another Christian school in the town, which for a time negatively impacted St. Paul's enrollment.
Bussman worked to renew interest in the St. Paul’s school and increase enrollment while reinforcing a liturgical, confessional Lutheran stance in both the church and school. The school currently serves preschool through sixth grade and has about 87 students. Bussman’s days are filled with teacher devotions, meetings, leading Matins, office work, teaching religion class, reading, writing, visiting members and also teaching Old Testament, New Testament and introduction to Biblical interpretation at a local college.
Melinda Heine ’79 has served as chair of the school committee since April 2022 and has partnered with Bussman to revamp the school’s documents, policies, guidelines and guidelines to conform to a classical model and reestablish the priority of theology and academics in the school. The school is currently seeking accreditation with the Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education (CCLE). Heine’s late husband Rev. William Heine was a founding member of CCLE and a member of the final graduating class of Concordia High School in Seward in 1972. He graduated from Concordia Teachers College in Seward in 1978.
“Much of the nuts and bolts work of revitalizing the school is being shouldered by Rev. Bussman and Rev. Gaub,” explained Heine. “We now have every-day chapel with Morning Prayer or Matins, introduced Latin instruction beginning in grade 1, and completely revamped curricula, exchanging public school texts with classical curricula which parallels other classical Lutheran schools. While our staff is not entirely LCMS, all religion classes are taught by member teachers or one of our pastors.”
The school also features a music and art conservatory program. All three pastors are heavily invested in the school teaching classes and assisting with administration and general oversight.
“The St. Paul’s Lutheran School motto is ‘Mens Colatur; Anima Nutriatur.’ This saying is Latin for "to cultivate the mind; to nourish the soul" which succinctly sums up the purpose of a classical Lutheran education,” said Heine. “St. Paul's Lutheran School is for both church member children and those who agree to the theological, academic, and administrative tenets of the school.”
Like many Lutheran schools, St. Paul’s is constantly challenged with ongoing maintenance and building needs. Although the school was considered state of the art in 1954, time has taken its toll on the facility. In August 2022, a broken sump pump flooded the lower level of the building, which includes the school lunchroom, two classrooms and storage areas. This unexpected event forced much-needed renovations, which are being funded in part by a generous grant from the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League.
“Recruitment of students is very challenging as Cullman has the reputation of having one of the better public schools in the state and there are other private schools in the city, as well,” said Heine. “On the other hand, this is a blessing. People are at St. Paul's because they want to be, not because it's the only alternative to public school available. Our parents are committed and our student retention rate is high.”
Bussman said his days are full and the work is never-ending, but he rejoices in his vocation and his service to the church and school.
“What I find fulfilling in teaching is seeing light bulbs go off for people as they see Jesus for the first time in various accounts that they've heard their whole life,” he said. “In visitation it's delivering the Sacrament and hearing people tell their own stories from long ago. Sometimes it's just as fulfilling to go to the playground and hear the littlest of our school children holler out, ‘Pastor Bussman! Will you swing me?’ Even throughout the worst of days when it seems like no one wants to get along, there's always someone who needs their pastor or there's the child whose day is made because we played ball for a few minutes.”
Despite his very busy schedule, he carefully guards his schedule to spend most late afternoons and evening with his wife and sons. Bussman met his wife Emily in high school. The duo dated off and on long distance for about 10 years. During my fourth year at seminary, she was living in Nashville and running an art studio. They reconnected during Christmas 2011, were engaged just after he arrived at St. Paul's and were married in April 2013. Their first son, Gabriel, was born in May 2014, and our second son, Luke, was born in February 2016. When he is not serving at the church and school Bussman enjoys spending time outside with his family. Free time at home is usually spent landscaping or in wood work.
“I like to travel, so I still also try to get a good ride in on the motorcycle,” he said. “Our family likes to enjoy a quick overnight away from home from time to time. Cullman is within a couple of hours of Chattanooga at the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. It makes for an easy getaway when the boys have a holiday from school.”
Bussman is humbly proud of the good, Christ-focused work being done at St. Paul’s and is an unwavering fan of classical Lutheran education.
“When you think of ‘being Lutheran,’ most people probably think of the Midwest or even Missouri. It's in the name, after all!” he added. “But I do think the hub of confessional Lutheranism is shifting out of the Midwest and into places like Montana and Wyoming and surprisingly to the south. Increasingly, today parents want a place to raise their children that is free of the cultural nonsense being forced upon them. If you're looking for such a place, come south! Confessional churches with classical Lutheran education do exist down here, and the weather's pretty nice, too!”
There is an ongoing need for trained Lutheran teachers in schools across the country. Are you interested in learning more about Lutheran educator training at Concordia Nebraska? Discover more here.