Bishop Laurie Haller initially thought she would be a church organist. As a high school student, she attended a pipe organ recital that “transported me to a place I’d never been.” Several months later, she started taking lessons and before long was off to study organ performance in college. While earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she began to sense God calling her to pastoral ministry — a door she didn’t even think was open to her.
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In addition to being a pastor and musician, Bishop Laurie is an author and an endurance athlete who has participated in marathons and triathlons. In this conversation, she shares some early memories of growing up in the General Conference Mennonite Church and how she continues to keep her spirit in shape.
Bishop Laurie Haller
- Read Bishop Laurie's bio on UMC.org.
- Visit Bishop Laurie's blog Leading From the Heart.
- Buy Bishop Haller's book Recess: Rediscovering Play and Purpose.
- Explore the Iowa Conference where Bishop Laurie serves.
- Learn about music ministries in The United Methodist Church.
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Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communication’s and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
Today we have the privilege of meeting Bishop Laurie Haller who serves the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church. Early in high school Bishop Haller was drawn to the pipe organ.
Bishop Haller: When I was in 9th grade we built a new church and happened to contract with the Fisk Organ Company in Massachusetts to build a tracker action pipe organ.
Joe: Soon after she started taking lessons and later earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in organ performance. Bishop Haller: Once I went to college and grad school and kind of felt that tugging from the heart toward ministry.
Joe: Bishop Haller was ordained in the General Conference Mennonite Church and later transferred her ordination to the United Methodist Church. In addition to being a bishop, she’s an author and an endurance athlete.
Bishop Haller: I also ride a bike. I’ve done triathlons. I’ve run the Boston Marathon 10 times.
Joe: Recently Bishop Laurie had a God-moment that called to mind that time in her life when she first fell in love with the pipe organ.
Bishop Haller: About a year ago one of our churches here in Iowa was ravaged by a tornado. Their church happened to have the largest pipe organ in the whole state. And I said to them, you know, “I used to play the organ. When you get that organ rebuilt let me know and I’ll come and play it.” They now have an organ company which happens to be — coincidentally or a God thing — the very same organ company in Massachusetts that built the organ in my home Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania.
Joe: Meet Bishop Laurie Haller.
On the phone
Joe: Bishop Laurie, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Haller: Thank you, Joe.
Joe: When I read your biography one of the things that leapt off the page for me is that you have both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in organ performance. When did you start playing music?
Bishop Haller: Well, I’ve always loved music. I’ve gone to church my whole life and I happen to grow up in the General Conference Mennonite Church in southeastern Pennsylvania. And when I was in ninth grade we moved. We built a new church because we were outgrowing the church we had in town. We moved to the outskirts of town, built a church and happened to contract with the Fisk Organ Company in Massachusetts to build a tracker action pipe organ. Now that’s very unusual for a Mennonite Church. But our congregation had a great history of music.
My father was on the building committee. He’s also a singer. So he was instrumental in having this organ built. And so when I was in 11th grade we’d already been in the church for about…the new church for about a year. And I was fascinated by this free-standing gorgeous organ. And I attended an organ recital by a member of our church. She was an organ major at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. And she was playing her senior organ recital at our church. I went with my mom and dad. I was in 10th grade at the time. She just like transported me to a place I’d never been, especially when she played Bach.
Joe: Oh, wow.
Bishop Haller: And so I would just. ... I didn’t know what to make of this. I was just so fascinated. And then less than a month after that recital, Joan Keller, the young woman who played the recital, was killed in a tragic car accident. It just took me aback especially because her father was our associate pastor at the church, and a person that I loved and knew very well. He was my pastor.
So a few months later I went to my dad and said, I think I want to learn how to play the organ. Well, by then I was starting 11th grade, and people don’t usually start playing a keyboard instrument that late, although I’d had a few piano lessons here and there over the years. But I just fell in love with the organ. I got a really good organ teacher from the area, and that started my journey into church music.
So I went to college at Wittenberg University and majored in organ and had a chance to study in Berlin, Germany for a year. Then I went to grad school and that was my life.
Joe: So did you serve as a church organist for some time?
Bishop Haller: I did when I was in graduate school. I was at Yale University, and during the four years I was there, when I got my music degree, master’s degree and then my MDiv, I was the director of music at a United Methodist church in Stratford, Connecticut. That was my first introduction to The United Methodist Church.
Joe: You said you grew up in the Mennonite Church, right? Is that correct?
Bishop Haller: Yes.
Joe: And there’s ties between the Mennonites and the Methodists that go way back to the very beginnings of the Methodist Church.
Bishop Haller: Well, I think there are some. The Mennonites and the Methodists share a deep love and a passion for evangelical piety and social justice, so I felt very comfortable serving in that church. Little did I know at the time that I would eventually become a United Methodist pastor. It was a wonderful time in my life.
Joe: Do you play other instruments or do you sing? What other musical abilities do you have?
Bishop Haller: It’s mainly playing the organ and keyboard. But organ more than piano. And singing. I’ve done a lot of singing over the years as well.
Joe: Wow. Could you share with me some of your memories of that church that you grew up in?
Bishop Haller: Well, I come from a long history of Mennonites, going back to the 1700s when Mennonites immigrated to America from Germany and Switzerland. So that’s in my blood. I grew up in the most progressive branch of the Mennonites with General Conference Mennonite Church, and I was highly steeped in the Mennonite faith. I had uncles, great uncles that were pastors.
The only issue for me once I went to college and grad school and kind of felt that tugging in my heart for ministry, I was told, Well, that’s great, but women can’t be pastors in the Mennonite church. So that’s what I heard after I’d been to college and even when I went to Yale to graduate school. So what happened was, I decided that I would try to be a Mennonite pastor even though technically Mennonites did not ordain women.
I remember talking to the wife of the pastor in my home church in Pennsylvania, expressing that I was at Yale. I was studying music, but I was also taking some seminary classes and I was feeling that tug toward ministry. She said, “Well, you know, Laurie it would be great if every woman pastor were like you. But because that’s not the case we can’t allow any women to be pastors.”
So I kinda got shut down, which was not unexpected. But I kept at it and I eventually was able to be ordained in the General Conference Mennonite Church because ordination was done in the local church. The pastor at my church at the time was willing to go through the process, and the church council was willing to consider my ordination. So that was a long process in and of itself. I eventually was ordained in November of 1982 in the General Conference Mennonite Church, but I never served a Mennonite church.
Joe: Tell me about that sense of call? Where did that come from? When did you first start feeling that you were called to ministry?
Bishop Haller: I think I felt the call as a child, but as would probably be the case with most children, since I had no role models, I never even knew that there were women pastors. I never saw a woman pastor in my life until I was in graduate school, living at Yale Divinity School and also studying music.
I was living in a dorm with other women who were planning to become pastors. That was the very first time that I really realized that it is possible. What I learned, being in seminary as well, is that the call that I felt toward church music was probably a displaced call to ministry. I gravitated to church music because I always wanted to work in the church. I never wanted to do anything other than work in the church, but since pastoral ministry wasn’t an option to me, I gravitated toward music instead, thinking I can be director of music in a church, and that will satisfy that call.
Joe: Sure. Do you still get to play music today?
Bishop Haller: Well, Joe, I have not touched an organ for about seven years. Occasionally I would play for a church service or I would play a prelude or a postlude.
One of the churches I served for many years had an organist concert every year where organists from the church would play. But as my life got more complicated, serving a very large church, and then being elected a bishop, I realized that playing the organ could not be a high priority for me because, number one, there were many other things on my plate. But number two, you can’t just sit down in your house and play an organ.
Joe: I was thinking that.
Bishop Haller: And it’s very complicated.
Joe: But you kind of need one nearby in order to be able to practice.
Bishop Haller: That’s right. I will tell you this. I made a promise. About a year ago one of our churches here in Iowa, United Methodist Churches was ravaged by a tornado last March.
Joe: Oh, no.
Bishop Haller: Their church in Muscatine, Iowa, happened to have the largest pipe organ in the whole state, and that pipe organ was completely destroyed in the tornado. I was fortunate to be in the area making some other visits, so I was able to visit the church the day after the tornado. It happened late at night and that next day I was able to be there in the afternoon visiting with the pastor and folks at the church. I said to them, “You know, I used to play the organ.” I said, “When you get that organ rebuilt just let me know and I’ll come and play a piece for the dedicatory recital.”
Joe: How wonderful.
Bishop Haller: And so they now have an organ consultant, an organ company which happens to be ... coincidentally, or a God-thing ... the very same organ company in Massachusetts that built the organ in my home Mennonite church in Pennsylvania!
Joe: Oh, my goodness.
Bishop Haller: The same organ builder. So I’m really looking forward to the promise that I made because that means it’s gonna get me to sit on an organ bench and do some practicing.
Joe: Oh, that’s fantastic.
I also want to talk about. ... You wrote a book. It’s called Recess: Rediscovering Play and Purpose. Can you tell me about the book?
Bishop Haller: Sure. When I was serving a large church as a younger pastor with three children in school, I was really getting burned out. I was serving First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan with my husband Gary. The church was growing pretty quickly and there was a lot on our plate.
We had three kids in school, and I got to the point where I was burned out. I was just doing too much and trying to take too much on my plate. So finally I was able to get a Lily Endowment grant.
So in 2001, I left my family and I went away for three months to rediscover who I was and to determine whether I really could continue in ministry because I knew if I kept up at the pace I was going, I would burn out and I wouldn’t be able to last. So I took three months away. Most of it was spent in solitude.
Out of that time I did a lot of writing, and eventually published this book a number of years later. But that was where I think I grew up in the ministry and realized what I needed to do in order to sustain myself and create a good spiritual life and set priorities that would enable me to have a sustainable ministry that was effective, but one that also gave me enough room and enough space to take care of my spirit and my body.
Joe: Are there some general tips that you learned that you could share?
Bishop Haller: I think so. I have to make a disclaimer that I haven’t always been able to follow the tips that I offer to others. I try, but my nature is such that I’m someone who works really hard and finds it difficult to rest. What I learned from that that I think others can take away is…
First of all, we have to set aside time for our family and for our own spirits. I wasn’t very good at that and I’m still not very good at that, but I began taking retreat weeks once a year. I began trying to take a day or two now and then just to go away and work on sermons.
If I had night meetings, I tried to be sure that I took time in the late afternoon to go home and to decompress and to be with my kids and not just work all the way through. As I mention in the book there are more times than I would like to admit when I got up and went to an early meeting before my kids got up for school, and sometimes I didn’t get home at night until after they went to bed. I regret very much when that happened and realize that it was not good for me and it was not good for them. So I tried to make adjustments in my schedule.
I also got a spiritual director when I came back from that, and met with her once a month for many years.
Joe: That’s wonderful. That’s some stuff that I think all of us can follow along with as we feel ourselves being overwhelmed with all of the things that we have to do.
One of the questions that I like to ask all of the bishops, and you may have already answered this, but what are some things that you like to do today to just relax or that you do just for the fun of it?
Bishop Haller: Well, I love to do and try to make a daily habit of (and I have for many years) is to get outside and get some physical exercise. I’m a runner and I’ve been running for 4 years. It’s just great for me to be outside, to get away from everything. I turn my phone off.
I also ride a bike. I’ve done triathlons.
So for me preparing for races like…. I’ve run the Boston Marathon 10 times… and to prepare for something that is not work, that helps to keep me healthy physically and mentally and emotionally, is what keeps me alive in ministry even as a bishop. So, for me I have to get that exercise done in the mornings before I go to work, or else it doesn’t ever happen. But I’m pretty… I’m pretty strict (I would say), pretty religious about taking care of my body.
Joe: How long have you been running? I think I misheard you. I heard 4 years. And clearly that’s not right.
Bishop Haller: It’s 40.
Joe: Forty years! And you said 10 Boston Marathons?
Bishop Haller: Yeah.
Joe: And triathlons.
Bishop Haller: I’ve done three Ironman triathlons and smaller ones as well. And the long bike rides. And a lot of ... I do a lot of hiking as well. Sometimes long distance hiking.
Joe: So, that must be a really important part of keeping yourself spiritually, physically and mentally healthy.
Bishop Haller: Yes, it is, Joe. What I’ve realized over the years as I try to look back to my childhood is that physical activity and being outside, athletics was always important to me. I cannot but feel I need to move. I participated in most of the sports that were offered at the time that I went to high school. So I realized that being physically active is life-giving to me, and the very worst thing that I can think of is sitting all day, which I do most days.
Joe: I was gonna say, as a bishop you’re in meetings, I would imagine, quite a bit. But that’s good you have opportunity to get out and do those things that you love.
One last question that I ask every guest of Get Your Spirit in Shape. What practice keeps you grounded in your spiritual life that you would recommend others try?
Bishop Haller: I think for me the spiritual disciplines not only include daily devotions, but my discipline — as for everybody who’s a preacher — the practice and discipline of writing is something that feeds my spirit. It’s not only preparing for sermons, but I have been writing a weekly blog called “Leading From the Heart” ever since 2006. That’s when I became a district superintendent.
In an effort to communicate regularly with the churches and clergy in my district, I started writing a weekly blog. There’s a couple of weeks a year when I’m on vacation that I don’t write, but I write every week for now ... this is the 12th year. So that is a spiritual discipline for me.
And also just being outside, walking. I see that as a discipline as well.
Joe: Bishop Laurie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. It has been a real pleasure getting to meet you.
Bishop Haller: Thank you, Joe. And I’m just so grateful that you’re doing these podcasts. It’s a great way for people to get to know others and also be inspired in our own faith walk.
Joe: That was United Methodist bishop Laurie Haller, the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church. To listen to more great conversations with our bishops, go to UMC.org/podcasts. There you will find our United Methodist bishops’ faith stories page. There are other United Methodist podcasts to explore there as well. Also, if you have a moment, please review Get Your Spirit in Shape on iTunes. Great reviews help people find us.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies.
I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.
Thank you for listening, downloading, and subscribing.
This episode originally posted on April 6, 2018.