Distinguished Alumnus for 2017: Rev. Kenneth Lehman


Connecting at the Heart

Growing up on an Iowa farm, Rev. Kenneth Lehman dreamed of becoming a foreign missionary. As a young adult, he discovered there was plenty to do in his own country. Today, at 90 years of age, he still seeks ways to serve those who need a caring pastoral presence. 

Before he performs a wedding ceremony, Rev. Kenneth Lehman (B.S. ‘53) listens for the life story of the people he’ll be serving. He’ll spend hours with a soon-to-be-married couple, probing them about the impact their parents had on their lives. He asks how the couple met, what their affirmation is for each other, and what they have done to bring out the very best in each other. Then during the wedding ceremony, he uses the couple’s own words to bless them, their parents, and the many who have gathered to witness a mutual giving of both to each other. “There are touches of humor as well as very serious moments,” said the 2017 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year, “it’s a foretaste of the life they are about to embark upon.”

Connecting with those he serves has been the heart of ministry for Rev. Lehman. He is the “epitome of a local church pastor,” said Thomas Parrott-Sheffer, (M.Div. ‘80), pastor of Plainfield Congregational United Church of Christ, and one of several young men Rev. Lehman modeled into ministry. “He has the unique gift to see the Spirit within others, call it out, and grow it to fruition. He nurtures the kind of faith that enables people to endure the challenges of life.”

A child of the Great Depression and World War II, Rev. Lehman’s life began in a family and church that nurtured his faith and was open to discussions about migrant workers, war, peace, race relations, and Christian responses to the issues of the day. When he left for the University of Dubuque in 1946, his heart had already been prepared to take in the words of Dr. Gaylord Couchman, (B.S.Div. ‘34) pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dubuque who challenged him to “have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Philippians 2:5. Rev. Lehman took those words to heart, using his summers to serve at an American Friends Work Camp in Chicago and with Native Americans through the Presbyterian Board of National Missions. 

After graduating from college in 1950, the young Lehman enrolled in McCormick. He spent his summer breaks working in an Ohio coal mining community, serving migrants in Illinois and Minnesota, and ministering through McCormick’s Ministers in Industry, led Rev. Marshall Scott, who would later become a McCormick president. These experiences, along with his fieldwork at an inter-racial church on Chicago’s west side, left a deep impression on his life.

After graduating from McCormick in 1953, Rev. Lehman began to serve at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Poplar, Montana. He married in 1956, and he and Janet formed lasting relationships with Native Americans, undergoing a Native American rite to be adopted as brother and sister to Native Americans Jack and Joyce Tatoosis. In 1957, the couple moved to North Dakota where Rev. Lehman became assistant pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Minot where Rev. Jack Zerwas, (B.S. Div. ‘44) was pastor.

Rev. Lehman accepted an opportunity in 1960 to plant a church in Naperville, Illinois and Knox Presbyterian Church was founded. From its beginning, Knox had a strong missions and community outreach focus and was ecumenical in its endeavors. The church formed Samaritan Interfaith Counseling Center along with a Lutheran and Catholic congregation. Now known as SamaraCare, it responds to the behavioral health needs of the community. The Sheltered Workshop also began at Knox and merged with Little Friends, an organization designed to empower people with disabilities and their families.

While at Knox, Rev. Lehman served on McCormick’s board of trustees and the Edward Hospital Board. He was active in open housing initiatives and served on the General Assembly Task Force of the Presbyterian Church for Native American Ministries.  

Rev. Lehman retired as pastor from Knox in 1993, and returned to ministry in 1998 as a visitation pastor at Christ Church of Oak Brook, under the leadership of Dr. Daniel Meyer. It’s not unusual for him to call up to 30 people a day to counsel, pray, and encourage them during the physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges of life.

“The heart of pastoral ministry,” said Rev. Lehman. “is getting to know people for who they are and letting them know you care. It’s through ministry that I’ve come to experience God’s joy.”