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Faithful to his flock

PASTOR PHILIP HOLTAN stands in front of the 'TWIGS' tree that he designed and made for a social ministry project at Calvary Lutheran Church in Perham. The tree, which stands for Together Winning in God's Service, is one of about 50 such outreach projects currently going on at the church.

PERHAM -- Rev. Philip Holtan of Calvary Lutheran Church in Perham is a 2012 Faithfulness in Ministry Cross Award recipient.

The distinguished award is given to three exceptional Luther Seminary alumni each year. Holtan was chosen in recognition of his 35 years of innovative and creative ministry.

"I'm humbled, and also grateful, to win this award," said Holtan in an interview. "I've been fortunate to have wonderful opportunities every place that I've been."

Holtan has served as pastor at Calvary for the last five years. Prior to that, he spent 23 years as campus pastor at Concordia College in Moorhead.

Holtan said his success in Perham is largely due to his congregation. He describes the church's nearly 1,400 members as "creative... always ready to try something new."

That shows in the church's staggeringly high number of social ministries - about 50 are going on right now - as well as in its willingness to worship 'outside the box.'

When Holtan suggested holding an annual 'blessing of the animals' ceremony, for example, the congregation went for it. They also embraced his ideas of incorporating more technology into the services, and of having more outdoor worship.

Holtan has made a name for himself in Perham as a caring and active member of the community. He's the founding chair of the local Feed My Starving Children effort, which raised an incredible 600,000 meals and $120,000 last year for kids in Haiti. He is also the chairperson of Lutheran Coalition of Public Policy in Minnesota, and is Perham's Rotary President for 2011.

"He just has such a natural gift for reaching out to other people," said Cindy Olson, one of a group of people who nominated Holtan for the award. Olson has worked with Holtan on social ministry and social justice efforts.

"He's involved in so many things," Olson said. "The backpack program, the community food drops, Habitat, he works closely with the food shelf... He's got a real heart for children and families and working outside the doors of the church."

Last year, under Holtan's leadership, Calvary received Lutheran Social Service's Servant of Christ Award for its outstanding ministry projects.

"Perham has an entrepreneurial spirit, and so does Calvary," said Holtan. "And that's a good fit for me. It's certainly the way I like to live my life, too."

Holtan describes his life as a "challenging but satisfying balance" between three big passions - ministry, family and woodturning.

As a minister, he said, he feels his role is one of "steward and encourager of the gifts of others." He grew up in a family that was always very connected to the church, and attests: "Faith has always been a part of my life."

One of the best things about ministry, in Holtan's view, is that no two days are alike - he's always meeting interesting people, encountering new challenges, and setting exciting new goals.

A devoted family man, Holtan calls his wife, Merrie Sue, his biggest supporter, and jokes that she is also his "best publicist." He said he would not have won this award without her. She and their three grown children, he said, are a very important part of his life.

When not busy with church or family commitments, Holtan can most likely be found in his shop at the family's home on Big Pine Lake. A master woodturner, he has been teaching the craft and participating in art shows for 30 years.

He calls the work his "creative refuge." (Visit to see some examples of his work.)

During his years at Concordia, Holtan incorporated a variety of resources into campus worship, including With One Voice, Iona, Taize, Holden Evening Prayer and others.

He was also the founding president of Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity in Fargo-Moorhead and led the Concordia contingent of Habitat for Humanity, which had the largest number of volunteers from any institution.

The Faithfulness in Ministry Cross Award was established in 1991 by the Luther Seminary Alumni Council to recognize faithful servants of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who demonstrate a "special tenacity and vision to bring new life to communities."

Luther Seminary is a private college located in St. Paul, Minn.

(Marie Nitke is a writer for the East Otter Tail Focus, a publication of Forum Communications Co.)