Pastor, Missionary, Teacher – A Tribute to John Strelan

Many readers of Border Crossings would know that one of our former missionaries, Dr John Strelan, died recently. ‘Joe’, as he was usually known, was born in 1936, the third of ten children born to Peter and Erica Strelan, nee Appelt. As a young fellow he studied at Concordia College and Seminary, graduating in 1959. He spent the next three years as the ELCA pastor at Wangaratta, Victoria.

From there Joe was called to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to serve in the Australian Lutheran Mission (ALM), which at that time was a small mission operating separately from the main Lutheran cause. In his own words Joe was, at the beginning, ‘young, unmarried and ignorant’. His first assignment (1962 to 1965) was as a circuit missionary at Kwaikuma in the Menyamya region. That was a tough assignment for a young single fellow. There is a remarkable photo of Joe taken in a village on a big day of baptism. It has been hugely enlarged and is now mounted on a wall just outside the mission museum in North Adelaide, Wantok Place. Be sure to see it when you visit there! Joe did not stay unmarried for too long. At an in-service training weekend Joe met Bronwyn Burgess, a beautiful young Australian teacher who had come to work in one of the mission’s schools on Siassi. Joe was smitten and soon proposed. Six months later they were married, having seen each other only seven times. They had four children in subsequent years.

Joe was then called to the newly-formed Martin Luther Seminary at Lae. Working closely with two Americans, Bill Burce and Gary Reitz, and two fellow Australians, Con Eckermann and Rufus Pech, Joe played a key role in shaping MLS as the first Lutheran seminary in New Guinea to use English as the main language of instruction. He served as a lecturer from 1966 to 1984, librarian from 1968 to 1980, vice-principal from 1973 to 1976, and Dean of Studies from 1973 to 1980. He lectured mainly in English, but ‘language was a tool, not a prison’, so they often moved in and out of English and Tok Pisin. He helped to train a generation of national pastors, teachers and church workers. He enjoyed the family spirit on the campus, where everybody lived – faculty, single students and married students. He loved the thirst for knowledge that many of the students displayed. The MLS Library is named for him, and rightly so, because he founded it and built up the collection. During this time, Joe took Bronwyn and their two little boys to the US, where he spent a whole year at Concordia Seminary, St Louis, working intensively in New Testament, eventually earning his doctorate in theology (ThD) in 1973. In his busy life, Joe found time to play tennis, table tennis and golf, and he was an avid reader.

Joe was passionate about theology in the PNG context. He was on the team that prepared Tok Bilip Bilong Yumi (‘Our Faith’) – a confessional document that helped create and maintain doctrinal unity among Lutherans in PNG. On the basis of his dissertation work he wrote a book called Search for Salvation, which deals with the proclamation of the gospel in the context of indigenous aspirations for deliverance and well-being. Joe was always respectful toward Niuginians and their culture, and they much admired and respected him. He also wrote two commentaries on the Book of Revelation, one in Tok Pisin and one in English, not least because that is one book of the Bible that, for lack of wise and sound interpretation, has caused much confusion in PNG.  That was one of Joe’s gifts: he had a way of using words that could convey complex theological ideas in language that is easy to understand.

During his time in PNG Joe was a respected colleague and leader among the Australians serving in the mission. At ‘Aussie retreats’ he would delight the children (and all the grown-ups too) with his long, funny, delightful stories about ‘Captain Blackjack’, including the unforgettable character ‘Oscar the Bald-headed Boska’. Joe had a great sense of humour, as many of us remember: sharp, witty, fun-poking (but not nasty), and fun-making.

After his time in PNG, Joe spent a year (1984–85) as a guest lecturer at the Mission Seminary and Augustana Hochschule in Neuendettelsau; while in Germany he also lectured at the University of Erlangen. In 1986 he was called to the faculty of Luther Seminary in Adelaide and remained there for eleven years, teaching in the areas of New Testament and Systematic Theology. During this time he also served as editor of the Lutheran Theological Journal (1986-1997), as a member of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue (1986-1997), as an ex-officio member of the Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations and General Church Council, and served as First Vice-president of the Lutheran Church of Australia (1987-1997).  Joe wanted to end his working life where he started: as a parish pastor. So in 1998 he accepted a call to Port Macquarie NSW and served there for about three years. In retirement he continued to preach and teach and write for the church, but he also enjoyed having more time to play golf and work at his hobby of woodworking.

For many years Joe had to battle the effects of diabetes, and his health gradually declined. In health and in sickness, in the prime of life and in failing old age, Bronwyn was by his side as a wonderful wife and mother to their children. Over the years the Strelans welcomed many people from many places in the world to their home and shared with them the gift of hospitality.

Joe had a big heart for the gospel. The gospel shone through in all his preaching and teaching, and in his life. In the obituary at his funeral these fitting words were read by his son, John:

‘His greatest gift, however, was his unshakeable belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ changes lives. That gospel cannot be watered down, or conditioned by anything, otherwise it is no longer good news. In his preaching, in his lecturing, in his public speaking, he sought to proclaim that good news.’

After receiving news of Joe’s death, Bishop Jack Urame sent a condolence message on behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea (ELCPNG), which you can view by clicking here.

Pastor Kinim Siloi from ELCPNG, also sent the following:
Dr. Joe Strelan was one of many Australian Lutherans who contributed much to the growth and development of Lutheran Church in PNG. He served as a missionary in Menyamya for about 4 year and later chosen as a lecturer at Martin Luther Seminary where he served for 18 years and ended his mission work and return to Australia. I am proud to be one of his students among many that he had taught. The first two principals of Martin Luther Seminary, Pastor Kasek Kautil and late Rev. Dr. Wesley Kigasung were his students. Many years later Dr. Wesley became bishop of ELCPNG. This is the fruit of the hard work and commitment of  people like Dr. Strelan who groomed young people to become leaders in the church today.

Out of my memory I remember him as a very well disciplined man and he stick to his time. He ones told us, give enough time to everything you do and do not consume so much time with one particular thing.

We keep his wife and family in payer as they go through this time of pain and sorrow. And we remember you all in our prayers as you prepare to lay him to rest. 

The peace of the Lord be with you all.
Pastor Kinim Siloi

This story was also published in the August 2020 edition of Border Crossings, the magazine of LCA International Mission.

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