Rev. David Heetland recalls when he was very young, a person at the church his family attended said to his parents, "One of your sons is going to be a minister."
He didn't think much about the comment, and as he entered high school, he was quite sure he would not be a minister. "I had a classmate in high school who was Southern Baptist," says Heetland. "She reminded me that she knew the Bible much more than I did. I thought that if you went to seminary, you should have the Bible memorized. So, I figured I would not go to seminary."
David Heetland grew up on a family farm west of Montrose, South Dakota, with two brothers and a sister. His parents valued education and encouraged a life of faith. All of the siblings went to college. One brother became a veterinarian. One brother got an MBA and worked for IBM. His sister became a Special Education teacher.
"My parents gave me a love for the church and for education. At the end of every summer, my dad would take my brother and me to the bank, give us our salary for the summer, and tell us it was going into our college fund," Heetland shares.
The family was very involved in the United Methodist Church at Montrose. "It was never if we would go to church on Sunday mornings, it was when we would go to church on Sunday mornings," says Heetland.
Church camp planted seeds for ministry. "Farm life was hard work," says Rev. David Heetland, who serves as the Senior Vice President of Planned Giving for Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. "The highlight was going to church camp every summer. Camp meant free time, away from the farm, and a chance to meet wonderful friends at Lake Poinsett Camp."
At one of those church camps, Heetland took a vocational test. After completing the test, each camper met with a camp counselor. The counselor mentioned, "David, you should consider the ministry." Heetland said, "I bet you tell that to everyone." The counselor stated that he had only told that to one other person that summer. Heetland went home and wondered if he was being called to ministry. The seed to consider ministry had been planted.
However, he took a psychology class in high school, and the teacher created a love for the subject for Heetland. He headed to the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion with a plan to become a clinical psychologist.
While at USD, he took courses in the Old Testament and the New Testament from Fr. Michael Doyle. "It opened the door for me and made me realize that I liked learning about the Bible."
After completing his bachelor's degree, Heetland was accepted in the Clinical Psychology doctoral program at USD. In his first week of graduate school, Heetland's advisor told him that he would need to work with monkeys, at least through his master's degree.
"My advisor was very experimentally oriented. I had spent the summer working in the monkey lab," says Heetland. "I knew I didn't want to spend the next two years working with monkeys."
As an undergraduate student, David had been involved in campus ministry at USD. So Heetland went to the campus minister, Rev. Pete Moe, to seek advice about the monkey dilemma.
"I told Pete, ‘I don't want to work with monkeys. I want to work with people,’" says Heetland. "He looked me straight in the eye and said ‘David, you need to go to seminary.’ As soon as he said it, I knew he was right."
Heetland had not explored seminaries and had no idea what seminary would be right for him. Moe told him that he had gone to Iliff Seminary. Heetland thought that might be an option, so Moe picked up the phone, called Iliff and insisted that the seminary consider Heetland for the fall semester. Iliff accepted Heetland as a student on a probationary status.
It all happened quickly, says Heetland, "I was married. So I went home and told my wife, Kathy, 'Guess what? We are moving to Denver.' I realized that if I was serious about my faith, I needed to go into ministry."
Kathy, David's wife, had one year of college remaining to finish her undergraduate degree. When her parents heard about the potential move to Denver, they traveled immediately from Canistota to Vermillion to talk with the couple.
"They were afraid that she would not finish college," says David. "They wanted her to stay at USD and finish her degree. By the time they arrived, we were all packed up."
The couple moved to Denver. While Kathy finished her undergraduate degree, Heetland worked on his Master of Divinity degree. "We never looked back. It was a wonderful experience," Heetland says. "After I completed my master's degree, I continued to get a doctorate in pastoral care and counseling, which seemed like a good fit with my psychology background."
Rev. Rod Gist had married Kathy and David. When Heetland told Gist that he was going to seminary, Gist said, "David, you will have all the counseling you possibly want as a pastor."
After five years in graduate school, the couple headed to Stickney, South Dakota, to serve the United Methodist Church. "There were a number of young adults there who were hungry to learn. One of our highlights that year was starting a young adult Sunday School class," says Heetland.
After one year at Stickney, Rev. Earl Butz, the district superintendent, asked the Heetlands to serve the United Methodist Church in Flandreau, South Dakota.
"We moved to Flandreau and had a great experience there as well, "says Rev. Heetland. "Then after only a year, we got a call from Don Messer, who was the president at Dakota Wesleyan University at the time. There were a couple of openings at the college, and he wanted us to apply."
The Heetlands headed to DWU, where David served as the campus minister and taught in the religion department and Kathy was a music instructor. Twelve students decided to attend seminary while Heetland was campus minister—including Bob Ruedebusch, Kip Roozen, Rick Pittenger, Dan Bader, John McKnight, Bruce Adams, Matt Krier, and Brook McBride—and he still keeps in touch with them. After three years serving as campus minister, Messer asked Heetland to serve as the Dean of Students, which he did for two years.
When Dr. Jim Beddow became president at DWU, he asked Heetland to head up the development office. "I thought, why me? I have no experience in development," says David. "Jim told me that working in development was an opportunity to bring together the dreams of individuals and the dreams of a university."
Heetland accepted Beddow’s invitation. "I found out that development work can be a vital ministry," says Heetland. "There was real joy in meeting wonderful people who wanted to make a significant difference in the world."
After one year of development work at DWU, Rev. Heetland was invited to join the development team at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.
"Seminary played such a transformative role in my own life, so I was delighted to be able to help strengthen one of our United Methodist seminaries," says Heetland. He served as the seminary’s vice president for development for 35 years. The highlight was successfully completing the largest capital campaign in the seminary’s history.
“In 2003 Garrett set a goal to raise $35 million to celebrate its 150th anniversary. We met the goal in 2006, so the goal was raised to $60 million under the leadership of a new president. We met that goal in 2009,” Heetland noted. That year, Dr. Jim Beddow, who had invited Heetland to work in development, was himself invited to join the Board of Trustees at Garrett. When Jim joined the Board, at his first meeting the goal was again raised to $100 million. “We reached that goal in 2016, a year ahead of schedule,” said Heetland. “What we thought was going to be a sprint turned into a marathon."
In his 45 years of ministry, several people have served as his mentors, including Rod Gist, Ron Hartung, Pete Moe, Don Messer, and Jim Beddow.
Heetland also remembers fondly when he served at DWU that Bruce R. Ough, who currently serves as the resident bishop for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, served on the Dakotas Area conference staff along with Rueben Job.
In retirement, Rev. Heetland will continue to serve in the development office for a few more years. After meeting the $100 million goal, he expressed a desire to focus on planned giving, and the president agreed. He now serves as the Senior Vice President for Planned Giving.
After being in development for so many years, Rev. Heetland realizes that it is a significant ministry, because without funding the church's mission could not be carried out.
Heetland cites I Peter 4:10 as a wonderful summary of what he’d like his ministry to be—we are called to be good stewards of God’s varied grace. “If I had to put it in my own words, I would say we are called to be caretakers of God’s undeserved love. This has wide-ranging implications for every aspect of our lives: how we take care of our environment, our bodies, our sisters and brothers, our time, our talents, and our treasure.”
He has written a book, Creating Generous Congregations: A Step-by-Step Guide, to help clergy and church leaders in the ministry of development. "Just as important as the church’s need to receive in order to carry out its mission is our need to give for our own spiritual development," says Heetland. "I wrote the book before the pandemic, but it is particularly relevant now as churches struggle financially." Get more details about the book here. He hopes the book will help guide church leaders through these uncertain times.
He also wrote Happy Surprises: Help Others Discover the Joy of Giving in 2019. In this book he tells the stories of 36 happy surprises during his years of development work at Garrett, and what we can learn from them.
"The church is needed now more than ever. We need to prepare messengers of the Good News. We are on a wilderness journey now. We will come out stronger. We will be better. We need one another."
Sitting on his desk is a plaque that reads, "The purpose of life is a life of purpose." That saying guides his thinking every day. "What I want to do is get up every morning with a purpose greater than myself," says Heetland.
Photos courtesy of Garrett and the Dakotas Conference.