The Rev. Donald Hackbarth confirms new congregation members Mary Jo Petersen and Bill Serritella during a service at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Pleasant Prairie.
He’s aced his tests of faith
Aug. 15, 2008
Good Shepherd pastor serves Pleasant Prairie community as family
PLEASANT PRAIRIE – It’s not often you hear a minister acknowledge that his faith has been tested, but then again, it’s not often you meet someone like the Rev. Donald Hackbarth.
Today he is a well-respected pastor celebrating his 30th year guiding the congregation at Pleasant Prairie’s Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. But a little more than three decades ago he was a seminary student struggling with his decision to uproot his family and serve the Lord.
“God really pushed me to the edge,” Hackbarth said. “I remember one Thanksgiving, we were so poor that we couldn’t afford anything to eat. There was a store that gave week-old bakery goods to the seminary; and I remember eating an old pumpkin pie for dinner. The hardest part was having to scrape the mold off before we could eat it.”
Hackbarth remembers reaching into the depths of his being, breaking down and crying out to God. He remembers feeling as if he were being dropped inch by inch into a septic tank while God molded him into a servant – teaching him humility and what it means to become a pastor.
“It is never about the minister,” he said. “It is always about the people and faith.”
Members of Good Shepherd Church, 4311 104th St., children who attend its Lutheran school, and Pleasant Prairie police and fire officials are among the people who are grateful Hackbarth withstood the crucible and remained committed to a life of religious service. Hackbarth was installed as pastor of Good Shepherd during the summer of 1978, and he since has become a integral part of the local community, serving on the Pleasant Prairie Plan Commission and as chaplain for the village’s police and fire departments.
“He is incredibly generous with his time,” Pleasant Prairie Police Chief Brian Wagner said. “All of our police officers here know they can call him anytime and he will make time to see them, and they know what they say will be kept confidential. He has rendered valuable assistance at crime scenes, accident scenes, working with victims and their families. There’s no question about it, we’re lucky to have him.”
The funny thing is, Hackbarth, 65, never expected to become a minister. The Wisconsin native had a clear future planned in the engineering field after graduating from the Milwaukee School of Engineering in the 1970s.
After purchasing his first home with his wife, Beverly, and son, Timothy, Hackbarth sought some help with installing outdoor lighting for his yard. The handyman turned out to be a younger seminary student looking for some extra cash.
“We worked on the lighting until it rained, and then, being typical Lutherans, we went inside,” Hackbarth said with a laugh. “We sat and drank about a six-pack and began to talk about Jesus. After a couple of hours of talking, the seminarian stopped, looked at me and said, ‘You should be a minister.’ So I joke now that I am not sure which spirit got me into the ministry.”
Unable to shake the seminarian’s comments, Hackbarth prayerfully considered his future. With Beverly in agreement, the two decided he would enter the four-year seminary program in Springfield, Ill.
“We talked about it and Bev really understood,” he said. “My dad said I was crazy. My mom cried. And others told me they were grateful that another person was going to become a minister. My sister told me, ‘Don, you will make a very good minister because you have such a big mouth.'”
With few funds to their name, the small family traveled to Springfield where they rented a large farmhouse with a dirt floor basement for $120 per month, quite a lot considering the only money they had was from a small engineering profit-sharing account.
“It wasn’t long before we had to move – we just couldn’t afford it,” Hackbarth said. “We found a small home for $60 per month that was owned by the seminary and decided to take it.”
Infested with insects and other multi-legged invaders, the home needed to be fumigated and cleaned before the Hackbarths moved in. Not long after, the seminary headed to Fort Wayne, Ind., and the family moved again. During that time, the couple struggled with extreme financial hardship, and Hackbarth began experiencing severe self-doubt, some of which continues to this day.
After graduating from Concordia Theological Seminary in 1978, he was called to pastor Good Shepherd. From the moment he drove over the first bump on Highway Q, Hackbarth knew he found a permanent home.
“It was like the gates of heaven opened up,” he said, choking back tears. “Because it was finally home for this vagabond family. I knew this was where we were supposed to be and where we were supposed to stay.”
Leading a church and grade school require a lot of time, but he has embraced the opportunity to serve the police and fire departments, too.
Pleasant Prairie Fire Chief Paul Guilbert Jr. first got to know Hackbarth in May 1988 when he invited the pastor to bless a ladder truck – the first major piece of equipment the department took possession of under Guilbert’s leadership. The fire chief was struck by Hackbarth’s genuine consideration in bestowing the blessing.
“He came out and not only did he perform that ritual, if you will, but he made it very personal,” Guilbert said. “I was in awe. He took my request so seriously.”
Little by little Hackbarth became a more integral part of the department, and today he is a member of a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing team that can be called upon to offer assistance to anyone affected by tragic incidents that occur in southeastern Wisconsin.
“He’s taken classes. He’s really gone the extra mile,” Guilbert said.
With retirement in the back of his mind, Hackbarth wants to add four additional grades to Good Shepherd School before spending more time with his wife of 38 years, children Tim, 34, Mike, 31, and Rebekah, 29, and three grandchildren. The school now offers child care, preschool and kindergarten through fourth grade.
“That gives me four years for sure, as we plan to add a grade per year,” he explained. “Then when it comes time to call another pastor, I would like to remain on for a time to help with the transition.”
Despite Hackbarth’s ideas about retirement, he most likely will remain closely linked with his congregation, whom he lovingly refers to as his family.
“They all mean so much to me,” he said. “We have been here so long and we feel so much love for all of them. I can’t preach a sermon for a funeral or a baptism for a member of the congregation, I do it as family because that is what each of them means to me.”