Some Queensland Lutherans would know at least a little about new LCANZ Bishop Paul Smith, who served as their district bishop between 2015 and 2021. But many in our church may not have heard the incredible and inspiring story behind the faith journey of our sixth churchwide leader. Who is Paul Smith and how has God led him to this role?
With a surname like Smith, with no German heritage, and hailing from the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland, it’s hardly surprising that the incoming LCANZ bishop is not a born-and-bred Lutheran.
While God brought him to baptism through the Anglican church in Western Queensland as an infant in 1962, Bishop Paul Smith was not raised as a churchgoing Christian. And, as the biography of Paul in Robin Kleinschmidt’s book Your Most Humble Servant states, his childhood family life gave him ‘no experience of regular worship, religious teaching, prayer or Christian formation’.
But God had his eye on Paul and when family circumstances led to him attending St Peters Lutheran College at Indooroopilly in Brisbane as a boarding student in Year 11, his life and faith were transformed. His teachers – including chaplain and English teacher Pastor (now Dr) John Kleinig and the late Adrienne Jericho, who would later become the executive director of Lutheran Education Australia and took Paul for Scripture classes – were among those whose Christian example and gospel witness greatly affected him. Some of his classmates were instrumental in his early faith journey, too.
He was not only confirmed in his Christian faith while attending St Peters, but he also acknowledged a call to the ordained ministry and began studying at the then Luther Seminary (now Australian Lutheran College) in Adelaide in 1980.
He took time out of his pastoral ministry training in 1982 and worked in factories, studied at Adelaide University and continued with part-time seminary study. After a bout of glandular fever, he returned to ‘the Sem’ full-time in 1984. Also in 1984, Paul met Heidi Muller from Henty New South Wales, who was studying at Lutheran Teachers College and was the sister of his best friend at seminary, Tim. Heidi and Paul were married in 1986 and today they have three adult children, Ben, Felicity and Jeremy.
Today, Bishop Paul calls Heidi his ‘co-worker’. ‘She will pray with me, pray for me, encourage me, listen to me and tell me when I’m being a cranky old goat’, he says of his wife, who has studied theology and is a qualified secondary teacher, as well as having worked as a Lutheran aged-care chaplain. This year she will begin work for the SA-NT District as its chaplaincy ministries coordinator.
‘And so, we have that open and robust relationship. She’s a faithful follower of our risen Lord as a Christian and she loves the community and people of the Lutheran Church. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying Lutheran but she understands it doesn’t mean culture, history and community only, it means pointing to the big arrow down – what God does for us, and Heidi is good at keeping me earnest in that way. I’m very grateful for that, so she’s a co-worker in that sense and a team participant in my life as a Christian.’
Having completed his vicarage year at Underdale-Glandore parish under Pastor Clem Traeger in suburban Adelaide in 1987, Paul was ordained the following year at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Adelaide.
Pastor Paul’s first assignment was as the first Lutheran college chaplain at Trinity Lutheran College Ashmore on Queensland’s Gold Coast. This first ordained ministry role continued for Paul what has become a close and valued relationship with Lutheran schools.
His next call was his first parish ministry, at Tailem Bend/Karoonda in South Australia, where he served between 1992 and 1995. To follow were parish ministries at Immanuel North Adelaide from 1995 to 2001 and from 2002 to 2005 at Good Shepherd Toowoomba in Queensland. These calls were followed by a return to service as a college pastor, firstly back at St Peters Indooroopilly and then at Pacific Lutheran College at Caloundra.
During his time at Toowoomba, Pastor Paul was first elected as a member of Queensland’s District Church Council, a role he would fill from 2003 to 2007, rejoining in 2010. Later that year he was elected as the first vice-president of the LCA’s Queensland District, a role he would fill until being elected bishop in 2015.
Committed to encouraging and progressing the service of younger leaders in the church, Bishop Paul committed to serving two terms and so did not stand for re-election in 2021.
He returned to St Peters as an interim college pastor in the latter half of 2021 and was elected as bishop of the LCANZ in October last year during the church’s historic first online sessions.
He believes God will use his life and ministry experiences in his service as churchwide bishop.
‘I believe God continues to prepare you for any and every role and God will always surprise you’, he says. ‘Has God equipped me especially with experience for this role? Yes, the people in the church have given me the opportunity to make mistakes in the name of Christ and in the cause of the gospel. The people of the church have given me great privileges.’
Bishop Paul comes across as a great optimist when it comes to people and the church. He whistles while he walks, smiles often, loves speaking with people and describes himself as ‘not a glass-half-empty person, nor a glass-half-full person, but a glass-overflowing person’.
He lists three main hopes for the coming years in the LCANZ. ‘The first one is that we would find good dialogue with young Christian people’, he says. ‘At the moment we don’t have a good dialogue with them. What we say, young people aren’t really hearing too well. What they say, is often not heard or properly understood.
‘The second hope that I’d have is that we would discover a growing collaboration with Christian sisters and brothers of our New Zealand and Australian church communities around us.
‘The third one is to discover the way Lutherans are evangelical in the 21st century. How are we Lutherans being evangelical to bring Christ to the nations? We have this great tradition of Lutheran witness, let’s see that grow and flourish in a way that’s authentic to who we are.’
Bishop Paul Smith will be installed as bishop of the LCANZ at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Adelaide on 20 February. Attendance will be by invitation only, but the service will be livestreamed.