Mission Central

In the middle of a cornfield in western Iowa, God is using ordinary people and an old set of farm buildings to accomplish His work.

by Diane Strzelecki

0908missionstory1.jpgTwo Saturdays a month, Lee Umland of Sioux City, Iowa, packs his clothes and presentation materials and hits the road. Umland—often accompanied by his wife, Sharon—typically drives more than 100 miles to his destination, where he is welcomed warmly and invited to share a meal. Umland rises the next morning to make his presentation and lead discussions.

Every weekend, Gary Thies boards a single-engine airplane in Mapleton, Iowa, his hometown. The pilot flies Thies more than 300 miles to his destination, where they are greeted, offered a home-cooked meal, and given a place to sleep. Thies then spends his Sunday sharing stories, returning to Mapleton late in the day.

Traveling salesmen? Corporate executives?

Not quite.

Although it’s true that Umland, Thies, and others in their organization, Mission Central, schedule presentations all over the Midwest, theirs is a different sort of “pitch.” You won’t find their “corporation” on the NASDAC or the Dow Jones, or in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Mission Central’s buildings do not sport a logo created by a slick New York advertising agency. By the world’s standards, the “employees” of Mission Central are unqualified, unremarkable, and certainly not “normal.”

Which suits them just fine.

Although it’s true that Umland, Thies, and others in their organization, Mission Central, schedule presentations all over the Midwest, theirs is a different sort of “pitch.” You won’t find their “corporation” on the NASDAC or the Dow Jones, or in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Mission Central’s buildings do not sport a logo created by a slick New York advertising agency. By the world’s standards, the “employees” of Mission Central are unqualified, unremarkable, and certainly not “normal.”

Which suits them just fine.

A Basement Brigade

In 1993 Thies was working as president of a northern Iowa bank, a significant achievement for a man who never went to college. Yet Thies, a lifelong Lutheran keenly interested in missions, felt called to do something else, something more, something for his Savior, Jesus.

“I kept feeling that we needed to raise awareness about worldwide mission work,” Thies says. “I also felt that whatever we did, it needed to be different from what ‘the world does’ when it comes to supporting our dear missionaries.” After much prayer, research, and discussion with his wife, Maxine, Thies resigned from his banking position in June 1994 and began working earnestly from his basement.

Don Gettner, a 73-year-old former soil consultant/ agronomist and Papua New Guinea missionary, has been with Thies since the beginning of Mission Central. Gettner volunteers his time as print/publicity director, producing flyers, handouts, and presentation materials.

0908missionstory2.jpg“It didn’t surprise me a bit when Gary decided to quit his job as bank president and do this. . . . It’s been on his heart for a while,” Gettner says. “We all started out in our basements—Gary called us ‘the Basement Brigade.’”

Umland, the owner of Ace Sign Company in Sioux City and a friend of Thies for more than 20 years, was surprised but not shocked at the career change.

“Gary has always had a big heart for missions and growing the kingdom of God,” Umland notes. He and Sharon began working with Mission Central at the start, supporting a variety of missionaries financially and prayerfully.

Today, more than 40 people—including seven pilots— volunteer their time and resources for Mission Central, Thies observes.

Go and Tell

Thies describes Mission Central as a clearinghouse for LCMS World Mission and the Iowa and Nebraska LCMS districts. Part of its work is matching LCMS missionaries with mission partners to support them in prayer, in relationship, and, when God provides, with financial resources.

Mission Central mission partners are individuals, families, or congregations who, according to Thies, are moved by the power of the Holy Spirit to take action for the Kingdom.

“These are people who listen to the story of Jesus speaking to His disciples on Easter Sunday, hear Him say, ‘As the Father sent Me, now I’m sending you,’ and take His message to heart,” Thies says. “They don’t sit around and say, ‘Gee, I wish the congregation would do something’ or ‘Gee, I wish the pastor would do something.’ They listen to the stories, and they get involved.”

Mission Central’s focus on being in relationship means that Thies and other presenters always meet potential mission supporters face to face.

“People are suffering from information overload— there’s too much stuff coming through the Internet, through our e-mail, too many brochures delivered through U.S. mail,” Thies says. “We come in person and tell the story.”

Welcome Strangers

After nine years, it became clear that Mission Central’s “Basement Brigade” could not keep up with the growth of its missionary/mission-partner network and remain “underground.” Thies longed for a central location that people could visit, hear the stories, and see artifacts gathered during mission work. He also hoped to establish a guest house for visiting missionaries and their families.

“We began praying about a more permanent location for Mission Central,” Thies says, noting that what happened next seems like a miracle.

“I got a call from the family who owned several farm buildings across the road from our house,” Thies remembers. “They were getting ready to sell the property but wondered if we could use the buildings for Mission Central.”

More than 100 people volunteered to help renovate the buildings. When the work was complete, Mission Central had an office, a mission museum, and a guesthouse.

“This year alone 20 busloads of people toured the museum and learned about worldwide mission work,” Thies says. “People come from all over—from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, North Dakota—we even had two families come from Toronto, Canada.”

Ordinary People Work Here

0908missionstory3.jpgSome volunteers, like Nebraska attorney and Mission Central webmaster Dave Reddel, attribute the excitement surrounding Mission Central to Thies’ boundless enthusiasm, energy, and encouragement.

“Gary is a storyteller. People know he’s not just a guy coming in, making a presentation, and leaving,” says Reddel, a member of King of Kings Lutheran Church in Omaha, Neb. “He’s completely passionate about missions.”

Reddel’s work with Mission Central began when Thies made a presentation at King of Kings. At the time, Reddel was heavily involved in the church’s media ministry.

“I saw that Gary was using an old broken-down projector and transparencies. I suggested there were a lot of things he could do with technology to help his presentation,” Reddel says. “Gary’s eyes just lit up, and he said, ‘Well, you’re going to help me do that.’” What Reddel suggested led him to do a lot of different things for Mission Central, including creating www.missioncentral.us, which currently gets more than 5,000 hits a month.

Other volunteers, like Marlene Brocashus, were also looking for a way to serve. Brocashus, a member of St. John’s Lutheran in May City, Iowa, lives about 90 miles north of Mission Central but visits as often as she can to welcome missionaries and hear their stories. She became prayer coordinator in 2001, using e-mail to collect prayer requests and send them to the Mission Central “prayer warriors,” and to welcome new missionaries to the prayer ministry.

“When we started, Gary was traveling around Iowa, so our e-mails were fairly local.” she notes. “Now we have prayer partners all over the world. It’s amazing, some of the things that have happened with all the prayers shared by people.”

Humble Service

Thies says this about Mission Central’s volunteers: “God has brought to us very special people just at the right time to help with His work. All of them play an important part in God’s kingdom.”

Gettner laughs at the title—print/publicity director—Thies gave him. “I don’t do that much,” he says. But while “not doing much,” Gettner has worn out four copiers, two computers, and a fax machine. He says he enjoys working with Thies simply because it keeps him busy and “keeps my mind off things.”

Brocashus downplays her involvement as well. Inexperienced with computers—she worked as an emergency-room nurse for 40 years—she has improved her desktop skills and finds it rewarding.

“God is working through me—I’m not doing anything,” she says. “I can’t do anything by myself.”

Although he works 60 hours a week running his business, Umland says he feels privileged to visit congregations twice a month.

“It’s amazing that God uses even a foolish farm boy from Minnesota to go out and work for His kingdom,” Umland says. “I get a whole lot more out of meeting people than they ever get from me, especially when we talk about the miracles that happen in the mission field.”

“With the help of Mission Central volunteers, we have awakened many congregations and people who didn’t understand the mission of the church,” Thies says. “It is my hope and prayer that more and more people will see that God can do miracles using ordinary people, just as He did according to Acts 4:13: ‘when they . . . realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus [NIV].’”

Mission Central: Pilots Help Tell the Story


Nate Predoehl (above), a lifelong Lutheran, first heard about Mission Central from his mother, who had seen Gary Thies speak at an LWML event. He later met Thies at his church, Good Shepherd Lutheran, in Gretna, Neb., after Thies’ presentation there.

“After he learned that I was a corporate pilot, Gary asked right away if I could take him on the plane,” Predoehl says. “I said no, of course—that plane wasn’t at my disposal—but God knew that wasn’t the end of the story.” The next time Thies asked, Predoehl decided to poll some his former flight students and pilot friends to see what they would say.

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