Dick Stenbakken calls himself a Denver kid, having grown up on South Downing Street in the home of his adoptive parents. Born premature to a single mother, he overcame his unpromising start in life and flourished under the guidance of godly mentors. People who spurred him to excellence through the years included Bill Garrison at Mile High Academy, C. M. Maxwell at Union College and Earle Hilgert at the seminary in Berrien Springs. By watching, listening and evaluating, he learned which manners, actions and attitudes could build up or hamper quality ministry.

Soaking up life

While attending Campion Academy in 1958 he felt—and responded to—a call to ministry, and has never looked back. Stenbakken graduated with a theology degree from Union College in 1962. He has since earned four master’s degrees and a doctorate in Family and Community Education, saying he pursued a broad education because he “wanted the widest possible potential for blessing people.”

His first pastorate in Worland, Wyoming taught him much about how to work with people and how to build a team. “Ministry is my dream, my passion, my inspiration, my joy. I couldn’t not do it,” he states.

In 1969 Stenbakken began active military duty with the United States Army. His year of combat service in Vietnam further solidified his goals. As he watched skid-loads of bodies being sent to the morgue in Saigon to be returned for burial, he realized the fragility of life and determined to milk every ounce of joy out of every single day. “I also made the decision to never continue any line of work or activity that did not bring real and lasting fulfillment and pleasure,” he says. “Life is too short and too precious to just go through the hoops. Life needs to be fun, full and fulfilling. I remember, after returning from Vietnam, standing at the bedroom door and just watching our two kids sleep. Just to be there, just to watch them, was an insurmountable joy.

I learned not to take anything for granted, but to soak up every positive experience possible, then to pass that joy on to others so they can find fulfillment and balance also.”

After returning to the States, Stenbakken served as director of Family Life Ministries for the Office of the Chief of Chaplains. His responsibilities included administering the U.S. Army Chaplain Board’s $2.7 million budget.

Ministry makes sense

In 1992 the General Conference invited him to serve as director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries. As he and his wife, Ardis, considered the offer, they realized that going to the GC made no financial sense. “My military pay would have kept going up, and my retirement would be linked to my last and highest pay while on active duty,” Stenbakken said. “The same with Social Security, which is figured on the highest years of your earning.”

But the move made ministry sense, so they said yes. “We have no regrets,” Stenbakken adds. “All the DVDs, the books and my ongoing first person ministry would probably not have happened if I had elected to stay in the military. I went into the military to minister and serve, so leaving to minister and serve the church was definitely in line with our thinking regarding stewardship. One does not do ministry for money. You either have a passion and calling for ministry or not.”

Keep the radar running

Since retiring from the GC in 2005, Stenbakken has produced 25 TV first-person presentations of biblical characters that are currently being broadcast worldwide.  He’s also recorded a DVD series on the Christian Armor of Ephesians 6 and an 8-part TV series Soldiers of Destiny, just released this year. Three more sets, featuring both Old and New Testament characters, are forthcoming. All income from current books and DVDs goes to the Student Aid fund at Campion Academy.

Aggressively active in retirement, Stenbakken periodically teaches freshman Bible at Campion Academy and co-sponsors the Drama Club. He and Ardis are also heavily involved in ministry at their local church. In between working on another book, he accepts speaking engagements with various denominations across the U.S. and Canada.

Look over the horizon

Stenbakken’s philosophy of ministry, in a nutshell, is Quality ministry from and in a balanced life. He says the basis for this is ongoing learning, both formal and informal. “It includes academics, self-directed learning, observation and experience, as well as deep study into ministry. And, yes, part of the learning process is from mistakes. To make mistakes is inevitable. To learn from them is a choice.” Stenbakken adds that the most basic learning of all is being in the Word—continually studying deeply.

Regarding a balanced life, Stenbakken explains that ministry is not about being self-centered, but yet a successful person must be centered and balanced. “For me, that balance comes from hobbies, passions and experiences. Being well-rounded helps me avoid the traps created by a one-dimensional life—even if that dimension is ministry.” He asserts that being involved with creative processes empowers him and propels him beyond the immediate. “Creativity is in my DNA. That’s why I make nearly all my own costumes for first person presentations—designing, sewing and even making the Roman armor.”

One of Stenbakken’s life mantras is to look beyond the obvious. “Look at the potential all around you,” he says. “Stewardship, like life, requires God’s blessing. But it’s not incidental or accidental. It requires intentional looking and planning.”

For Stenbakken, quality ministry in a balanced life also means being filled to overflowing with Christ and His mission and methods and allowing Him to direct, lead, expand and share that quality ministry in ever more creative and effective ways. “It’s a process, not a destination, and it unfolds more and more every day,” he concludes. “I don’t think my story is common, but it could be. All my life I’ve tried to take every opportunity as God sends it. And He blesses me so I can bless others.”


Thoughts from Stenbakken on his character, “The Centurion”:

As I began to study deeper into the military life of first-century Roman soldiers, I started to see shades of meaning from the Gospels that had eluded me before. These discoveries brought a new focus. My hunger to know more about Roman military and culture became the impetus for constructing my own armor, writing a book titled The Centurion published by Pacific Press, and producing a DVD set.

We now have a “Roman room” at our house—a mini museum of ancient artifacts and reproduction pieces. In summary, presenting the centurion prompted an interesting hobby, provides a unique ministry and is tax-deductible. Not a bad combination!


Get more info and view clips of Dick Stenbakken in action.