The annual awards of Christus Primus, Honorary Doctor of Letters, and Outstanding Alumni were presented at spring 2021 Concordia University Ann Arbor commencement exercises.

The three honorees were able to to be recognized in-person. Spring 2021 marked the return of in-person commencement ceremonies, after the global COVID-19 pandemic forced celebrations online in spring 2020 and this past December.

To accommodate COVID-19 safety protocols, Concordia hosted two separate commencement ceremonies. Each service featured identical programs; ceremonies were duplicated for the purpose of allowing every graduate to cross the commencement stage to receive a diploma while adhering to coronavirus safety guidelines.

This year’s distinguished honorees, who all happen to be CUAA alumni, are as follows:

Reverend Steven Briel (’69)

Honorary Doctor of Letters

The Doctor of Letters degree is awarded to an individual who has rendered invaluable service to Concordia, the Church, the community, the state, or the nation, and comes from the ranks of business, religious, service, or political communities.

Steven Briel
University President Rev. Patrick T. Ferry, PhD, smiles with Rev. Steven Briel after presenting the Honorary Doctor of Letters at CUAA’s 2021 spring commencement.

Reverend Steven Briel is a 1969 graduate of Concordia University Ann Arbor. He went on to attend Concordia Senior College in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and graduated in 1971 with a concentration in biblical Hebrew. He graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield, Illinois, in 1974. He has completed graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, University of Minnesota, and Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He received a Master of Sacred Theology degree in 1982 from Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne.

Rev. Briel served for two years as campus pastor at Calvary Chapel in Madison, Wisconsin, and four years as associate pastor in Fairmont, Minnesota. He spent four years as faculty at St. John’s College in Winfield, Kansas, where he taught Hebrew, Greek, and Old Testament. In 1984, he was called to serve as pastor at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Corcoran/Maple Grove, Minnesota, where he remained for 33 years until his retirement in 2018.

Rev. Briel has traveled to India several times over the years, where he has lectured at various symposia and taught at the Lutheran seminary in Gunther, India. He also taught two terms at the Jonathon Ekong Lutheran Seminary in Nigeria, Africa, and recently taught a semester at Neema Lutheran College and Seminary in Matongo, Kenya. He has spent several summers as a guest instructor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, and is a regular speaker at various theological conferences. He has served on the former Board for Pastoral Education, the Board of Regents at Concordia College New York, and the Board for Higher Education. He is currently serving his second term as Chair of the Board for National Mission (BNM).

Rev. Briel is married to Katherine (Katy,) (née Preus), who also attended Concordia University Ann Arbor, and is retired from her career in secondary education, having taught at several high schools in the Minneapolis area. God blessed the couple with four sons and five grandchildren. Rev. Briel remains active in the church at large, continuing his service on the BNM and preaching regularly in congregations in the Minneapolis area.

Reverend John Denninger (’74)

Outstanding Alumnus

The Outstanding Alumnni Award honors graduates of Concordia for reflecting in their lives and careers the values upon which the university is founded. View all of the past Outstanding Alumni award recipients.

John Denninger
Rev. Denninger receives the Outstanding Alumnus award from University President Rev. Patrick T. Ferry, PhD.

Reverend John Denninger graduated from Concordia University Ann Arbor in 1974. When not flipping through Greek flash cards, he was active in the intramural program, sang in Doc Foelber’s Choir, and served as one of four guitarists who led worship at all-campus devotionals. He went on Ambassadors for Christ weekend trips to Michigan District churches, during which he served by playing guitar. He went on to Concordia Senior College, Fort Wayne, and earned his Master of Divinity degree at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

If a marriage proposal to Constance was Rev. Denninger’s best life-time decision, the second most important decision was made during the summer between his freshman and sophomore year. He asked his grade school friend, Constance (née Graft, CUAA class of 1975) to go on a road trip from Fort Wayne to Ann Arbor. After their years at CUAA, they were married.

Rev. Denninger’s first ministry calls took the couple to Nebraska, where he served a parish and later became a full-time campus pastor. Their three daughters, Jessica, Laura, and Sara, were born Cornhuskers. Rev. Denninger accepted a call to Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Springfield, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington DC, where he served as pastor for 24 years. In 2012, he was elected to serve as the Southeastern District (SED) President. His term of office will be completed in May of 2022.

Rev Denninger’s experience with Concordia’s Ambassadors for Christ was the seedbed for his missiological focus. He earned a Doctor of Missiology degree from Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, California. He developed iNeighborhood: simple tools for the baptized to engage their neighbors with the Gospel. These tools are used to reach the 10% of the US population that live within the SED boundaries and are not familiar with Jesus.

Though the Denningers live far from CUAA, they may actually walk the CUAA campus more than many Michiganders. That is because Joshua Schumacher, Concordia Cardinal’s head football coach, is married to their daughter Laura. And former CUAA athletic trainer, Daniel Meier, is married to their daughter Jessica. Six (soon to be seven) of the Denninger’s grandchildren live in Ann Arbor. The other three live in Virginia.

Mr. Timothy Hetzner (’76)

Christus Primus

The Christus Primus Award is a service award presented to clergy, educators, or laypersons of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Recipients are recognized for their distinguished service to the Church and community. Learn more about the Christus Primus award. 

Tim Hetzner
Mr. Timothy Hetzner receives the Christus Primus award at CUAA’s spring 2021 commencement.

Mr. Timothy Hetzner grew up on a dairy farm in Frankenmuth, Michigan, where he attended a one-room school house for two years on the family farm. He attended Buena Vista High School in Saginaw. He graduated from Concordia University Ann Arbor in 1976, and from Concordia St. Paul in 1978.

Mr. Hetzner was first called to youth ministry at Hope Lutheran Church in Rochester, New York, in 1978. He served as a teacher and youth director at St. John Lutheran Church in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, and later as director of discipleship at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Palantine, Illinois. Since 2001, he has served as President and CEO of Lutheran Church Charities (LCC), Northbrook, Illinois. He served in parish ministry for 25 years as a Director of Christian Education, including 22 years in the Northern Illinois District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).

LCC changed its ministry focus when Mr. Hetzner became its leader. He initiated Pass-Through-Giving, in which each dollar given for a cause goes directly to support that cause or need. LCC is a Recognized Service Organization (RSO) of the LCMS and works through its congregations, schools, and universities, helping them expand Christ-centered ministry outside of their walls to their community and the world. LCC’s mission is to share the mercy, compassion, presence, and proclamation of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering and in need. Each year LCC coordinates the deployment of thousands of volunteers for disaster and crisis response and for mission projects in the United States and abroad.

In August 2008, Mr. Hetzner launched the LCC K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry with four golden retrievers. Currently, approximately 130 dogs are located in 25 states. In August 2014, he launched the LCC Kare 9 Military Ministry to veterans and their families. In July 2017, he created the LCC K-9 Police Ministry with law enforcement handlers, who understand the unique challenges facing the law enforcement community and serve those who protect and serve, as well as their families. In January 2020, he started the National Hearts of Mercy and Compassion Ministry as a means to reach out to people in their time of sorrow or distress with handmade wooden hearts.

Mr. Hetzner is the author and teacher of an in-depth Bible study curriculum called WORD, with over 4500 students from 26 states, plus online students. He writes a daily devotion that is distributed nationally and leads Biblical study tours to the Middle East and European countries.

Mr. Hetzner and his wife Jackie (née Liese), a retired preschool teacher, have four children: Emily, Stephen, Katie, and Philip. They have three grandchildren: Kylie, Barret, and Cayson.

See more photos from CUAA’s spring 2021 commencement exercises on our Facebook page!

— Rachel Thoms served on Concordia University's Strategic Communications team from 2015-2022. Any inquiries about this story can be sent to

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