For Jesse Canniff-Kuhn, there is only one thing that could have made his final year of study at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS) even more special – the opportunity to share it with his brother.
With apartments side by side, they go back and forth daily – baby monitors in tow – sharing time for study, conversation, and prayer. They sit on the front porch with their wives and watch their children play together, recognizing that their lives have come full circle.
Oldest brother Matthew Canniff-Kesecker was born at LTSS while his parents Pastors Tim and Mary Canniff-Kuhn were students. "I played here on the same ground that my daughter and nephew are playing on now," Matt said. "Talk about following in your parents' footsteps."
A Shared Passion for Serving Christ
Both brothers are pursuing their Master of Divinity degrees to become pastors for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Matt is in his second year of study. Jesse returned to LTSS for his last year after completing an internship his junior year at Trinity Lutheran Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. He gained invaluable experience performing pastoral duties including preaching sermons, leading worship, teaching Bible school, and visiting members of the congregation.
"I have been pushed and pulled in all the right ways," said Jesse of his experience at LTSS. "When I first came here, I thought I knew a lot about religion and ministry, but the world is so much bigger and Christianity and theology so much deeper than I realized. I have been challenged to think in different ways and have been blessed with a new and enlightened understanding of God's mission in our world." Jesse credits his professors – whom he describes as highly formational – for helping him develop a strong foundation that he can build upon as he enters the ministry.
According to Matt, beyond the core theological education, the professors encourage students to "put what they have learned into practice." "There are countless opportunities at LTSS that allow you to explore and pursue your passions," he said. He referenced a student-led initiative that provides housing to refugee families through a partnership with Lutheran Services of the Carolinas. "You learn to recognize giving back as a way of life and the fulfillment that comes from serving others."
Jesse describes the community of LTSS as "a unique and wonderful place to grow." "We live, work, and relax together," he said. "There exists a village mentality through which we work collaboratively, supporting one another in our callings to serve God." Matt added that their fellow students even babysit their children. "It is a special experience to have actual family here, but at LTSS it is hard to tell where your biological family ends and your family in Christ begins."
Paths of Their Own
Jesse and Matt look alike, sound alike, and have shared many of the same experiences. Those experiences have been formational, leading the brothers to the path they are on today. But it wasn'talways the path they thought they would follow.
"Especially when your parents are pastors, there is an aversion – like I guess there is for all kids – to becoming just like your parents," Matt explained. "I spent my life hearing, 'You should be a pastor.' I didn't want to feel like my future was already planned out for me so I built up a resistance to the idea." Over the years Matt began to feel his own calling to serve God and, though he remained uncertain, he knew it was something he needed to explore. "When I came to LTSS I was still unsure about what I wanted for my future, but during my very first semester on campus, I knew that this was exactly where I should be and what I was meant to do."
Matt has an affinity for urban and neighborhood-based ministry, and LTSS has provided him with the opportunity to study and pursue his passions. "Even though I am following in my parents' footsteps, my path and my calling are my own," Matt said. "God has unique plans for each of us and I believe LTSS has helped me to find my niche."
Jesse shared Matt's resistance to a life of ministry. He admits it was difficult overcoming the realization that he was going to become a pastor and essentially, follow in his parents' footsteps. "Becoming a pastor was never my childhood dream," Jesse recalls. "I believe the transformation began for me at Lutheridge. I began to recognize that I had been given the gifts and skills that fit with professional ministry, and it grew into a passion, and then a calling."
Both Matt and Jesse express their admiration for their parents and their life decision to serve others through Christ. They feel extremely blessed to have experienced a childhood and life that has led them to the place they are today.
Growing up Lutheridge
Matt was 10, Jesse was 6, and their younger brother Nathan was 3 when their parents began serving as co-directors of Lutheridge camp in Arden, North Carolina. "Lutheridge is an incredible place," Matt said. "The creation of an intentional Christian community is hard to replicate." He explained that as residents of Lutheridge, he and his brother became fully integrated into camp life. "It is truly a gift to have been a part of such a strong Christian community. You become naturally woven into a community and culture that is intentionally servant-based and Christ-centered."
Both brothers served as summer counselors at Lutheridge during their formative college years. "The experience helped me to develop skills in leadership and ministry that I have built upon," Jesse said. "It changes the way you look at responsibility."
Jesse and Matt recognize Lutheridge as a gift to the church, one that has inspired a generation of pastors who now serve the ELCA. "Half of my LTSS class served as counselors at Lutheridge or other Christian-based camps. It is a great place to discover Christ, learn about worship and service, and develop as a person and a Christian. It provides a great platform to propel you toward the path you are meant to follow," Jesse said. Their parents have served at Lutheridge for over 20 years and have touched the lives of countless children and teens who visit the camp each year.
Higher Education to a Higher Calling
Jesse received an associate degree from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College (AB-Tech) and then transferred to the University of North Carolina - Charlotte to achieve his bachelor's degree in Arts and Sociology. Matt worked as a youth and family minister at Faith Lutheran Church in Sarasota, Florida while attending college. He graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. Nathan attended the University of South Carolina and currently works at ESPN in Connecticut.
Jesse and his wife, Lindsay, have a one and a half year-old son named Witten. Matt and his wife, Aubrey, have a two and a half year-old daughter named Nora.
"This past year at LTSS is one we will always remember," said Matt. "It has truly been a blessing to have this time to take advantage of all LTSS has to offer and, at the same time, share our lives." Both brothers express their hope that this experience is the beginning of a strong foundation of faith for their own children. Witten and Nora are more like siblings than cousins and seem very content with their life as "seminary kids." Possibly they will find their own path to LTSS one day – following in their parents' footsteps.