How will Gypsum’s 130-year-old First Lutheran Church keep their doors open?
Gypsum’s First Lutheran Church faces funding challenge to continue its 130-year-old mission
January 28, 2018
GYPSUM — First Lutheran Church in Gypsum has been a community landmark longer than it has had a community to mark.
The congregation was established in 1888, seven years after the first settlers arrived in the area and 23 years before the town of Gypsum was incorporated. Built in 1890, the little white church at the corner of Eagle and Second streets has remained in place as the valley around it exploded. The same year the church's renowned steeple was hoisted into place, Wyoming and Idaho became states and 153 Lakota Sioux were killed at Wounded Knee. When parishoners arrived at services, First Lutheran's first women worshipers would have worn floor-length skirts and corsets. The male members of the congregation likely donned black bow ties and bowler hats.
In contrast, the worshipers in the pews Sunday, Jan. 21, literally held the world in their hands — their cell phones.
But for all their differences, Gypsum Lutherans of the past and present are connected by a common challenge: How can they keep their church open?
First Lutheran Church in Gypsum has weathered a lot during the past 13 decades but this winter marks a serious turning point in the congregation's history. Unless the congregation comes up with some additional funding, it will no longer be able to keep a full-time pastor. First Lutheran's own history demonstrates that without a pastor to lead the church, it's difficult for the congregation to survive.
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Pastor Dan Tisdel as been the pastor at First Lutheran since 2014. He came to the church as an intern and then accepted a call to continue serving the congregation. He has come to love the little white church and the people who worship there.
"I am very passionate about this church surviving, whether I am the pastor here or not," Tisdel said.
The congregation has seen strong growth during Tisdel's service. There are more people in the pews and more contributions in the offering plates. But the small congregation still struggles to make its budget.
Operating expenses have been subsidized by the church's reserves — money generated by the sale of the parish hall building a few years back. Last year the congregation figured it would see a $56,000 shortfall. Tisdel noted that member giving cut that back to $40,000, but that's still a large amount of money to make up and the church's reserves won't last through 2018 if they continue to employ a full-time pastor.
"It's just a rough situation," Tisdel said. "It's a catch-22. You need a full-time pastor to grow, but you can't afford to pay a full-time pastor."
His solution was to start a GoFundMe page with a lofty goal of raising $100,000. To date the effort has collected $2,000.
Sharing their story
First Lutheran's dilemma isn't unique. According to information published in demographia.com, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has seen a 5.9 percent decline in church membership since 1960. That's a modest loss compared to some other protestant denominations that have seen numbers drop by 30 percent or more. Tisdel noted that many congregations have discovered that merging with other churches is a path to survival, but that option doesn't really exist for First Lutheran.
Tisdel believes First Lutheran has a compelling narrative for why it should stay open. He thinks that if more people know the church's story, they will want to be a part of making sure it continues.
He noted two particular elements that characterize the First Lutheran story — history and beliefs. Both are integral to understanding what makes the church special.
As noted before, First Lutheran has a storied history in Gypsum. It is one of only 11 sites in Eagle County listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tisdel noted that during its history, First Lutheran has hosted everything from high school graduations to town council meetings. "It's been a central part of the community for many, many years," he said.
The congregation was established Oct. 12, 1888, when six Gypsum men — Peter Oleson, Sorn Oleson, Andrew Oleson, Simon Eggstrom, Charles Gustafson and James Norgaard — voted to adopt a church constitution. They selected the name First Lutheran.
No regular services
At the meeting, the founders voted to build a church as soon as possible, but to build only when sufficient money was available to complete the project without going into debt. The congregation eventually did apply for a loan from the Home Missionary Board of the Lutheran Church. The congregation received a $300 loan and through fundraising efforts, members generated an additional $390.13. With the help of many volunteers it cost $676 to build the church, leaving $14.13 in the building fund.
The Rev. M.J. Wagge was the first pastor called to serve the church and until 1948, several ministers followed. There were no regular services held at First Lutheran from the early 1950s until 1966 when The Rev. Leroy Healy, from Glenwood Springs, began Sunday night worship.
In a newspaper story marking First Lutheran's centennial in 1988, the late Rev. Don Simonton, of Vail, recalled how Lutheran leaders in Colorado never forgot about the church.
"People would periodically bring up the little church in Gypsum and how there were no regular services and we all felt really badly about it," Simonton said.
In 1968, he was in a position to change that scenario. Together with Healy, Simonton formed the High Country Lutheran Parish. The parish consisted of churches in Rifle, Glenwood Springs, Snowmass, Vail and First Lutheran in Gypsum and the two pastors cooperatively served the five congregations. In 1982, Mount of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church began offering regular services at the Gypsum church. Since that time the church as operated continuously.
But even during the years when the church wasn't hosting regular services, it remained a vital part of the Gypsum community. From the 1930s through the 1960s group called the Lutheran Ladies kept the building and its grounds in good order. They also raised money for streetlights in Gypsum, pews at the neighboring Methodist church and lights for the Eagle Valley High School football field.
"The community has really cared for this church, one way or another. It really means something to them. People care about the little white church on the corner," said the Rev. Jim Berggren, who served the congregation during the 1980s.
A church is not a building
When Tisdel talks about his desire to see First Lutheran survive, he is talking about more than the historic church structure.
"First Lutheran is a place where people are just loved for who they are, period," Tisdel said. "Churches talk that talk a lot, but they don't always walk that walk. This church does."
Member Jennifer Kirkland backed up that claim. She became a member at First Lutheran last spring.
Kirkland said she attended her first service at First Lutheran when the congregation contacted her husband Justin Kirkland, the chief at the Gypsum Fire Department. The church was doing a community outreach and wanted to offer help and support to various local organizations.
From her first visit, Kirkland said the church was warm and welcoming. "When we do the sharing of the peace at church, it takes five minutes because everyone greets everyone else," she said.
Kirkland passionately hopes the church can keep its pastor employed and keep its doors open.
Lessons of the past support her concerns because when the church hasn't been served by a minister, it's been shuttered for long periods of time.
"So many people I have met have said 'I used to go to that church,'" Tisdel said. He hopes by reaching out to members, former members and basically anyone who has seen or heard of the church, First Lutheran can weather this latest challenge.
It is a challenge that the little white church in the middle of Gypsum has faced before. But if its 130-year history demonstrates anything it's this — First Lutheran is a survivor.