It was supposed to be another fifth Sunday worship service between the Rev. Dr. Paul Kirchner’s three country parishes. The three churches – Martin Luther Evangelical Lutheran Church in Coletoville, St. Luke’s in Schroeder and Zion Lutheran in Arneckeville – which Kirchner helped join together in a cooperative structure, meet for joint worship every fifth Sunday.

But as the pastor walked into Martin Luther Church on Sunday, he started noticing many familiar faces from the past.

“When I saw some of the members of my former church in Hawaii, I knew something was up,” said Kirchner, laughing.

This month marks Kirchner’s 40th anniversary of pastoring with the Lutheran Church. And in an effort to honor the beloved minister, members of the three churches decided to throw him a surprise celebration at church Sunday, followed by an elaborate 200-guest barbecue reception.

“You usually have to wait until your funeral to hear that many nice things said about you,” Kirchner joked. “What surprised me the most was hearing how God had used me throughout my life to touch others when all I was doing was living my life and doing the things you should just do anyway. I was able to see what the good Lord had been doing in those situations and in those moments.”

Kirchner began his ministry in Victoria in 1979 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church when he was 25 years old. It was there he met his wife, Karen Kirchner, and the two were married within a year. The Kirchners then moved to Tyler to lead a Lutheran church, followed by a move to Hawaii, where he led Lihue Lutheran Church for 18 years before retiring and returning to the Crossroads.

The Kirchners retired to 100 acres of Karen’s family ancestral land in Weesatche, where they planned to live out their days raising black Angus cattle and working the ranch.

But with the area Lutheran churches dwindling in numbers and lacking a regular pastor, Kirchner was asked if he might be willing to return to the lectern part-time.

“I’ve never seen a part-time pastor work so hard,” said Steve Gengenbacher, Martin Luther’s council president. “He’s been at our church for three years, but what he has done in three years’ time has been phenomenal. He totally changed the tenor of the church.”

Gengenbacher said Kirchner’s efforts to unite the three country churches has helped to sustain the historical congregations and perhaps even rescue them from future closings. With Kirchner rotating his pastoral care among the three bodies and implementing efforts that combine resources, the churches are healthy and thriving once again.

“We actually enjoy getting together. He wanted to make sure when he does retire, we can continue the ministries of these churches, and I believe we can,” said Gengenbacher, whose idea it was to throw the 40th anniversary celebration.

Kirchner said he’s been blessed to live a life of ministry and has enjoyed the journey God has taken him on during the last 40 years. He hopes to eventually take an official leap into full-time retirement, when he can work his 20 cattle and maintain his family land for generations of future Kirchners.

But for now, he’s content to continue the ministry of the ELCA rural congregations, serving the people and growing their faith.

“The three churches are doing extraordinarily well, and I think, hopefully, within a year or two they can call a full-time pastor, and I will celebrate that day,” he said. “My cows will get some more of my attention, and my wife will get a bit more of my attention, too.”

Jennifer Preyss-Mathlouthi writes about religion and faith for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at jenniferpreyss.com, or on Twitter @jenniferpreyss.

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Jennifer Preyss-Mathlouthi is an award-winning faith writer and columnist.

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