After two decades of service, the pastor takes his leave
By B.C. Manion
When the Rev. Gilbert Kuehn arrived at Holy Trinity Lutheran nearly 20 years ago, there was just a small church with 13 parking spots on a grassy plot on Leonard Road in Lutz.
The pastor, however, could picture the potential.
He knew the area was destined to grow and he sensed “the need that they had matched my gift package,” he said.
Coming to the area was not a difficult choice, Kuehn said.
“I lived in Buffalo for 13 years,” Kuehn said. “When they interviewed me, it was February. I had shoveled my driveway, and I had scraped off the ice from my windshield. … We got off the plane — my wife and I — and the sun was shining and there were palm trees. That’s obviously an attraction.”
Throughout his life as a minister, which began in the late 1960s, Kuehn has remained committed to “proclaiming a changeless Christ for a changing world.”
As popular culture changes, the church must make an effort to stay tuned into the people it serves, doing whatever required to reach them, Kuehn said.
For instance, when Kuehn was beginning his ministry he used skills he had developed during high school as a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman.
The techniques he developed came in handy when he went door-to-door in massive subdivisions, inviting people to come to his church.
Churches today must develop a social media presence using technology to reach out to their flocks, Kuehn said.
It’s important, too, for a church to have a sense of direction that is obvious to the congregation, Kuehn said.
The Bible says that, “Without a vision, the people perish,” Kuehn said.
So, during his tenure, Holy Trinity Lutheran has always had a plan it was working to complete, he said. When it finished one five-year plan, it would begin working on the next.
Throughout the years, it created the Little Lambs Preschool, expanded the church building three times, added a classroom building, built an activities center and commercial kitchen, expanded its parking area and brought in a building for its youth program.
Little Lambs began with six children. Now, it serves more than 100 a week.
The activities center has provided a venue for community outreach, Kuehn said. When people go there for Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce gatherings to cast their ballot on Election Day or to attend an event, they become aware of the church, which is not in a high-traffic area.
The church has grown under Kuehn’s leadership.
When he arrived, the average Sunday attendance was about 80 people. At its peak, it was at about 240. Now, it’s around 210.
Some of the slip in attendance may be related to people moving out of the area during the housing market collapse, Kuehn said.
During the course of his ministry, the 70-year-old Kuehn said societal changes have had an impact on churches.
When he was growing up, for instance, the church often was at the center of people’s lives. Now, people’s energies are scattered. For many, church is just one item on a long list of demands.
People in the past also had a tendency to stick to the same denomination when they moved to a new locale. Not so anymore, Kuehn said.
“Churches, today, are much like grocery stores. People visit all of them, and they pick the one they like,” he said.
Kuehn said his decision to devote his life to the ministry was influenced by the Rev. Carl Knorr, who was his pastor and mentor while he was growing up in Milwaukee, Wis.
When Knorr suggested the possibility of life in the ministry, Kuehn said he gave it some thought and decided it “was a call of God, so to speak.”
Throughout his career, Kuehn said the most important aspects of his spiritual work have remained the same.
“Your ministry is to share the gospel, sharing the message of Jesus to people,” he said.
But the challenge goes beyond merely attracting people to church on Sundays, he said. It involves helping people to understand the urgency of using their gifts to serve the Lord in their daily lives.
Kuehn conducted his final worship service on April 14, which was followed by a retirement celebration at the church.
In an interview a few days before that event, Kuehn said it was time to turn the reins over to a new leader who will bring fresh ideas to the church.
The pastor said he’s ready to retire. He’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife Jean, their children and grandchildren. The Land O’ Lakes couple has been married for 45 years. Their son Andrew and his wife Mary Ellen live in Buffalo. Their daughter Jennifer Spohn and her husband David have two children and live in Raleigh, N.C.
Kuehn said he looks forward to seeing his children and grandchildren more often, but has no intention to move back north: “I buried my snow shovel, and there’s no resurrection.”