By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
More than 50 years after it was established, Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd closed its doors and sold its property at 1124 W. Second St. The church body, once a vibrant group that looked forward to a flourishing future and even purchased an empty lot to the east of its building, dwindled to less than 10 attendees over the past few years.
“What kept this little church going along so well for so many years was the oil boom,” recalled longtime member Sue Smith. “The oil companies brought people in from all over the country.” At one point, Smith said, an influx of people from Wisconsin bolstered the number of Lutheran families in the community.
“When the oil field went bad in the 1980s, they started moving away,” she said.
Even so, Good Shepherd Lutheran, as it was known in the community, regained momentum with the arrival of pastor Michael Ide, who served from 1992 to 2000.
“It was my first call after graduating from the seminary,” Ide reminisced in an email interview. “When my bishop asked me where I would like to go, I said ‘Western Kansas,’ thinking that Rush County, where I grew up, was ‘western Kansas.’ Boy, did I learn how wrong I was!”
Ide recalls his time in Liberal as a period of growth and excitement, for him personally and for the congregation he served.
“Good Shepherd was in a financial crisis at the time, not being able to afford Calling a pastor unless they mortgaged the parsonage,” Ide wrote. “Together we decided to trust that if God wanted the that ministry to thrive, it would happen. And it did.”
Indeed, during the years that followed, the strength of the congregation’s commitment made growth not only possible, it was a reality.
“Worship attendance increased significantly, and I tried to be involved in the community, serving as a hospice chaplain for Southwest Homecare and Hospice, being a member and leader of the Noon Kiwanis Club, and being a member of the Ministerial Association,” Ide recalled. He and his wife, Linda, he said, “had a unique opportunity in that she was a member of St. Anthony Catholic Church and together we worked to bring Lutheran and Catholics a little closer.”
For Judy McAllister, a lifelong Lutheran member and president of the Good Shepherd church council, the 15 years she and her husband attended the church were a time of tremendous spiritual and personal development. Though they had attended another Lutheran church, they wanted to explore other churches as a young couple. At Good Shepherd, she said, they found a group of likeminded people who formed a church family.
“I grew there,” she said. “I grew in the Word, I grew in the Lord. So, the church and the people will always have a close place in my heart, and in my husband’s.”
When the Ides moved in 2000, the church called another pastor, who stayed two years. After that, a pulpit-sharing arrangement with St. Andrews Episcopal Church brought a woman minister to the church. When she moved in 2007, Good Shepherd made do with visiting pastors.
At that time, Steve Saville served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. He began to preach at Good Shepherd in a pulpit-sharing arrangement similar to that with the Episcopal congregation. But Saville moved in 2013, “and there were so few of us left,” Smith said. “This year, we were down to maybe eight people, and there was no sense in us trying to bring a pastor in. We decided in our April council meeting to close the church.”
It was a painful decision, said Smith.
“We sent out a letter before that meeting, to all the people who had been affiliated with the church,” she said. “When the night of the meeting came, there were just the eight of us. Then we knew, there was no chance of reviving our church.”
Once the council decided to stop meeting, it contacted the Lutheran synod to find out what to do next. Because the local body had constructed and owned the building, its council was allowed to sell the property.
“That’s what we decided to do,” Smith said. “I got online and saw so many stories about church buildings that sat vacant for years. I thought, ‘Oh, my, our church could sit there forever.’” The thought pained Smith, who was relieved when other churches in need of facilities contacted the council about purchasing the property.
In the end, Robert Love, pastor of the fledgling Trinity Church, bought the building.
“I never thought there was going to be another person who would love that little church as much as I had for 37 years. I didn’t even like to drive by it,” said Smith. “But I hear he’s done a remarkable job of going in and refurbishing things. I’m glad.”
McAllister, too, described the process as intensely emotional.
“We knew we had to make a decision and move forward,” she said, “so we did. But taking that step was such a disappointment.”
Like other members, McAllister questioned herself.
“It was a time of reflection,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘What could I have done differently? What could I have done to help my church thrive?’”
Though she could not find clear answers to her inner questions, McAllister said the closure of the church has reminded her that keeping God at the center of her life should be her priority.
“What happened is part of the culture today,” she said. “Whatever you think most about, during the day — that’s what is most important to you. People don’t focus on God. I’m guilty, too, of getting off the path. It’s so important to pray every day, to pray for others, to have compassion, to remember that God’s in control. We are to bring our lives to him, to serve others, to be Christlike. That’s what we’re here for.”
Nonetheless, McAllister isn’t ready to shop for a new church.
“There’s a sense of emptiness that our church is gone,” she said. “I’m confident that God will direct us and guide us to where He wants us to be. I’m waiting patiently for that. I know it will come in time; this isn’t permanent.” In the meantime, the McAllisters enjoy the broadcast preaching of Joel Osteen and Charles Stanley, Bible-reading and prayer.
Ide, who currently pastors Peace Lutheran Church in Manhattan, voiced his hope that his former parishioners will find a new church home.
“I will always remember the folks who were a part of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church as they helped to shape my ministry as we worked together,” he stated. “I know that Liberal has many fine churches and pastors and pray that the people who are closing the doors of Good Shepherd will be able to find a church home that will continue to feed them and encourage them to serve.”
Smith, whose husband is a Methodist church member, said she is comforted by the solution her spouse’s church membership presented for her.
“All these years, I’ve not gone to church with John,” she said. “Now I do.”
COMING SOON — An interview with pastor Robert Love, whose Trinity Church purchased the former Good Shepherd property.
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