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Watering hole image inspires ministry in everyday life

Using liturgy, music, art, preaching and teaching within the life of churches, the Rev. Rob Gohl’s ministry exemplifies the image of the church as a watering hole, where people are fed for their mission in their lives, communities and the world.

Rob Gohl

The Rev. Rob Gohl

Aware that church members often want their church to be the mission field, he believes that sets up a maintenance ministry.

“Ministry is who we are, where we are and what we do to express Christian nurture, to do ministries in our everyday lives and reach out to nonmembers,” he said.

That’s the approach he took in his first call, serving Good Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Townsend, Mont., for 15 years, and it’s his approach serving Grace Lutheran Church in Cashmere since 2002 and also St. James Episcopal Church there since 2003.

When the priest at St. James was ready to retire, he asked Rob if he would serve as quarter-time interim.  Three months later, St. James dropped their search.  Now he serves Grace full time and as vicar at St. James half time.

The two churches have worked together in the community and have held a joint midweek Lenten soup supper, worship and education program since the 1970s.

Both churches had struggled financially, but Grace has grown from 50 to 80 at worship and St. James from about 15 to 30.

Similarly, in Townsend, a community of 3,000 like Cashmere, the watering-hole approach led Good Shepherd to increase from 35 to 120 worshipers.

Growing up on a farm in American Falls, Idaho, and participating in St. John’s Lutheran Church, Rob attended Lutheran Bible Institute a year and a half after high school in 1975.  Then he went to Pacific Lutheran University for a bachelor’s degree in religion in 1981.  He also traveled a while on the West Coast with the LBI Lutheran Youth Encounter Music Team, working with youth groups.

His interest in worship and liturgy led him to attend Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., where he earned a master of divinity degree in 1986.  His third year, he did an internship at Emmanuel Lutheran in Ritzville, and gained contacts in the Northwest.

In Townsend, he developed a youth program, Sunday school and outreach to the community through funerals and weddings, offering comfort and hope.

“Small town pastors need to do things outside the church,” he said. 

With a farm background, he helped a non-church rancher plant and harvest for no pay, and just became acquainted.

Rob also coached and did substitute teaching at the high school and junior high, gaining visibility and some income.  He also did ministry with the Episcopal pastor.

“Ecumenism reminds me different denominations and churches are doing about the same ministries, just with different styles,” he clarified.  “We share concern to reach the poor, oppressed and marginalized.  Rather than seeking to create new programs, I prefer to join existing programs.”

When his marriage broke up in 1999, he began looking for churches in Washington, to cut the 540-mile distance for him in joint custody of three sons with his former wife, Susan, who returned to her hometown of Wenatchee.

Cashmere has 12 churches, which, like Grace, draw people from Plain and Leavenworth to East Wenatchee.  Cashmere Valley is the community identity.

Rob said half the valley people are Hispanic, settling with their families, rather than migrating. 

Grace supports a Headstart outreach for 18 children, all but two of whom are Hispanic.

Rob has conducted several Hispanic weddings with the assistance of interpreters.

Rob Gohl
Rob plays guitar, designed brass cross.

He continues outreach, pastoral care and community services, but a bit less than in Townsend, because of serving two churches.

St. James worships at 9 a.m. and Grace at 10:30 a.m. Sundays.

Rob rushes from St. James robed in his alb and jumps into his car to arrive at Grace.  Seeing him do that one day, a woman called him “the flying minister.”

St. James has no Sunday school. Grace’s Sunday school meets before worship.  Midweek, he leads a joint class for the churches.  He also does five text studies on Thursdays for the churches—three held at assisted living centers.  About 60 attend, coming to the one most convenient for them.

The economy of Cashmere, which celebrated its centennial in 2004, is based on fruit orchards, agriculture, tourism and Aplets and Cotlets.

Rob helps on farms there, too.  Working in an orchard on a tractor is “a time of spiritual renewal.”

Rob described the churches and their shared ministry.

St James

St. James Episcopal

St. James’ centennial was in 2005.  Its small, stone English-style building was built in 1914.   Grace, started in 1940, built its present building in 1956 and built an addition in 1964.  Both churches reached their peaks in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1984, the Episcopal and Lutheran churches officially permitted celebrating communion together.  Their national Call to Common Mission, adopted in 1998, opened the way for Episcopal and Lutheran congregations to share clergy. 

Rob is an ordained Lutheran, but has permission to serve the Episcopal church.  At the Episcopal Convention, he has voice but no vote.  He attends both Lutheran synod and Episcopal diocese events, plus a monthly Lutheran cluster gathering and Episcopal deanery meetings for North Central Washington.

The worship services and liturgies are similar, both using new music, said Rob, who plays guitar, sings and writes music.

His passion for studying, teaching and reforming liturgy to keep it current and connected to tradition influences worship in both churches and involves him in promoting the new Lutheran Worship Book or hymnal.

Rob uses music, prayers and Scriptures with language that is inclusive in terms of gender and culture to “break down us/them, right/wrong mentalities and explore contemporary expressions that connect people to life.”

To help stem the flow of people out of churches, he uses understandable words, rather than “traditional church code language”—such as acolyte for candle lighter.

He incorporates a sense of the ordinary, an everyday message, affirming people’s everyday lives, seeking to bring hope in the midst of brokenness.

If songs in hymn books and song books do not meet a need, he writes a song, using country-style music:  “I call what I write the lament psalms of America.”

Rob writes Christmas programs by helping youth plan musical presentations and putting Christian words to the music they know.  It’s one way to deal with the challenge in small towns to keep youth involved and build their awareness that they are in “a mission field” at their schools and in sports.

Rob is one of five members of an Eastern Washington-Idaho ELCA synod task force promoting the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship Book.

“It has something for everyone, offering 10 liturgical settings for celebrating communion, complete with music from traditional to contemporary—organ, piano, guitar, drums and strings—reflecting cultural diversity.

“Putting contemporary music in a hymnal allows people to hold and touch something that gives them a sense of permanence, in contrast to projecting words on a screen,” he said.

In 1978 during seminary, Rob helped introduce the Lutheran green hymnal to Minnesota churches.  Years later congregations were just adopting it.

“Lutherans are often hesitant to change.  Some may grieve the loss of some familiar hymns, but there are many familiar hymns as well as new.  The trade-off is bringing in new people,” he said.

Rob is visiting churches and has helped organize four regional events with church musicians to teach some of the new music in Boise, Spokane, Tri Cities and Pocatello from October to January.  Many have already ordered it to take advantage of a discount.

“Lutheran worship and liturgy is in a constant renewal,” he said.  “Music and liturgy are ways to approach God.  We believe Jesus comes to us in Word and sacrament every Sunday.

“We seek to focus on doing the Word and sacrament so well that when people step into the churches they feel connected with God,” he said.  “So we need to keep the watering hole fresh, clean and inviting.”

For funerals and liturgical seasons, Rob made a resurrection cross by tying brass platelets positioned on fish line to two bars.  He said he turns on a fan and they move, symbolically “reflecting the light of God and giving movement from death to life.”

For information, call 782-3583.