WHEATLAND– Pastor Joe Bair, 39, is a clergyman who wears many hats, from the counseling he does to the sermons that he preaches and most recently to the celebrations that his church is experiencing.
The United Church of Christ Church located at 1056 E. Walnut Street in Wheatland has been an established Platte County church for 125 years. This year they are celebrating and remembering the rich past that the church has been a part of.
The building on Walnut Street was originally the congregational half of a church merger with the United Church of Christ.
“The United Church of Christ as a denomination is fairly young,” Bair said. “It merged in 1957 as a merger for previously smaller denominations. The 1950 mainline churches were merging like crazy. You see a lot of ‘United’ churches, so you see all these strands sort of merging together. At that time the church was more an institutional model rather than a local church. This church was formed in 1895 and the building itself was erected in 1912.”
According to Bair, the church was an English Congregational Church which tended to be the more academic, but he says that the roots were primarily German Lutheran. He says that because of the culture that still remains as the food and traditions.
“1995 was the 100th anniversary of the church,” Bair said. “This 125th anniversary wasn’t actually on my radar. The local Rocky Mountain Conference for the United Church of Christ out of Denver was the one that sent us notification and appreciation by letter. There are still a good chunk of our members who are now elderly who have been here for a good portion of our existence.”
Bair has been the temporary pastor since 2014.
“This is the longest temp job I’ve ever had,” Bair said. “I came in November 2014, so six years.”
Blaine calls it a temp job because he started as a temporary pulpit supply person and came from Douglas where he ministered for over four years. Bair doesn’t only perform his duties in the pulpit but has also gone on to earn additional degrees beyond that of religious studies that he earned from Colorado College and his seminary degree from the University of Denver.
“I’ve gone on to pursue degrees in mental health counseling and addiction counseling, and I still do both, so you could say I am bi-vocational,” Bair said. “I travel between here and Laramie and kind of have two lives.”
Growing up in the metropolis of Colorado Springs, Colo., there were differences in coming to minister in such a small area.
“When I came from Colorado Springs to Douglas, that was definitely a culture shock,” Bair said. “I thought, ‘okay, it’s one state north, how different can it be?’ And then you go from a city of half a million people to a place that has that many people in the entire state. That church was a wonderful group of people too and they were patient with me as a first-time pastor. They gave me everything I needed to grow up and fess up and clean up and at that time I was radically liberal.”
Coming into a conservative state such as Wyoming and “arrogant” as Bair described himself caused some challenges and some growth which gave him some much-needed depth in the pulpit of the conservative west.
With COVID, Bair says that the church is running anywhere between a dozen and 20 people right now.
“We’re a smaller church and growing smaller and older, I think,” Bair said. “A lot of what we do is fairly traditional in worship and it isn’t for everyone. That’s been a struggle for all of us to try and figure out how do we hold and preserve so much of what we love about our legacy in this community. At the same time, how do you reinvent and become relevant and connect in a meaningful way with a new generation of people? I’m not sure we have that totally figured out yet.”
Bair says that in this anniversary year and with the effects of a pandemic, the church is poised to think about things differently.
“Perhaps we are realizing that even as we value our independence, we also belong to one another in meaningful ways,” he said. “And maybe in ways that we don’t even understand fully. And only God does.”
The church itself is taking time during the celebration for regrouping and finding a deeper relevance and purpose for serving their community.