This Sunday is going to be a hard one for Pastor Norm Peterson and no doubt for his congregation as well. After 33 years at Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, he is stepping away from the pulpit and admits it will be bittersweet. “The people here are like my family,” he said. “And saying good-bye is never easy.”
Pastor Peterson came to Immanuel in 1980. He was 30 years old, his wife Mary was pregnant with their second child, Aaron, but the young couple knew they had found a home in Rhinelander. “I felt as if I was called here by God,” he said. “We knew this is where we wanted to be.”
It’s unlikely this fit and lanky Pastor with the ready laugh, ever thought he would end up in a place like Rhinelander when he was growing up in inner city Chicago, yet he always felt a strong desire to preach the word of God. “I grew up in the 1960s and everyone was dropping out of anything to do with the establishment,” he said. “But I was drawn to the church.”
The first time Pastor Norm came to the Northwoods of Wisconsin he was a sophomore at Augustana Lutheran College in Rock Island, Ill. His father Roger, and mother Ruth, purchased the R&R Resort on Fence Lake in Lac du Flambeau. It had seven cabins to tend and a steady stream of vacationers “One day I was living in a big city and then the next I was living in the Northwoods of Wisconsin,” he said. “It was quite a culture shock.”
But he admits, the resort changed his life. In fact, he knew he was on the right career path, when Pastor George Krebs recruited him to do services at campgrounds in the area. These were done from an old pontoon boat. Pastor Norm is an accomplished musician, especially on the guitar and camping worshippers would flock to his aquatic pulpit as he played.
After graduating from college Norm attended Northwestern Lutheran Theological Semi nary in St. Paul, Minn. He had never been there before but was excited about this new chapter. Then a few weeks before he was supposed to go, his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. “The doctors said he only had six weeks to live,” said Pastor Norm. “But my professors worked with me during this difficult time and I was able to attend and have the time to spend with my dad.”
It was during this period that Pastor Norm met his wife Mary who was studying nursing in a nearby college. “One day three of my buddies and I called up the dorm Mary was staying at,” he said. “We asked if any girls wanted to go on a date. We got some girls to go out with us but Mary wasn’t one of them. But her friends convinced her to go but they had to literally drag her out to go on this date.”
In June of 1974, the couple married and then moved to Luck, Wisconsin where Pastor Norm would preside over a small congregation there. “In the Lutheran faith pastors can request where they want to go and by now Wisconsin was home to me,” he said. “When we came the total budget of this church was $7,000 but I felt called by God to go there. During my time there we built a parsonage and paid for it in two years.”
The family stayed for four years and when their baby daughter, Sarah, was two years old and Mary was pregnant with their son, Aaron, word from the Bishop came that a position was open at Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rhinelander. “In the Lutheran faith the congregation chooses its pastor,” he said. “I actually did the interview to find a reason not to come here because we liked it so much in Luck but once I met the people I knew this was the place for us. I felt as if God was calling us here.”
In the 33 years Pastor Norm has been this church’s leader, he has seen it through some amazing transformations. Immanuel was founded in 1891 and back then the congregation built a small steeple church on Alban Street. When it outgrew this structure they built another church at its present location on Timber Drive.
Throughout the years small additions were added and then in 1997 the church underwent major renovations adding on a spacious gathering room and new office space. But the original structure continues to serve as the primary worship area and gives testament to the longevity of this church. Old wood beams stretch across the ceiling and original stained glass windows let in a soft amber glow over the pews.
And while Pastor Norm oversaw a lot of these structural changes, he also gave of himself throughout his career at Immanuel. He brought his love of music to the congregation, and many times sings and plays his guitar during services. He put the word out to other musicians in his flock and now worshippers enjoy “The Band” which includes several members including Mary who plays the flute.
Two of Pastor Norm’s favorite hobbies are riding his bicycle and motorcycle. He decided to share those gifts too, and started a bicycle tour with the youth group.
Kids from seventh to twelfth grade were invited to participate. On the first trip the group traveled 250 miles throughout the Upper Peninsula of Michigan staying at churches along the way. “I never let the kids bring any electronics on these trips,” he said. “They learn to interact with each other by playing games like baseball or board games. Over the years these kids have formed friendships that are still evident today.”
Close to 20 years ago Pastor Norm was thinking of giving up the bike tour, but the kids had other ideas. “They came up with a plan to ride for a purpose,” he said.
“So they got pledges for the miles they rode and then we donated the money toward world hunger.” The first year the group raised $1,800. “To date the youth groups have raised $126,000 that we have donated to world hunger,” said Pastor Norm proudly.
Another exciting development was when the church partnered with a congregation in Mbagala Africa in 2007. Pastor Norm and Mary visited this congregation a few years ago, bringing with them vestments for the pastor to don during services. Last year this place of worship was ransacked and torched. “The only thing that didn’t burn was the robe and vestments I gave to the pastor,” said Norm. “That was a miracle.”
All these memories and experiences are now foremost in the mind of Pastor Norm as he readies for his retirement. His last sermon will be this Sunday, and his last day as pastor will be August 31. After that he plans on doing some traveling with Mary on the back of their Goldwing motorcycle and of course he hopes to spend more time with his kids and grandchildren. He also plans to remain as a volunteer firefighter and is looking forward to doing more hunting and reading. “I don’t have any specific plans,” he said. “But the church is in a good place right now and I feel it is the right time to retire.”
As he cleans out his office and ties up loose ends, he recollects with fondness all the experiences he has had at Immanuel, but, he admits, it is the people he is going to miss the most. “This has been my faith home for many years and the people here are like my family,” he said. “They will always have a special place in my heart.”