The numbers alone are staggering: 1,314 baptisms, 539 weddings, 596 memorial services and more than 7,000 sermons; almost 50,000 home and hospital visits and more than 9,000 televised daily devotionals.

Pastoring is the parenthood of professions - a literal full-time job - and after a half-century at the pulpit, on Sunday the Rev. Paul Peel delivers a message that is a first of its kind for the longtime senior pastor at Colorado Springs' First Lutheran Church: his farewell.

"Every pastor enjoys preaching and applying the Word of God to people's lives, but what I've enjoyed most of all is ministering to people. The congregation is really kind of our extended family," said Peel, 77, a father of two, grandfather to five and great-grandfather whose wife, Lois, is an active church volunteer and part of the ministerial team.

The Peels recently celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary with the congregation.

"We've always celebrated our significant times - birthdays, anniversaries and other events - with the church," Peel said. "I don't think any pastor can fully do the work of ministry unless he's fully supported by his family."

He means both families.

A Pennsylvania native, Peel was only 29 in 1968 when his calling brought him from Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver to Colorado Springs. At the time, First Lutheran's membership included around 275 baptized members. That number now is closer to 2,200.

The church was founded in the 1890s, when congregation members met at a building at Platte Avenue and Weber Street. Worshipers then moved to an Edwardian-era mansion off North Cascade Avenue built by William and Patty Jewett and acquired by the church in 1958. Now home to the Parish House, the mansion served as the congregation's main meeting hall before the completion of the current sanctuary in 1966. An education building was added in 1980; later decades saw further expansion, including improvements to the historic Parish House, which today hosts more than two dozen 12-step group meetings.

"I believe a church building should be used throughout the week by outside organizations that we consider ministries to the community," said Peel.

Over the years as the congregation grew, it began drawing members from beyond downtown neighborhoods.

"Our congregation surrounds the city. Some people who live in the neighborhood come to the church, but people also come from Monument and Pueblo West, Divide and Calhan. The average driving time is 20 minutes . (but) I think we attract those folks with our traditional style of worship, the quality of the worship in terms of music and liturgy and preaching," said Peel, who became known to local audiences beyond the church as the pastor who bade farewell to the day in a brief devotional prayer each evening on KRDO, from 1986 to 2011.

With average Sunday attendance of between 700 and 800, and only 38 parking spots on the property, things can get tight, but, said Peel, "I believe you should bloom where you're planted."

"The downtown churches have to attract people because of what they do, what their ministries are outside their churches. I think young people today want to see a church that's active in the community, supporting community projects," Peel said.

Downtown is where the city's needs are most acute, he said. "There's homelessness and underemployment, those who don't have adequate housing, those who don't have medical care and have fallen through the safety net," said Peel, whose church had a formative role and is actively involved in many downtown outreach programs and organizations, including Ecumenical Social Ministries, Interfaith Hospitality Network and Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado. "Those are all organizations responding to the needs of the last of the lost of our community."

Peel is among a coterie of eight downtown "First" church leaders who, more than 30 years ago, began meeting regularly for lunch. Dubbed the Muskrats, "so we'd never take ourselves too seriously," Peel said, the group continues to work toward finding faith-based solutions for the city's challenges.

As a founding member of the Muskrats, the Rev. Peel is "a living tradition and with his departure goes a legacy of ecumenical leadership and partnership in the community," said the Rev. Ben Broadbent, senior pastor of First Congregational Church and fellow Muskrat. "He kind of played the role of welcoming and acculturating new pastors in a very gracious and fatherly and collegial way. He's really quite remarkable."

Ed Weaver was a single military guy when he first found his way to the church for a holiday service in late 1973.

"That's the first time I met Pastor Peel and he was straightforward, had a sense of humor, and was just a person I could relate to. You could feel his compassion for people and feel the ministry of the church was a welcoming, warm friendly type of experience," said Weaver, who particularly liked how the pastor began his sermons with a dose of humor in story form. "What he's done for the church and for me and my wife has provided a foundation that can carry on even if he's not present."

Weaver, now vice president of the church council, sees the pastor's indelible mark in the architecture of many lives, including his own, as well as the church structure itself.

"Anytime you look around the church, you can see his hand. He was a part of all of this," he said. "We'll miss seeing him ... but we do have the cutout."

After Peel announced his impending retirement late last year, he talked jokingly about leaving behind a cardboard stand-in so he wouldn't be missed too much. Church staff followed through by commissioning a life-sized version of the pastor - enlarged from an image of him in liturgical clothing - on the eve of his retirement last week.

"Now, he will always be present," Weaver said. "No matter where you walk, the eyes follow you."


Stephanie Earls is a news reporter and columnist at The Gazette. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2012, she worked for newspapers in upstate NY, WA, OR and at her hometown weekly in Berkeley Springs, WV, where she got her start in journalism.

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