TRAVERSE CITY — First Congregational Church’s new transitional minister has a familiar face — the retired Rev. Gary Hogue.
The former 26-year Congregational minister came out of semi-retirement Sunday to help celebrate the church’s 150th anniversary and also continue church services until an interim minister can be found.
It has not been an easy anniversary year for the 850-member church, which has been caught up in internal strife for about a year over former minister, the Rev. David Walls’ leadership style and refusal to allow a Muslim mosque leader to perform a “call to prayer” during a Veterans Day concert in November 2012. Walls announced in August that he would step down as senior pastor of First Congregational Church. His last Sunday was Sept. 22.
First Congregational is Traverse City’s second oldest church and has played an important role in community life since its beginning. It has weathered other storms during its long history and many people seemed to think Sunday that Hogue will help guide them back to more stable ground.
The congregation approved Hogue as transitional minister in an overwhelming Oct. 2 vote. It also elected a new board after the church sent ballots to 859 members and 550 voted. Hogue and his wife, Karen, have done pastoral work since his 2010 retirement.
Traverse was little more than a muddy, gritty, sawmill village on Feb. 1, 1863 when the First Congregational was founded and chartered. The nation was split over slavery then. Congregationalist leaders in the Northeast, where many of Michigan’s early settlers came from, advocated for abolition of slavery, temperance and suffrage.
The town’s first church, Methodist Episcopal on Union Street, was five years old then. It is known today as Central United Methodist. Both churches were built on land donated by lumber barons/town fathers Perry Hannah and A. Tracy Lay, who bought a failing mill and 200 acres of prime pine forest in 1851 and began turning the town into the heart of a lumbering and mercantile empire.
The earliest Congregational church was a small meeting house along State Street. It was replaced by a wooden structure with a steeple in 1868 built on the same spot. In 1905, the church tore down the wooden church to build a large fieldstone building. Today that building is part of the Robert P. Griffin Hall of Justice.
The current church, located along Center Road at the base of Old Mission Peninsula, was constructed in 1959.
People lined up in the aisle of the massive sanctuary after Sunday’s service to shake Hogue’s hand, chat and often share a hug.
“It was a very emotional, yet exciting, day,” Hogue said afterward. “I think the hugs and handshakes were an expression of appreciation, relief and recognition of long-term stability. To see me there at the door was reassuring. It meant a lot to them, I think, and to me.”
Hogue’s Sunday sermon was the first of three 150th anniversary sermons he will deliver this month. The topic Sunday was “re-dedication.” The next two 10:30 a.m. Sunday services — Oct. 13 and Oct. 20 — will focus on “rejoicing” and “renewing.”
This Sunday’s service also will be a “homecoming” to honor 51 congregants who have been members for 50 years or more, including Noreen Towne Search. She is the daughter of long-time church minister, Howard Towne, who led First Congregational for 40 years. Towne was hired as assistant minister in 1927 to the Rev. Demas Cochlin, who spent 40 years before him, from 1889-1929, at the pulpit.
About 260 people attended Sunday’s service in the church’s massive sanctuary.
Hogue referred to the “difficult” year a few times during his sermon Sunday but did not focus on it. Council member Pam Davis also thanked the Hogues during the service for putting their semi-retirement on hold to “help in this difficult time.” She asked church members for patience over the next several months of regrouping and healing as the First Congregational seeks an interim minister and finally a permanent senior pastor.
Hogue said he sees his transitional role as one of guidance through grieving and toward healing.
“I’m hopeful there will be a transition into a new setting and a looking to the future instead of being involved in irresolvable conflicts,” Hogue said. “The conflicts are mostly resolved now, but hurt feelings, significant wounds and personal losses linger. We’re not going to ignore those feelings, but we will focus on Christ’s presence and hopefully move into the future God has for us and into healing.”