First Lutheran Church
ELCA

Building A Neighborhood For Christ

542 S. 31st Street, Omaha, NE 68105, 402-345-7506
 

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First Lutheran Church

History

The earliest years of First Lutheran were characterized by the faithful ministry of several pastors, whose photographs surround this text.

Pastor Kuegele Pastor Higendorf Pastor Strassen Pastor Frese Pastor Lange Pastor Siebert

                   

Pastor Kuegele was the pastor who laid the groundwork for our congregation.  He was the missionary-at-large for the Omaha Territory.  Pastor Hilgendorf organized the congregation on May 4, 1873 and served until 1876.  At this time the Church was located on 11th and Jackson.  Pastor Strassen served until 1878.  He was followed by Pastor Frese who served the congregation for 37 years.  It was in 1883 that the Church was moved to 20th and Mason and renovated.  English language services began to be held periodically during this time.  In 1916, Pastor Lange served First Lutheran.  It has been described as a time of unrest, and Pastor Lange and many members of First Lutheran formed a new congregation, Cross Lutheran, in South Omaha in 1918.  Pastor Siebert served the congregation briefly in 1919, but was taken ill and died in the Flu Epidemic of that same year.  It was in 1919 that English became the language for the regular Sunday Services of the Congregation.

The larger-than-life personality and charisma of Dr. Lawrence Acker propelled First Lutheran into a regional prominence deserving to be set apart as a chapter all its own.

When Dr Acker arrived in 1919, scarcely  100 communicant members remained at First Lutheran.  He built the congregation physically, geographically, and , most importantly, spiritually.  Early in his ministry, the congregation decided to build at 31st and Jackson, and Dr. Acker personally directed the sale of $50,000 in bonds to finance the effort.  The cornerstone was laid in 1922.

Dr. Acker's extensive contacts with regional Lutheran Organizations like the Walther League and the Lutheran Layman's League made First Lutheran accessible to those moving to Omaha, and his renowned preaching kept those who visited the Church active as members.  Dr. Acker twice served the Lutheran Hour as Preacher, and in the latter part of his ministry, First Lutheran's own "Your Hour With God" was broadcast over a wide region, with as many as six radio stations forming the core of this tremendous outreach.

Although Dr. Acker formally retired in 1955, he continued to serve the congregation as "Pastor Emeritus" and was instrumental in organizing and bringing to birth Pacific Hills Lutheran Church at 90th and Pacific.

Dr. Acker's legacy continues even to this day through the Dr. Acker Fund, an endowment fun used to support the mission and ministry of the congregation

     
  Pastor Temme Pastor Kniffel Pastor Kamprath    

To fill the large shoes of Dr. Acker, the congregation turned to an energetic, young pastor, The Reverend Norman Temme.  Pastor Temme came on board in 1945, serving as Dr. Acker's "Junior" Pastor.  He saw the congregation decide to build an educational wing onto the church facility as well as a new prayer chapel.  In 1955, B.H. Arkebauer came to First Lutheran in a three-fold capacity:  director of music, education, and youth.  "Your Hour With God" continued strong.  It's 500th broadcast aired in December, 1958.  After steering the congregation through the transition, Pastor Temme left to become Associate Director of Public Relations for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Pastor William Kniffel, who had served on First Lutheran's staff since 1956, was asked to serve as Senior Pastor following Pastor Temme.  He served until 1967.  He had a difficult problem to face, in that the character of the neighborhood began to change.  Would First Lutheran remain at 31st and Jackson, or would it relocate farther west?  If First stayed in the neighborhood, what kinds of ministries would be necessary?  It was a time of experimentation for the congregation, with the hope of reaching out to the unchurched, the marginalized, and children.  The Biblical Garden was planted during this time, and Dial-A-Medication was started with much enthusiasm.

Pastor Robert Kamprath accepted the congregation's call to become Senior Pastor in 1968.  Perhaps this one comment from Pastor Kamprath will serve to underscore the serious time of challenge and change in neighborhood and congregation.  Writing in the February 1, 1969 edition of the Microphone, he wrote in a column entitled First Impressions:  "Oh, just one more impression!  I had heard before I came that First is dying.  I refuse to believe this."  Pastor Kamprath served with confidence until 1976.

The story of the difficulties within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod during the 1970's is well documented in many places.  Controversy over the proper way to interpret the Bible; removals from the Seminary faculty over issues of Biblical Inerrancy: and personality conflicts, all came to a head at First Lutheran on Reformation Sunday 1976, when the members of the congregation voted to sever their relationship with the Missouri Synod, and to join a new organization, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC).

It was not an easy decision for the members to make.  In the months after the vote was taken, many members transferred from First Lutheran to other Missouri Synod Lutheran Churches.  Nevertheless under capable lay leadership and particularly under the strong moral leadership of new Senior Pastor Harold Schmidt, the congregation remained strong.  Pastor Schmidt was quoted at the time:  "I consider this a courageous action by a congregation that refused to allow injustices and wrongs in the synod to be swept under the rug.  Of course, such action always brings with it hardships and risks.  I am confident God will guide us through the difficult years that lie ahead."

The AELC never intended itself to be a permanent alternative to the Missouri Synod, and shortly after First Lutheran joined it, the entire Association began to promote Lutheran Unity.  Members of First Lutheran played an important role in local Lutheran Unity as Evangelical Lutheran Church in America came into existence on January 1, 1988 with First Lutheran as a member congregation.

The Spring of 1987 saw the dedication of the New Entrance to the Church, complete with elevator, handicap accessible facilities, and a bold piece of art by noted Nebraska Artist Milt Henrich.  It brought the congregation together under the banner "That All May Enter".

Pastor Schmidt's leadership was affirmed and recognized by the Nebraska Synod of the new ELCA when he came just a dozen or so votes short of election as Bishop of the Synod in 1990.  When he retired as pastor of First Lutheran at the end of 1992, he left a congregation that was solidly committed to ministry in the neighborhood and urban area, with well-established programs that have become trademarks of First Lutheran's outreach ministry.

In October 1993, Pastors Wendy Buckley and Tim Madsen came on board.  First Lutheran has been served by capable laywomen, deaconesses, and pastoral associates, but for the first time, a woman pastor served as head of staff and administrator.  Together with Pastor Don Duy they shepherded a congregation that is still eager to explore new ministries of service and outreach to church and community.

A bit of local ecumenical history was made in Advent 1994, when the Episcopal Bishop of Nebraska; the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Omaha; and the Bishop of the Nebraska Synod ELCA preached at First Lutheran on consecutive Wednesday Evenings.  During Lent in 1996 a multiracial, ecumenical Way of the Cross, hosted by First Lutheran helped bring healing to Omaha after a racially divisive trial opened old wounds.

Pastor Don Duy, Pastor Wendy Bukley, and Pastor Tim Madsen completed their call at First Lutheran Church in 2000.  After they left, Pastor Harold Gillaspie served as Interim Pastor until September 1, 2003 when Pastor Judith Rainforth began her call at First Lutheran Church. 

She serves as the church faces the challenges of a changing and growing community.  This urban multi-cultural ministry continues with a strong social outreach.  The servants of First Lutheran Church are about building a neighborhood for Christ.

We face the future with hope, knowing we have an important role to play in furthering the love of Jesus Christ in God's Kingdom.

Pastors that have Served:

  R. Kuegele 1870-1871  
  John Hilgendorf 1871-1876  
  J. Strassen 1876-1878  
  D.J. Frese 1879-1916  
  Titus Lang 1916-1918  
  R.C. Siebert 1918-1918  
  Lawrence Acker 1919-1955  
  Norman Temme 1945-1958  
  Philip Gerken 1951-1954  
  William D. Kniffel 1956-1967  
  John Dechow 1960-1965  
  Edward Bobb 1966-1969  
  Robert Kamprath 1968-1976  
  Harold Schmidt 1972-1992  
  Larry Smith 1977-1986  
  Don Duy 1987-2000  
  Wendy Buckley 1993-2000  
  Tim Madsen 1993-2000  
  The Rev Harold Gillaspie (Interim) 2000-2003  
  The Rev Judith Rainforth     2003-  

history taken from First Lutheran Church Directory of 1997