Air Force veteran begins ministry at Grace Lutheran

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Olson feels vibrancy of church community
By: 

Anna Olson Times Herald Correspondent


Photo by Anna Olson

The Rev. Gary Olson has answered the call to lead Grace Lutheran Church as pastor. He gave his first sermon at the church on Aug. 14. The Wisconsin native worked as a full-time youth director in Nebraska for two years before arriving in Oconto Falls last month.

A retired Air Force master sergeant has landed in Oconto Falls as the new pastor of Grace Lutheran Church.

Pastor Gary Olson moved to the community with his wife, Barbara, and two daughters, Bethy and Lillian, from Bellevue, Nebraska, where he was a youth director at Thanksgiving Lutheran Church for the past two years.

Olson said he looks forward to meeting and getting to know the people of the congregation and the community.

Olson grew up in New Richmond and attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where he pursued a degree in music performance. While at La Crosse, he met his wife, who is from De Pere.

Olson then pursued a master’s degree in music at Baylor University in Texas, and he began his ministry as a church choir director at First Lutheran Church in Waco, Texas.

While at UW-La Crosse and Baylor University, he was a member of the Army National Guard and played bass in the National Guard band. He was with the Guard for five years, then joined the U.S. Air Force.

He spent seven years at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, employed as a member of the Air Force band. Both of his daughters were born in Virginia.

When Olson and his family were transferred to the Yokota Air Force base in Japan, his ministry really picked. While in Japan, Olson was the children’s worship director and music minister on the base chapel for six years.

From Japan, Olson and his family were transferred to Anchorage, Alaska, for three years.

On his last transfer to Bellevue, Nebraska, Olson connected with Thanksgiving Lutheran Church.

“By now my daughters are in junior high, so I’m more interested in youth groups now than I am with children’s ministry,” Olson said.

Olson applied for early retirement from the Air Force — which he described as “totally a God thing,” because his position wasn’t eligible for early retirement — and the retirement was approved. His rank and title at retirement were E-7, master sergeant.

At the same time, Thanksgiving Lutheran Church was looking for a full-time youth director, which provided an opportunity for Olson to transition to full-time ministry.

Olson was ordained July 16, 2016, and is pursuing his Master of Divinity degree through Sioux Falls Seminary in South Dakota, a multi-denominational seminary. In Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ churches, an individual can be ordained while in the seminary.

Olson learned about the opening at Grace Lutheran Church while he was at a conference in Dallas, Texas. While looking at the LCMC website he stumbled upon the the job posting. He contacted Grace Lutheran while at the conference and spent a few moments with interim pastor Rev. Carole Neitzel before leaving the conference. Neitzel plans to travel and spend time with her grandchildren.

“They were looking for a youth and family guy,” Olson said. “The more we talked, the more it seemed like it was a really good fit.”

It was the job of the call committee, composed of six members of Grace Lutheran Church, to complete the hiring process to find a new pastor. After a Skype interview and face-to-face meeting, the committee believed it “hit a home run” by finding Olson, call committee chairman Bill Tisch said.

Tisch said he was impressed with Olson’s understanding and teaching of scripture and described Olson and his family as a “very good addition to Grace Lutheran Church and an even greater addition to the community of Oconto Falls.”

Olson said he felt equally sure he was right for the role, after speaking with the call committee.

“It was pretty obvious I was supposed to be here,” he said.

Olson said he senses the excitement and vibrancy in the congregation.

“There is a great group of people here who I think are hungry for the love of Christ and to share that with the community,” he said.

Olson’s approach to ministry is through the family.

“What I try to get people to understand is, yes, the church is your spiritual leader, but spiritual leadership really happens in the house,” he said. “I’ve got your kid for a couple of hours a week at the most. You got them a lot longer than that.

“We try to equip people to do that in their house. It carries over into the community and it carries over into the schools. … You got to think family, church, community.”

Olson quoted Proverbs 22:6 to illustrate his message: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”