By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
ATLANTIC, Iowa, April 9, 2014 — Along life’s way, my wife Carla Offenburger and I have been, among other things, college teachers. We loved being around college students back then — well, most of the time. And we’ve really loved it years later when we’ve been able to watch some of our former students doing some really neat things in their lives.
That was the case on a recent Sunday morning when we found our way to little Buck Creek United Methodist Church, located adjacent to a gravel road on a hilltop in southwest Iowa, two miles south of Interstate Highway 80, about five miles north of Atlantic. We’d heard from our former student Casey Pelzer, now 32 and a teacher and coach in Atlantic, that he has occasionally been conducting services and delivering sermons in small United Methodist Churches in the area, filling-in when their own pastors were traveling, or when the churches were between pastors.
That is a nice, long stretch from the Casey Pelzer we first came to know.
He was a freshman then at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake in northwest Iowa, late in the summer of 2000. He’d come from CAM High School in his hometown of Cumberland, about 15 miles southeast of Atlantic. Carla had him as a student in her first-year composition class. He wasn’t as good at writing as he was at basketball. He became a star guard on some really good BV Beavers teams.
Carla Offenburger and Casey Pelzer on a recent Sunday morning after he’d led the service and preached at Buck Creek United Methodist Church, 13 years after she first knew him as a student in her composition class at Buena Vista University.
HE KEPT COMING AROUND. You’ve heard about good basketball players being “gym rats”? Casey was probably one of those. But he also became sort of an “English Department rat,” because for four years, he often would drop by Carla’s office, just to chat, catching her up on what he was doing, asking her advice on things happening in his life. They got along well enough that he occasionally wound up at our house for dinners or other gatherings.
She seldom cut him any slack. In fact, she was often downright rough on him. When he’d whine about some other instructor being too demanding, she’d tell him to cut the crap and try to learn something. If she saw him loafing on campus when she knew he was supposed to be in class, she’d be all over him about it. We Offenburgers were loyal fans of the Beavers in sports, even traveling to follow the teams in away games. We knew all the coaches, and many of the athletes’ parents, and didn’t hesitate to talk to them about their players when that seemed like a good thing to do. Casey Pelzer always kept coming back for more.
We saw a change in our pal midway through his junior year.
Between semesters, Buena Vista U had three-week-long “January Term” courses, which are designed to let students have experiences in a wide variety of areas. Pelzer signed up for “Spiritual Journey,” a course being taught by Storm Lake’s United Methodist Church pastor then, Rev. Beverlee Bell. Truthfully, he went into the course thinking it would be a breeze, especially for somebody like him who’d been raised Methodist, even if he hadn’t been doing much in church lately.
Casey got a whole lot more than he bargained for. First, Pastor Bell was teaching an academically rigorous course, with a good deal of reading, class discussion and writing. When Casey started complaining to Carla, she let him have it. She told him that Bev Bell was not only her own pastor, but also her friend, and that he needed to quit coasting and get to work. Something else happened. Casey’s teammate and close friend Nesha Francic, a native of Bosnia, was also in that class. “Nesha was the only one of our friends who had courage enough to talk about faith in those college years,” Casey says now. “I think that class — and talking to Nesha — got me thinking.”
SOME BIG CHANGES. He realized that in skipping church so much, he was missing out on some soul-satisfying direction in his life. So he started showing up. Then he decided to start singing again and, before long, he volunteered to sing some solos during services at Storm Lake United Methodist. He would riddle some Beavers’ opponent on Saturday night with his 3-point shooting and hard-nosed defense, then be singing in his clear tenor voice in church the next morning.
In the next two years, Carla helped him re-focus his academic work to earn his teaching credentials. He also fell in love with a girl from back home, Haley Johnson, of Atlantic. In the spring of 2005, he graduated from BVU. He landed a teaching job at Tri-Center High School, of Neola, where he was also girls basketball coach. A year later, he had an opportunity to move up to Atlantic High School, where for seven years he has taught physical education and health, and has served as head girls basketball coach.
We Offenburgers enjoyed being there when Casey and Haley got married. Since then, we’ve gone to watch a couple of his basketball teams’ games. We’ve been thrilled when their first daughter Gracey was born, and then when Nelley came along. The girls are now 7 and 4. Haley teaches dance, and also works part-time as a phlebotomist for the medical laboratory at Cass County Memorial Hospital.
Haley Pelzer, like Casey, was raised Methodist, and they have maintained membership in the First United Methodist Church in Atlantic, although they’ve more frequently been attending the First Church of Christ, an independent church in Atlantic. Over time, Casey had also become good friends with Rev. Dick Krambeck, pastor at his old home church, Cumberland United Methodist.
“I didn’t really seek out an opportunity (to lead a service and preach),” Casey said. “But in the summer of 2012, Pastor Krambeck had to be gone a couple of Sundays and asked if I’d fill-in for him. Somebody from Massena must have heard me, and when the Massena and Bridgewater Methodist Churches were between pastors for a while, they asked me to come do their services.”
Several of Haley Pelzer’s relatives attend the Methodist Church in Marne, which is “yoked” with Buck Creek Methodist. Their interim pastor is Jerry Neal, who has come to the ministry after a career in health care administration, most recently as the CEO of the Guthrie County Hospital in Guthrie Center. He is undergoing seminary training in Kentucky, and occasionally must be gone for several weeks of classes there. That led to Casey Pelzer being asked to pinch-hit on the services at the Marne and Buck Creek churches.
HE KNOWS HIS PLACE. “One thing I’ve found out is that none of these little Methodist churches have running water or indoor restrooms,” said Pelzer, poking fun at himself. “So that’s become my standard. If your church has running water and indoor restrooms, your preaching job is probably over my head.”
When Carla Offenburger heard him say that, she had an immediate answer: “It’s a good reminder to you to keep your sermons short and to the point.”
He tells congregations right away that he has no theological education or training, and he said it was embarrassing how little he understood about the traditions and structure of Methodist services. But he is learning.
“I spend time in ‘The Word’ every day, and when I’m getting ready to speak in church, I try to listen to what’s on my heart,” he said. “I feel if He places something on my heart, that’s what I’m supposed to talk about.”
If you want a journalist’s assessment of Casey Pelzer as a preacher, well, he’s good.
He’s not stuffy. He’s not pretentious. He seems at ease when he is delivering his message.
He closed the one we heard by picking up his guitar, playing and singing a contemporary praise song, “I Will Not Forget You.” He said he only adds a song if one really seems to fit his message. “I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m turning this into a performance,” he said. “I don’t want it to be like that.”
MAYBE IT’S A CALLING. Might ministry be in his future?
“Filling-in like I’ve been doing has peaked my interest,” he said. “The Methodist denomination is trying to help these small rural churches stay alive. They have a good training program for ‘lay speakers,’ as they’re called, who can serve as part-time pastors. I’m strongly considering that,. It would give me some of the education and training I haven’t had yet.”
But does he ever think about seminary and full-time ministry? “My prayer is not about whether I want to pursue it,” he said, “but rather, does He want me to pursue it? I feel right now I’m doing what He wants me to do, in my school teaching. I’m a spiritual being in a public education system. I think there’s a lot for me to do in that position.”
He resigned his position as head girls basketball coach after this past season. He had never been able to get the program to the level of success he had hoped for, and he thinks there might be better ways for him to use his time outside regular school hours. “I realized I was putting a lot of time, effort and energy into 18 to 20 high school girls who didn’t really need my guidance,” he said. “Nearly all of them come from good, strong families, and they’re all doing well. Maybe there are other kids who are in more need of a father figure. Maybe I should be working with kids like that.”
Meanwhile, his own family is transparently happy. In fact, they radiate happiness.
And two of Casey Pelzer’s old college teachers couldn’t be prouder of him.
“I think he turned out amazingly well,” Carla Offenburger said. “He appears to be well-grounded in what’s important. It’s a pleasure to see that in someone you helped get through four years of college.” She paused. “Actually, five for Casey.”
She will not let up on him!
Here is Buck Creek United Methodist in southwest Iowa. On the church’s Facebook page (yes, it has one), it is described this way: “Buck Creek United Methodist Church exemplifies an ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors’ church located in the open country of Cass County.” That is Irma Frisbie who pulled up in her car, the first member of the church to arrive for the service on a recent Sunday morning. She’s been a member more than 50 years.
A close-up of the rustic sign outside the church, designed and fabricated by metal artist Arnie Jirsa of nearby Marne.
Here is Casey Pelzer when we Offenburgers first got to know him — he was a Buena Vista University freshman in the fall of 2000 and a guard on a very good Beavers basketball team. (Photo from BVU Athletics)
Casey Pelzer (right) has been filling in for Methodist pastors in small churches around the Atlantic area the last couple years, like Jerry Neal (left), who normally fills the pulpit at Buck Creek Methodist. Neal, who came to the ministry in recent years after spending most of his career in health care administration, is completing his seminary studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. In the meantime, he is serving as pastor at the sister churches of Marne United Methodist and Buck Creek while living in Guthrie Center. The Sunday we were there, Neal had arrived home late Saturday night, after a 23-hour drive from Kentucky, so he was glad to have Pelzer filling for him.
Dwayne Bornholdt pulls the rope to ring the steeple bell, signifying that it’s time for the service to start at Buck Creek Methodist.
Here was the view from the rear of the church as the service was about to begin, with Casey Pelzer checking his notes at the pulpit. About 20 were in attendance, ranging from three young children to two members who are in their 90s.
Church pianist Priscilla Sleister plays the opening hymns.
Casey Pelzer finished his sermon by picking up his guitar and accompanying himself as he sang, “I Will Not Forget You,” by Ben and Robin Pasley.
A wonderful framed photo of a long-ago gathering at Buck Creek Methodist sits on the registration table just inside the front door of the church.
On the north wall of the church is a traditional portrait of Jesus Christ, and below it a photo of the tremendous homecoming gathering three years ago at the 150th anniversary of Buck Creek United Methodist.
The Pelzer sisters, Nelley, 4, and Gracey, 7, were fascinated by the folding fans that are located in the basket on the backs of all the pews.
Here is the reverse side of one of those fans in the pews, showing you just how old they must be, going clear back to three-digit telephone numbers!
Here are we Offenburgers and the Pelzers, including Casey’s wife Haley Johnson Pelzer, after the service at Buck Creek United Methodist Church.
You can write the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment on the story and photos by using the handy form below here.