Rev. Steve Bauerle Retiring After 36 Years With Zion Lutheran

Rev. Steve Bauerle, pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waterville, holds a rope to ring the bell for the downtown church. A newly installed cabinet features memorabilia of the history of the church where Bauerle has served as pastor since 1987. He is set to retire at the end of the month. MIRROR PHOTO BY KAREN GERHARDINGER

BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — When Rev. Steve Bauerle accepted a call to Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waterville in 1987, he didn’t know that his second church would also be his last.

“I’m not a 30-year guy,” said Bauerle, who is retiring after 41 years in the ministry and 36 in Waterville.

Yet his tenure with Zion has felt like ministering in five churches in the same location, said Bauerle.

“First, it was rural. Everyone was here every Sunday, and they’d stay around afterward,” he explained. “In the ’90s, it was more suburban, and it was harder to keep track of people who came in and out of church.”

In 2003, the church decided to change its focus from being “maintenance” to one of mission – intentionally doing outreach locally, nationally and internationally. Two years later, the church was given a $3.6 million donation from the estate of members Doug and Katie Graf.

“God trusted us with that,” he said of the endowment, which has allowed the congregation to award nearly $2 million in grants for missions here and worldwide since its inception in 2005.

The most recent change came in 2019, when Zion joined St. Paul Lutheran Church in Haskins in a parish ministry – sharing Bauerle as pastor and joining together on events and missions.

As the church begins seeking a new pastor, Jon Rhoades, a Synodically Authorized Minister (SAM) will be among the lay leaders bridging the gap. 

Growing up in Sandusky, Bauerle at first thought he would become a coach and a teacher. He headed to Defiance College, where he was a pitcher and played shortstop and second base on the baseball team. He wasn’t connecting with his major, however, and switched to social work briefly.

“Then God called me into ministry,” he said. It wasn’t a foreign idea. After all, his father was also a Lutheran pastor.

After earning his master in divinity from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, his first call was to Zion Lutheran in Ottawa Lake, Mich., where he served from 1982 to 1987. After serving at Zion in Waterville for several years, Bauerle was also called to move to Zion Lutheran in Defiance.

Over the years, Bauerle has connected with community members, especially during weddings, baptisms, funerals and parties, as well as during Vacation Bible School, preschool and out in the community.

During the past few months, Bauerle’s sermons have followed a “farewell tour” theme, and on Sunday, August 13, he’ll share his faith story, along with some of the highs and lows he’s experienced over the years. He chuckles to recall one of the lows.

“I was asked to be a beauty queen judge at the Cherry Fest,” he laughed, explaining that he joined former Community of Christ Lutheran Church Rev. Ray Gottschling at the White-house festival to decide which contestants should win the Cherry Fest honors. “We didn’t know what we were doing. People were booing us.”

The automobile accident death of a teen parishioner was also a low time, as was the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

The highs of his career are many, including raising his now-adult children – Sarah, Markus, Erik and Kaylyn – in the church, where he married Kaylyn’s mom, Amy, in October 2004. 

Daughter Esther, who is a senior at Central Catholic High School, was 10 years old and 40 pounds when her mom brought her to a clinic where Bauerle was volunteering on one of three mission trips to Tanzania. The church was one of the sponsors to bring Esther to the United States for surgeries and, eventually, to live with the Bauerle family.

A more humorous highlight was officiating a wedding between a fashion designer and “a Harley guy.” Area business and government leaders mixed with bikers at the wedding, and on the trip from the church to the reception, Bauerle was escorted via sidecar by the best man.

“I’m scared to death of motorcycles,” he admitted.

One constant over the years has been the compliments from the community for the preschool, which brings young families to the church. If he has any regrets about leaving, it’s the opportunity to see through some new, innovative ways of ministering to the community, such as the recent “baseball church,” in which more than 100 community members gathered at a Mud Hens game for fellowship and fun. He’s seen other ministers reaching out to people in different locations including tattoo parlors, bars and restaurants.

As he prepares to leave, Bauerle said he’s leaving three gifts for the next pastor: the partnership with St. Paul in Haskins, a goal to become debt-free soon and a history center with photos and documents about the church and its long history in Waterville.

Inside a custom-made cabinet in the bell tower area, Bauerle revealed a rope that can be pulled to ring the bell. On shelves are artifacts and photos from the church’s history, which dates back over 130 years. Photos show the original white clapboard church, which was covered with brick and then expanded. The last expansion, in 1997, included a Family Life Center that cost over $1 million. Bauerle expects that to be paid off soon.

While many expect that Bauerle will continue to preach in retirement, he’s leaving his options open. 

“I’m going to try out for the Mud Hens,” he smiled. “Or maybe I’ll drive a Pepsi truck. I’ll take September off to see what happens.”

The community is invited to bid Bauerle farewell during his final sermon on Sunday, August 27 at 10:15 a.m. The church is located at 22 N. Second St. in Waterville.

For information, visit www.zionlutheranwaterville.org or find the church on Facebook.

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