Last year, Sylvania United Church of Christ presented a lecture series titled “Scientists in Congregations.”
This year, the church is getting its own science-savvy minister when the Rev. Sam Buehrer is installed as pastor at 3 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 24).
“If I didn’t go into the ministry I would be doing research in genetics right now,” Buehrer said in an interview this week. “That’s what I studied at Heidelberg College as an undergrad. So there’s a science piece of me that’s pretty strong and I still have that interest.”
He found Sylvania UCC’s focus on science and faith to be a good fit, and for that and other reasons, accepted the congregation’s call to be its pastor. He had served just shy of 20 years as pastor of a UCC church in Galion, Ohio.
“Every year I evaluate my ministry and ask how it’s going, what can I do differently. After that many years there I figured they probably needed a change. I had done as much as I could and I started to wonder if they might need a new person, a different person, a different kind of energy. Sometimes it gets a little too comfortable,” he said.
Buehrer wants to build on Sylvania UCC’s lecture series and said there’s no need to draw battle lines between science and religion, as some people do.
“A lot of people in the church tend to turn their brains off because we tend to — well some of us tend to — read the scriptures way too literal,” he said. “As a result we have a hard time trying to make sense of what we have learned in science.”
He said Sylvania UCC has a highly educated congregation and there is “an expectation that we’re well read and that we’ll share it in such a way that it connects with our daily lives. It’s not just a head trip; it’s also a heart trip, and the challenge is to make a better connection of the two.”
The church, which traces its roots to 1834, averages about 240 people at its Sunday services, he said.
Before Buehrer’s hiring, the congregation organized a 2013 lecture series named for the Rev. Bill Chidester, who was Sylvania UCC’s pastor for 25 years until his death in May, 2011.
While the Chidester series is not centered solely on science and faith like last year’s lectures, the fourth and final talk in November by Daniel Spencer will be on religious communities’ response to environmental issues.
Buehrer, 51, grew up in Archbold, Ohio, a Fulton County village of about 4,300, and although he was raised in the United Church of Christ he and his family were influenced by the area’s strong Mennonite heritage.
“We were highly affected by the Mennonites, especially the peace side of the church,” he said, adding that Mennonite teachings on justice also had a lifelong impact.
At Heidelberg, he began asking himself a soul-searching question: “Am I using the gifts God has given me well?”
As much as he liked science and genetics, he didn’t want to spend his life surrounded by test tubes, microscopes and computers.
“While I realized I had a science part of me, I also realized I was more outgoing than a lot of the lab people,” Buehrer said.
His extroverted personality and his deeply rooted faith led him into the ministry, he said. He received a master of divinity degree from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in Minnesota and began serving as pastor at Spencerville UCC in Spencerville, Ohio, before joining the staff of First UCC in Galion.
Buehrer said the United Church of Christ is facing the same challenges as all Christian denominations at the dawn of the 21st century.
“There’s just a decline or the lack of interest by the younger generation. Having not grown up in the church, they don’t know the value of what the church has to offer. So there is going to be more and more changes afoot in that way. The challenge will be adjusting to the changing demographics,” he said.
“Why I’m excited about Sylvania UCC is that they are willing to ask those questions and meet those needs in ways that many people aren’t.”
Buehrer and his wife, Ellen, have two sons, Steven, who studied biomedical art at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and David, a student at Capitol University in Columbus.
Among the pastor’s hobbies are backpacking and canoeing, which have taken him to the mountains of Alaska and the bottom of the Grand Canyon.