The Rev. Dave Hutchens is stepping down after 29 years at the helm of Walnut Hill Bible Church, but he’s not ready to leave the ministry behind for good.
Hutchens will switch leadership roles with the church's associate pastor, Dan Gunderson, next month. The transition has been approved by the congregation, and Hutchens said Gunderson is ready to take on senior pastor responsibilities.
“The future of the church is wrapped up in the children and the youth and we’ve always expended a lot of our resources toward them,” Hutchens said. “I know that I’m more of a mouthpiece for a generation that is passing, and I think it’s getting a little bit harder for me to be as relevant as I was when I came here.”
Both spiritual leaders agreed their unique relationship will help foster a smooth transition. During the last 18 years, Gunderson has served the church as a youth pastor, associate pastor and interim senior pastor. He also grew up in the church and is recognized in the community for his involvement with various ministries and the Baraboo High School wrestling program.
“When you have pastoral transitions and you bring in people from the outside, the church has to get to know them, and they have to get to know the church before they can have an effective ministry,” Hutchens said. “Dan knows the church, and the church knows him.”
Hutchens grew up in Pontiac, Michigan where he also worked as a school teacher. After being laid off in the late 1970s, he became a sales representative for a manufacturing company. While the job was financially lucrative, Hutchens said it wasn’t fulfilling, and it eventually led him to ministry and Walnut Hill Bible Church.
“I finally had everything I ever thought I wanted in a worldly sense, and for the first time in my life I felt empty,” he said. “I said, ‘If this is all there is, there has to be something more than this.’”
During his time at Walnut Hill, Hutchens oversaw the construction of new church facilities in 1994 and fostered the creation of many independent ministries. He also continued to deliver sermons despite undergoing a heart transplant in 2009. Gunderson assumed the leadership role when Hutchens was sidelined.
“There was this period of time where he would need to back away from being senior pastor and I would jump into his post,” Gunderson said. “I’ve been kind of a utility infielder at this church for a long time, but there was a lot of projection of me being the senior pastor during that four- or five-year period.”
Gunderson grew up in Baraboo and later attended the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota. When he started, he wanted to be a school teacher like his parents, but his interests and studies became more focused on the Bible, leading him to seminary and full-time ministry.
While it will be difficult, Gunderson said he’s excited to create a new vision for the church and take on the challenges of the senior pastor position.
“I think faith is required, and I want to do something that is going to challenge me — that’s going to be beyond me,” he said. “At this point, the idea of stepping out and taking on unknown challenges with new opportunities is really exciting, and I think the Lord is going to be in it and I don’t know where it goes.”
Hutchens said he looks forward to watching the church continue to thrive and grow under new leadership and helping where he is needed. Hutchens said the highlight of his 29-year ministry has been helping people change their lives for the better.
“This is the only job I’ve ever had that I can’t do,” Hutchens said. “I always felt like I mastered everything else and was ready to move on, but when you’re trying to help people change their lives for good, you realize all you can do is try to facilitate their relationship with God.”