The Rev. Arthur Gustafson shuffled to the pulpit of his small church, just like he does every Sunday. The pews were empty, just as they are on most Sundays.
Gustafson, the 78-year-old leader of the Emmanuel Evangelical Covenant Church since 1947, is a pastor without a congregation; a preacher with no one to preach to, a shepherd without a flock.But still he preaches.
"If no one is here, God is here and he hears prayers," Gustafson said, looking across his empty church in this central Wisconsin community of 9,500 people. "I felt I heard the Lord say to stay so I stayed."
One by one, church members have drifted away, and the last member of his congregation left town about two years ago. Even his church building, owned by the Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago, is for sale.
"Sometimes, we have a number of visitors. A family from Pine River has been coming fairly regularly," Gustafson said, a smile covering his bearded face.
"When someone is here, I am encouraged," he added. "When they are not here, I just feel this is the way it is and this is the way I accept it. There's a lot to thank the Lord for."
Gustafson is the church's sole supporter, donating some of his Social Security check and an investment that earns $62 a month. The Park City Baptist congregation in Merrill helps with the bills by leasing Gustafson's church for services Sunday morning and evening.
The church was formed almost 100 years ago to meet the needs of Scandinavians settling in central Wisconsin. Since he's been pastor, the congregation seldom exceeded 30 people, he said. "It has always been a small struggling church."
These days, Gustafson, a frail man of slight build, struggles with his health, too. "My hearing isn't so good. I wear a couple of hearing aids."
Every Sunday, Gustafson prints six church bulletins, listing the order of worship and a few announcements.
His service is simple. He reads the Bible, gives a short sermon and sings. For hymns, he plays the melody on a piano with his right hand, faintly singing the words.
Paul Nulton, pastor of the Christ United Methodist Church in Merrill, believes Gustafson hasn't retired because his church and its rows of pews with cracking paint are like family.
"If he quit preaching, he would die," Nulton said. "He doesn't have a family. He doesn't have any other reason to be Art Gustafson unless he is a preacher."
Other ministers understand Gustafson's devotion and realize that for him to get active in another thriving congregation would be difficult, Nulton said.
"It would be kind of like a 78-year-old person joining a new family because his old family died off. It just doesn't work that way," Nulton said.
Gustafson became a minister after becoming disgruntled with his career as a Chicago banker more than four decades ago. He said he had problems because he believes lending on interest is a sin.
The Lord will tell him when to retire from the pulpit, he adds, saying church leaders have urged him to move into a retirement center in Chicago and continue his ministry there.
"We will just have to wait and see. You know, it is interesting how we discover the Lord's will. I seem to hear the Lord say very definitely that I should stay. And that is the last word I seem to have."
Last Sunday, Gustafson prepared enough wine for 12 people to drink during communion, the church's celebration of Jesus Christ's last supper with his disciples.
No one showed.
"I always like to have plenty," he said, smiling.