CUYAHOGA FALLS – A familiar presence at Pilgrim United Church of Christ – and Cuyahoga Falls – is delivering his last sermon as the pastor of that church Sunday.

The Rev. Kirk Bruce, who has served as the spiritual leader for Pilgrim since July 2000, is retiring. Bruce will give his last sermon June 28 in the parking lot of the church at 130 Broad Blvd. at 10:30 a.m.

Bruce’s wife Cheryl said that the initial plans for the retirement celebration was to rent a space at Quirk Cultural Center and have a caterer come in, but the pandemic forced a change of plans.

The Bruces said that while the reverend is retiring, they have no plans of moving out of Cuyahoga Falls. Cheryl "has a few more years before she can retire," her husband said.

Cheryl Bruce teaches fourth grade at Richardson Elementary School, and the Bruces’ three children were Cuyahoga Falls High School graduates.

Kirk Bruce, who has spent 20 of his 30 years of ministry at Pilgrim UCC, has lived in Ohio his entire life. He was born in Toledo and lived in Twinsburg for nine years. He attended Mount Union College and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in business management and marketing in 1982. He later received an MBA in marketing from Miami University in 1987. He said he worked "quite a few years" for Akron companies, and lived in Newark for a time, working for a company that sold kitchen cabinets.

"Through all of that I felt a calling to do something else, to do a little more," Bruce said. "That’s when I entered the seminary."

He attended the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, graduating with a Master of Divinity in 1992.

His work was not limited to the inside of the church. He served as chaplain for the police department, participated in career days at the high school and served on the city’s Charter Review commission on several occasions. A favorite activity, Bruce said, was to take children ages kindergarten through sixth grade on three-day camping trips.

"It was short enough so that when they started to miss mom, we were ready to go," Bruce said. "They could explore their faith while doing things they never did before. I’d take them on a hayride, and they’d go on a 100-foot-long Slip and Slide."

Bruce said the last time there was a group camping adventure, a couple of years ago, he even went on the Slip and Slide himself.

The pastor also said he likes working with wood and has made dressers and bookshelves.

"I made the cradle for my daughter 30 years ago," he said. "I am working on a dresser for my grandson to be born. I’m also learning how to use a wood lathe and am working on bowls."

The Bruces also raise honeybees and own a Christmas tree farm.

"We have grown Christmas trees for 36 years," he said.

Another pastime is taking rides in their 1930 Buick Marquette, a vehicle Bruce restored himself.

"I bought it in boxes," he said. "Lots of boxes. I would pick up a piece and go ‘Huh, I wonder where that goes in the car?’ It’s been an interesting project."

Cheryl Bruce said that they like to travel, and have been to 49 of the 50 states. They plan to venture when they can to the final state of the union, Hawaii, when they can travel again.

Marilyn Freeman, who retired May 31 as the faith formation director at Pilgrim United Church of Christ, said she worked with Kirk Bruce for the past 17 years.

"I have been blessed to serve the mission and ministry of Pilgrim United Church of Christ with Rev. Kirk Bruce," Freeman said. "There are so many memories that come flooding back as I recall all of the many events, programs and missions we created.

Some of the best memories are from Adventures With God Camp that is so dear to Bruce’s heart, she said.

"He loves the outdoors, camping, hiking and just sharing his love of creation with the kids. We spent many hours planning and implementing hours of fun and learning for kids with a whole team of helpers."

Freeman said that she and the reverend also planned several mission trips.

"His energy for this work is amazing and I enjoyed the learning curve serving with him in these journeys," she said. "I have appreciated beyond measure Pastor Kirk’s encouragement and support for the Faith Formation ministry. He was an advocate of my continuing education opportunities and challenged me to try new ideas and programs."

Former Music Director Amy Sauriol said that the hymn "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry" was often used by Bruce.

"I remember Kirk often including these lyrics at weddings and funerals," Sauriol said. "I will always remember his generosity with the church building when I needed a place to practice and teach lessons. His support of our ‘small but mighty’ music program was clear through his encouraging words and occasional participation in choir or handbells. When presented with new ideas for music, he'd always say ‘Let's try it!’"

Karen and Dave Day, parishioners at the church, were looking to move to the area about 10 years ago and "were looking for a church home and a place to get married," Karen said.

"We called Kirk from 2,000 miles away and he immediately took the time to call us back," Karen said. "There was an instant chemistry between the three of us and we felt like we had known him forever. As time went on, his presence has been such a blessing to our family that two years ago, he married our daughter and son-in-law.

"From the day we met him, he has brought joy and love into our lives and we consider that first phone call and the subsequent years we have known him to be a true gift from God. Both Kirk and his wife Cheryl have become some of our closest friends. We are blessed to have them in our lives."

Brian Ewart, a moderator at Pilgrim UCC and a lifelong member of the church, said he has worked and worshiped with Bruce for 20 years.

"I have always found that his combination of enthusiasm, empathy and equanimity has been just right for leading the congregation, and its individual members, through difficult times as well as joyous ones," Ewart said. "Also, Kirk has never tried to make himself the center of attention – he would deflect credit to other church members whenever the church accomplished a goal or reached a new milestone. I’m sure the congregation will miss his welcoming smile, his ever-present sense of humor, and his dedication to the welfare of Pilgrim Church and its members. We all treasure his friendship and wish him well on the next stage of his life’s journey."

April Helms can be reached at ahelms@recordpub.com