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Following the call
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PHILLIPS — A semi-retired pastor restoring a Flambeau cabin, said he felt a calling to serve again, and a Phillips congregation agreed.

The Rev. Dean A. Arbs was installed as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Phillips on April 18. He served as a temporary pastor for a year while the church’s synod affiliation, North American Lutheran Church, considered allowing a minister from the American Association of Lutheran Churches synod to serve as a full time pastor.

The St. John’s board and pastoral search committee met extensively with Arbs and favored his selection. The NALC allowed a one-year contract in November 2020, and as the colloquy process for full time transition stalled on doctrinal differences, the synod agreed to a pastoral installation.

“So we’re really thankful for that,” Arbs said.

Shane Roberts, president of the church council, and Kevin Johnson, who headed the search committee, said the church was fortunate to find another pastor after the Rev. Glenn Sokoloski left in 2019. The congregation of 125 families was strong but was reduced to biweekly services from visiting clergy and a two year search slowed further with the pandemic.

It was uncommon for the synod to agree to a non-NALC minister, Roberts said.

“It’s the Holy Spirit at work,” Roberts said of Arbs’ life journey that brought him to the church.

The Rev. Thomas Rife served as pastor for 28 years until retiring in 2015. Rife has since become dean for the NALC in Northern Wisconsin and was present to install Arbs in April.

Just a year ago the church was seeking candidates and Arbs was in town running errands and just kind of showed up at the door, Johnson said. His neighbors mentioned the vacancy here, and Arbs said he had no intention of serving full time again — but that he knew he was getting the call.

Roberts and Kevin Johnson worked on the call committee together and agreed to lunch with Arbs.

“When he first showed up, we didn’t really know much about his background, and we were a little bit cautious, I would say maybe even slightly skeptical,” Roberts said. “Then, once Kevin and I got to know him and started to build a relationship, it was extremely good and he just won us over almost instantly.”

Arbs said his journey has unplanned turns at times from the callings. There is no obvious direction to the journey other than the trinitarian formula, better known as God in three persons, “Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit,” he said. The common thread is that Jesus is Lord of the laborers, and “will send his laborers where he will.”

Often expressed through the Apostles Creed, or the Nicene Creed, the trinitarian formula is bedrock of Christianity, he said. This goes beyond doctrinal differences of the denomination as it is the faithful who are saved by grace, through faith, and to the core tenants of confessing faithfulness to the Gospel.

“The Spirit of discernment,” Arbs said. Perhaps God sent him here to be a pastor in part to continue his religious education ministry and to be faithful to the Word.

“My sheep know my voice,” he said. “So when you hear the truth, and you hear a preacher or somebody, and it’s really the truth, you’re going to bear witness to it. If you’re a sheep of God, you’re going to know that’s the truth, right?”

The calling goes further back.

Born and raised in the Eau Claire area, Arbs was baptized and confirmed at Hope Lutheran Church, part of the former American Lutheran Church. His father was a retired rubber worker with Uniroyal, who owned the Rail Haven bar near the rail yards of Altoona. The bartender, Chuck Thurston, was the brother of Green Bay Packer player Fuzzy Thurston, and the bar was a player hideout.

“I was really young and so I don’t really remember much of it, except just some of those Packers, they liked to pick me up and put my back against the ceiling,” Arbs said. “They were big dudes, just tremendous.”

After high school, Arbs joined the U.S. Navy, and served in Hawaii with a P-3 Orion squadron at Naval Air Station Barbers Point. He went on to seek work with the defense contractors in the Virginia area, where he befriended a Christian man who began to witness to him.

“Through his teaching I ended up coming back to my faith, and renewing my faith,” Arbs said. “Shortly after that, I felt a real call to actually pursue the ministry.”

Arbs became a licensed Pentecostal minister with the Church of God, and served a parish in Northern Virginia. Then he felt a call to his Lutheran roots and completed a master’s in divinity at American Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Paul. He was ordained with the American Association of Lutheran Churches, and served in Williston, North Dakota.

“They say that any good Lutheran pastor has got to pay his dues in the Dakotas, you know,” Arbs said.

After some time Arbs felt a call to the Roman Catholic Church. He was not especially united with Catholic doctrine but said the Lord was leading him and he became the head of adult catechism at a parish in Chippewa Falls.

Arbs enjoyed teaching but a new priest took over the role. Arbs went to work on a friend’s dairy farm for four years.

“That’s when we bought this cabin up here,” Arbs said of the 20 acre Flambeau area cabin.

He and wife Mary purchased it for retirement. They were staying at the cabin in early 2020 and decided to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neighbors spoke of the pastoral opportunity. Arbs said he felt a calling but resisted what he described as a “Jonah moment,” almost.

He walked into the church during the Monday cleaning and spoke with the parish administrator, Vicki Roberts. After a brief conversation, he said, “I think God’s calling me here to be your pastor.”

Arbs told Roberts and Johnson that if God had opened this door, then “nobody’s gonna close it.” If God didn’t open the door, “then nobody’s going to open it.”

Arbs said his religious education model is to rebuild the family unit, by first helping adult men and women see past the distractions of daily life and the misconceptions of popular religious imagery that he said has replaced the Gospel.

“I really believe that’s one of the major things that’s lacking in the church today,” he said.

Religious education helps to ground people to the Gospel, he said. It replaces the sense of “hollow worship,” where people feel attending church and obeying the law are enough to obtain salvation.

“The church is where the faithful presentation of the Gospel is presented,” Arbs said.

The women’s Bible study group has studied the Gospel of John for the past year. Arbs has developed a men’s ministry.

“They’re growing in their faith, one soul at a time,” Arbs said. “I believe a big part of my ministry is about building relationships with people.”

The religious education approach to strengthening families seems to be the right approach, said Roberts, who said the men’s ministry has changed his life. The changes are in part to better connect with younger generations.

“His guidance and mentorship has had a huge impact on my life,” Roberts said of Arbs.

Saint John Lutheran Church is located at 120 Forest Ave. in Phillips. The Sunday 9 a..m. service is also broadcast on Facebook Live. The 6:30 p.m. Saturday service is not broadcast.


Members of the Phillips Volunteer Fire Department conduct a controlled brush burn on the hill near the railroad tracks and Duroy Lake just below the Phillips Area Chamber of Commerce office on Thursday evening. The area is between South Lake Avenue and Park Drive, between Maple and Oak streets. The department conducted a similar burn on the north end of Phillips earlier in the week.


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Phillips may consider hotel study, fire agreement

PHILLIPS — The city of Phillips Committee of the Whole met on May 3 to hear presentations regarding a possible fire agreement with a township and a potential study to consider a new hotel.

Jim Hanson, chair of the Harmony Board of Supervisors, was present at the meeting to express interest in an agreement to have the city provide fire services for the township. If approved, the transition would occur in 2023, giving time to work out the agreement and to place the idea on the ballot for the Harmony residents to consider.

The council meeting is the first step, Hanson said. The town must first check to see if the city of Philips would outright accept or deny the request before requesting an agenda item on the matter at the next Phillips Fire District on July 18.

“Right now the town of Harmony pays $17,667 a year for fire protection,” Hanson said at the meeting. “The fire department wants to buy a new fire truck, that’s going to double that cost. That’s going to take it up to probably $35,000, to pay the $350,000 over the next 10 years. I just felt that it was too much money to spend without taking it to the taxpayers of the town of Harmony.”

Phillips Mayor Charles Peterson said Hanson should be aware that the Phillips Fire Department is undergoing improvements over the next year to include a repair or possible replacement of the fire hall building. There are also anticipated costs with a new truck and other maintenance in addition to personnel.

Phillips Fire Chief David Lontcoski said the issue was moving forward in the appropriate manner. The town of Harmony can present the idea to the department and the ad hoc committee of the other townships that will also have a voice in the matter as stakeholders.

“I think that we’re gonna have a lengthy discussion,” Lontcoski said.

The city of Phillips decision will follow the fire district meeting and recommendation.

Anna Jakubek, vice president of Development for Cobblestone Hotels, presented the company’s request for a city of Phillips hotel feasibility study.

The Wisconsin based chain has 154 hotel properties in 29 states with 14 more under construction, she said. The company likes to build upscale hotels in a small towns where there is demand.

The $10,000 study would be reimbursed if a hotel is built as a result, she said. If Cobblestone does not build then the third-party report would be transferable to other hoteliers to use in considering the city as a location, she said.

The committee asked several technical questions about the hotel chain and the study. The items was tabled until more information was provided.

In other business, the committee approved placing a Springs Drive property up for bid. The 11.3 acre property will start with a minimum bid of $12,500 with a right of refusal based on fair market value of $12,000 to $15,000.

The committee also approved recommending that the Common Council approve class B retail and class B beer licenses to Jay Hengtgen for Burger’s Bar & Grill. The business is the former Club 13.


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