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15-year Navy cook, now a pastor, learning recipes for ministry

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–He once made meals for boatloads of people. Literally. Now this Colorado pastor’s family of four gets to enjoy the culinary delights he dishes out.

Accustomed to feeding 2,000 sailors daily, Bob Gitschlag, former U.S. Navy cook and seminary student and current pastor of First Baptist Church, Cheyenne Wells, Colo., has to scale down meals for his wife and two teenage sons, a skill he learned when switching commands once in California.

After being transferred from a ship to a small shore station, he was told to fix gravy.

“I was only supposed to feed 30, but no one told me. We had gravy for a month,” he said.

Gitschlag, of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., retired from the Navy in 1997 after a 15-year career, but he had known years earlier that God was calling him.

“I felt like God wanted me to preach, but I ran into the Navy,” said Gitschlag, whose chaplain likened him to Jonah. “The Lord was pressing me to get out, but I asked him if I was to spend this much time in the military without the opportunity to retire.”

The Navy began downsizing and offering early retirement to anyone with 15 years’ experience. Gitschlag handed in his paperwork and was granted retirement.

He continued running from God’s call, however, resisting seminary for nine more months. When he finally visited Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in August 1998 to hand in his application, he worried about how his family could afford the move to Fort Worth, Texas.

He soon found a card in the mail explaining he had not taken advantage of the military’s offer to fund his last move. The Gitschlags accepted the offer and moved to Fort Worth for the spring semester. He was at Southwestern for two semesters when the Lord spoke to him again and this time he listened right away.

A friend who preached in Colorado during Southwestern’s spring evangelism practicum returned with news of seven pastorless churches in the association he had visited. Gitschlag sent his resume to them and heard nothing until the fall. First Baptist in Cheyenne Wells responded, heard Gitschlag preach for the first time right before Christmas and in January called him as pastor, their first in five years.

Besides experience in feeding thousands of seamen during 13-hour shifts, Gitschlag also was leading petty officer with a rating that incorporated hotel and restaurant management.

All honors aside, however, Gitschlag clearly has two loves: people and cooking. His position as galley supervisor was “one of the best ratings in the Navy” because it allowed him to interact with almost every crewmember, from officers on down the ranks.

Gitschlag credits his mother for his affinity for cooking. She taught him. He also remembers kitchen experience prior to the Navy when he worked at a Western Sizzlin’ as well as at a local restaurant that served breakfast and lunch.

So far he has not combined preaching and cooking in Cheyenne Wells. Though he checked for employment with local restaurants and the hospital, Gitschlag found no openings. Instead, he unearthed his Navy experience in security work and became a dispatcher with the Cheyenne County sheriff’s department.

While he is not currently cooking for crowds on a regular basis, Gitschlag does get occasional “orders” from a church to feed the troops. And he willingly handles kitchen duty at home for Twila, his wife of 18 years, who “hates to cook.”

Jonah’s story is no longer too close to home for Gitschlag. He plans to continue his education and earn his degree at Southwestern through Internet classes and I-terms. Clear about where God wants to use him, Gitschlag’s question now is, How will God combine cooking and preaching?

“It’s a definite change, cooking to pastoring. I still wonder, but God will use it, I guess,” Gitschlag said.

No doubt, God will. Southern Baptists are the right denomination for that combination.

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  • Cindy Kerr