Kirk in the Hills was the dream and vision of Colonel Edwin S. George, a Detroit businessman whose gift of his home and estate (Cedarholm) in 1947 made the Kirk possible. As early as 1933, he saw the need for a church in this area and established the George Foundation for that purpose. The congregation was organized by the Presbytery of Detroit in 1947, and the first services were held that year in Cedarholm Chapel (formerly Colonel George’s music room). The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1951, the same year Colonel George died. His remains are entombed under the narthex of the Kirk's sanctuary.
Services were held in the undercroft beginning in 1952 and continued during the construction of the church until a disastrous fire destroyed most of the roof. During the 18 months following the fire, the congregation worshipped at the local high school. Exactly eleven years after it was organized, the Kirk held its first services in the sanctuary on November 23, 1958.
The Reverend Dr. Leslie Bechtel was the Kirk’s first pastor and served the church for five years (1948–1953). As the former Executive Secretary of the Presbytery of Detroit, he first met with Colonel George in 1946 to discuss George’s plan and vision for a new church. Fully supportive of Colonel George’s cause, he fought for its acceptance by the Presbytery, and later accepted the call by the Pastor Nominating Committee to become the Kirk’s first pastor (installed on November 21, 1948). Dr. Bechtel and his wife, Gertrude, encouraged members of the new church to form groups according to their interests. Membership grew from its original 79 in 1947 to 705 in 1953. Dr. Bechtel retired on September 1, 1953; he died in 1978.
The Reverend Dr. Harold C. DeWindt, serving from 1953-1971, took on the tremendous task of not only ministering to his congregation, but also supervising the construction and furnishing of the church. A powerful preacher and personable pastor, he led the church single-handedly for seventeen years (during which time the congregation grew to nearly 1,800 members) and introduced many traditions still practiced at the Kirk today. Church officers focused on building the Abbey for Christian education and the refectory for fellowship (completed in 1965). Dr. DeWindt died suddenly in 1971, a faithful minister to an ever-growing, Christ-centered congregation.
Dr. DeWindt was succeeded by The Reverend Dr. James F. Anderson, who ministered from 1972 until his retirement in 1994 (he died in 2015). Some of Dr. Anderson’s accomplishments included the establishment of endowment funds, pastoral care groups, and a strengthened, growing program for our children and youth. Women were elected to Session, and girls joined the Acolyte Corps. Kirk in the Hills Nursery School (now the Kirk Preschool, for children ages 2-5) was established in 1983 by a group of Kirk parents and grandparents. The Kirk began its Parish Unit program under Dr. Anderson’s tenure, for members to develop caring ties within their neighborhoods and communities. The Kirk also became the largest church in the Presbytery of Detroit.
The Kirk's fourth senior pastor, The Reverend Dr. Norman M. Pritchard (a Scotsman) arrived in January 1996 from Melbourne, Australia. Under Dr. Pritchard’s direction, the enhancement of our physical facilities and access to all Kirk facilities was undertaken, the most ambitious of which was the installation of an elevator to serve the seven different levels that comprise our campus. The Columbarium was expanded, and a second sculpture by the late American sculptor, Marshall Fredericks, was added. Women were first elected to the Board of Trustees, and a multitude of Home Bible Study groups were established. Early in Dr. Pritchard's tenure, the Kirk became a host venue for the annual Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. The Kirk launched its first website in November of 1996; further communications enhancements continue today for our members and beyond. Dr. Pritchard retired on November 16, 2014 with a celebration that included bagpipes — a nod to his (and the Kirk’s) roots.
With the Kirk’s physical construction completed in 1965 and additional structural improvements since that time, Kirk pastors and leadership have been focused for the past five decades on growing the Kirk’s service to its members, its immediate community and the world outside our splendid home. In addition, the Kirk carefully added human infrastructure in the form of associate pastors, numerous groups and guilds, its internationally recognized music and carillon programs, and what is now its longstanding mission work in Michigan and around the world. In the spring of 2017, we welcomed our fifth senior pastor, Rev. Dr. Nathaniel D. Phillips, from Wilmington, Delaware. Dr. Phillips arrived with exuberance and creativity. “Pastor Nate” had a desire to share the gospel through new Outreach and Mission efforts locally, and internationally. He was instrumental in growing small group ministry and creating a satellite church location in a retirement community. His enthusiasm for new things was needed as the COVID pandemic locked down many churches worldwide. Virtual worship services, carillon concerts on Saturday evenings filling the parking lots, and heaters for outdoor worship were just a few of things Dr. Phillips led during this once in a lifetime pandemic. Ultimately, his legacy will be that he was called to the Kirk to lead the congregation through the COVID pandemic before feeling a call to return home.