When Ray Pritchard left his position as senior pastor at Calvary Memorial Church on Lake Street seven months ago, the congregation went into a period of mourning. Six members of Calvary gathered at Cosi Cafe last month to talk about the experience of being between pastors.
"I felt a great loss," Tom Benno recalled, "because he was a close friend." Soo Ai Kudo also experienced her pastor's leaving as a loss. "We've been very close. We worked together, we fought together, so we miss him. We were like family. He ministered to each one of us in different ways. It leaves a hole in our lives."
"We had a business meeting at church shortly after he left," Rosa Cervantes remembered. "It was sad because a lot of us were grieving." Kathryn McBride said she couldn't go to church for two months after Pritchard left.
When individuals lose a spouse through death or divorce, they need to go through a time of grieving which has several stages. Granger Westberg in Good Grief describes stages like shock, depression, anger, the return hope and affirming reality. Bruce Fisher talks about the rebuilding blocks of denial, loneliness, anger, letting go, trust and freedom in his book on divorce recovery titled Rebuilding.
The same is true for congregations when their pastor leaves. Karl Reko, an Oak Park resident who is a consultant for congregations and church institutions, describes three stages in a paradigm of transition he learned from Transitions by William Bridges: 1) The end, 2) the neutral zone, and 3) the new beginning.
Reko argues that the neutral zone is the difficult part of the process. He likes to quote M. Ferguson to congregations going through the interim between pastors:
"It's not so much that we're afraid of change, or so in love with old ways, but it's that place in between we fear ... it's like being in between trapezes. It's Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There's nothing to hold on to."
That the six members spent much of their 90-minute sharing time talking about what a wonderful man their former pastor was, indicated that they were still in the neutral zone. They were still going through the grieving process.
Cervantes said Prit-chard was charismatic and touched everybody. McBride said, "He was more than charismatic. He was kind and had integrity. He was a great man." Chris Smith remembered the time she traveled with him in a small group to Nepal. "He would preach his heart out in tiny, little churches as much as he would on the big stage of Calvary. He's a great teacher."
McBride told about the night at the church when congregants could say goodbye to him and how people stood in line for over an hour to have a minute with him. "Even people who disagreed with him respected him," she added, "because he was kind and funny. He wasn't adversarial. He really liked people."
Cervantes choked up as she tried to begin a story about her cousin. "He came to visit me from Spain and didn't speak a word of English," she said as she collected her emotions. "He is the kind of person who doesn't go to church but agreed to come to Calvary with me one Sunday morning. After the service, he said he had goosebumps, and his wife was crying because she had felt the love in the congregation."
That is part of the work that happens in the neutral zone, according to Reko. He refers to the work as "making peace with the old."
"Making peace with the old means accepting its loss," Reko said. "Part of the price of the ticket into the new situation seems to be acknowledging our grief at the loss of the old and saying an appropriate farewell."
He adds that it is unhealthy to rush the work that needs to be done in the neutral zone or, worse yet, to try to jump over it to the new beginning. "No matter how tempting it is to try and force our entry into the new setting," he said, "if we try to skip the middle stage, we may find ourselves returning to it later and not knowing what is happening ... while in the middle stage we may just have to stop, look around, live the experiences in the in-between stage and wait until our system has equipped us to move on."
Reko acknowledged that transitions worked through in the neutral zone can be a kind of dying, but that work can also produce hard-won insights into living and a reaffirmation of core values.
Benno admitted, "Later, I realized that I might be wanting to talk him out of it for the wrong reasons. At that point I realized that God is sovereign. After we prayed about it, I realized that this might be an opportunity for God to do his thing. Personally I was going to church a lot just to hear Ray preach. That's not the reason to go to church. Now we've had a series of ministers, and the Word is ministering to me. I've seen a lot of growth, but that doesn't mean that I still don't feel pain. The only way you know you've died to self is if you feel pain."
"We definitely feel the loss of the person, the leader, the friend," said Tatia Gibbons, "but we are also drawing closer to God in our walk. We are understanding that God is not any one person. That's something that comes through in times like this."
Kudo said the congregation has realized it is God's word that is their foundation and not a personality. "We've now had a string of pastors who have all been good preachers," she said. "It has reinforced for us that though he is gone, the Word is still there and that is a comfort. Ray is not the only preacher out there. It's good for the church to be reminded of that. In a very real way, it is God's church, not our church, not Ray's church."
Moving toward a new beginning
That the church members are attaining these kinds of insights is a sign that much of the work of the neutral zone has been completed, and they are getting closer to the time when they are ready for a new beginning. "We have hope that God will bless us again," Rosa Cervantes declared. "It took a couple months before we could say that, but we are encouraged."
Kudo is part of the search committee, which is in charge of finding a new pastor.
"We are an independent church," explained Bob Boerman, one of the pastors on staff at Calvary Memorial, "so we've put together a search team that refines the job description and then starts looking for candidates at churches with similar theology."
Meanwhile, nine miles north of Tupelo, Miss., the Rev. Ray Pritchard is going through the same process as his former parishioners. For Pritchard, the process began about two years ago, while he and his wife Marlene were still in Oak Park. He said they loved living and working in Oak Park but that an "inner restlessness" was telling him the time to move was approaching. "I agonized over the decision for a long time and thought and prayed about it," he recalled, "but the time came last September when I knew I needed to take a step of faith. I had prayed for nine months, 'Lord, do things we're not used to,' so we left Oak Park and moved to Mississippi."
And do something different is what he and Marlene did. They are "now living in a cabin by a lake a half-mile down a gravel road behind a cattle gate next to a country road that runs into another country road that crosses the Natchez Trace."
The Pritchards had to let go of Oak Park and Calvary just as his former members had to let go of him. "The move itself was a shock," he said. "In 48 hours we moved from the heart of Oak Park to a cabin in the woods. No more Lake Street traffic; no more Winberie's, Lalo's or Parky's; no more West Sub; no more Wednesday Journal; no more Farmers' Market; no more debates with the minister from Unity Temple; no more 'nuclear-free' zones. All that vanished overnight."
They realized this is a transitional time in their lives, and they are making the most of it. "For quite awhile we were resting and praying and thinking about the future," Pritchard said. "I've done lots of traveling, more than I expected. I've also been speaking in various places and working on some writing projects." He added that he has enjoyed sitting in the pew and listening to others preach to him. "Every pastor should have the same opportunity at some point," he said. "It's good for the soul not to always be in leadership."
Making the most of his time in the neutral zone has also included reading a variety of books: The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, Integrity by Henry Cloud, 1776 by David McCullough, Iain Murray's two-volume biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et. al., Your Ministry's Next Chapter by Gary Fenton, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, and Da Vinci Deception by Erwin Lutzer.
That the Pritchards have worked their way through the neutral zone a bit is evidenced by their ability to entertain scenarios about the future with enthusiasm. "China looms large in our thinking," he said. A visit there three years ago when all three of their sons were teaching English in that country opened that possibility in their minds.
He also has a desire to mentor the next generation of pastors. "I have a burden to help train the next generation of up-and-coming young Christian leaders from around the world," he said. "And I'm very interested in helping and encouraging pastors any way that I can."
"Transitions are initially experiences of dying," Reko concluded, "of leaving something behind and moving on. But with all the ups and downs of transitions, we are learning how to live as well as how to die."
Both Ray Pritchard and the congregation he left, it seems, would agree.