Rev. Ray Pritchard is leaving Calvary Memorial Church. He loves his church and his congregation. He loves Oak Park. He doesn't have another pulpit to go to. What's driving him is "a restlessness in my soul."
It started about two years ago. A friend in Arlington Heights told him that when you get ready to transplant something in the garden, "first you loosen the dirt around the roots," Pritchard said. "Maybe that's what God was doing in my life."
He looked at his church and his ministry, "and I started wondering what was the best way to spend the next 10 years of my life."
He still hasn't answered that question. After his final sermon this Sunday, he and his wife will be moving to a cabin outside Tupelo, Miss. for a few months. Some years back, his brother, a plastic surgeon in Tupelo, bought an old church camp lodge on a lake to use as a vacation spot. Ray and his sons have used it for fishing trips in the past. Now it will become his transition to whatever comes next.
The decision to leave was a tough one, he said. "The really big decisions in life, you can't completely explain even to yourself. It comes from somewhere deep in your soul."
His wife's health may have provided the impetus, however. Marlene Pritchard was diagnosed with breast cancer in June at a very early stage. She's almost through the treatments, but he's glad they're both going to be able to slow down for awhile. "Job 1," he said, "is Marlene's health and making sure she's fully recovered. We've both been going pretty hard. This will give us a chance to stop, listen and refocus."
"A friend told me that cancer does three things," Pritchard said. "It clarifies, it makes concise, and it clears away the cobwebs. I realized the junk I've been worrying about is just junk. The circle of what matters has become much smaller."
In addition, all three of his sons are grown. One teaches at Circle-Rock Preparatory School in Austin and will remain in the area. One is teaching English in China. The other is a sophomore at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Growing his congregation
The board of governing elders wasn't surprised when Pritchard finally informed them about "the most difficult ministerial decision I've ever made." Oak Park attorney David Hoy, who chairs the elder board, said Pritchard was upfront about his restlessness, telling them about it over a year ago.
"That's how God works in a man's heart," he said.
Pritchard leaves a church operation that is significantly larger and more complex than the one he started with. From a weekly attendance of 500 when he arrived from Dallas in 1989, the congregation now swells to 1,200 or more each Sunday, requiring traffic control on Lake Street. Actual membership is smaller than that. Congregations these days, Pritchard said, tend to be somewhat transient. People stay two to five years, then move on. He estimates about a third of his congregation turns over each year, which is about normal among churches nationwide.
The church now hosts a K-8 school, the Oak Park Christian Academy, which is in its 11th year.
The number of full-time pastors has doubled to a total of seven, plus five or six other full or part-time ministerial staff. Pritchard also embraced the Internet, creating an active web site that includes his sermons and several blogs for dialogue.
In addition, he has published 27 books and done quite a bit of traveling to conferences around the world, which he says the congregation has been very patient with.
"In 16 years, he's gone from being a local Southern boy to becoming a nationally known pastor and author," said Hoy, who joined the congregation about the time Pritchard arrived. "So we have to let him go and be proud we had him as a pastor."
Search just beginning
Hoy will head the transition process. They've already appointed someone to oversee the "pulpit supply," which will consist of a rotation that includes the other Calvary pastors plus guest speakers from religious colleges such as Moody Bible Institute and Trinity College.
A Pulpit Committee will be established at the Nov. 13 elder board meeting and Hoy expects that search to range nationwide.
It will, he said, be a hard pulpit to fill. "Engaging and winsome would be the words I would use," he said about Pastor Pritchard. "He was a charismatic preacher and personally charming. When you were in the pew and he was preaching, it was like you were in your living room with your feet up on the couch. He was just talking to you."
Some preachers, he said, are "cold fish" one-on-one, but Pritchard "always had time to talk with you. What you saw in the pulpit is what you got one-on-one."
The elders asked him to stay, Hoy said, "but we told him, 'If God is calling you, we won't stand in your way.' We know God has another pastor for us. We just don't know yet who he is."
A church is not a corporation, Hoy added. "You build the position around the right man. Ray was gifted at preaching, teaching, pastoring and writing. He wasn't a bean counter. We hired someone else to handle administration."
He said he was excited to see where "the holy restlessness in his soul" would lead Pritchard.
"I think what he wants to do is train emerging Christian leaders from all over the world," Hoy said.
Pritchard doesn't know just yet. He's focusing on saying goodbye to the people he loves. When he announced his departure, he said he felt very sad, but very peaceful, and was surprised how many people said, "We thought something like this would happen."
"If there's a stirring in your soul," Pritchard said, "you can't hide it from the people who have known you for a long time."
Red church, blue village
But he will also miss Oak Park in spite of the controversies his conservative point of view often generated, particularly over issues like gay and lesbian rights.
He calls the village "the most stimulating, exciting community I've ever been involved with." He got a laugh about the recent "sexy suburb" designation, but agrees with the media's characterization that Oak Park exudes "total and utter confidence."
"Whether you're conservative or liberal," Pritchard said, "if you have a thick skin and a good sense of humor, this is a wonderful place to be. It took me awhile to get used to that. We laugh about how we're a 'red' church in a 'blue' community, but I always felt right at home."
Alan Amato, public policy chair for the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association (OPALGA) found himself on separate sides "many times" over the years, starting with the Domestic Partnership Ordinance and continuing through the referendum opposing the Domestic Partnership Registry.
"He was always very civil to me," Amato said, "and I always tried to be the same to him, considering how large the disagreements were. I wish him luck and I know that another outspoken pastor will follow him at Calvary."
Pritchard's final service will be this Sunday, followed by a farewell reception in the evening. Then he takes his "step of faith." These days he says what he calls "a dangerous prayer: 'Lord, do things I'm not used to. Pull me out of my comfort zone.'"