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Atlanta pastor John Onwuchekwa to depart the ministry, however not the church

(RNS) — At any time when John Onwuchekwa met somebody new and that particular person requested what he did for a dwelling, he by no means minded answering.

He was a pastor.

That title, he mentioned, even in these skeptical instances, was met with a specific amount of respect. And it’s a title he lately gave up, leaving him questioning what he’ll say now when requested what he does.

“That’s the query I worry,” he mentioned.

Final week, Onwuchekwa, co-founder of the Crete Collective — which begins church buildings in communities of colour — and a pastor of Cornerstone Church in Atlanta, announced that he was stepping down from his congregation on the finish of the yr.

His final sermon can be this Sunday (Dec. 18).

Onwuchekwa and his congregation made headlines in 2020 when he and the church broke ties with the Southern Baptist Conference over what he noticed as an absence of urgency in coping with problems with race. On the time, Onwuchekwa was a rising star within the SBC, serving to different Black pastors join with the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

“The SBC preferred me,” he wrote in 2020. “However I really feel like they’ve failed individuals like me.”

Onwuchekwa mentioned he and different leaders on the church have been speaking for months about his attainable transition. In 2021, he in the reduction of to half time on the church, turning into a bivocational pastor, so he might have time to jot down and pursue tasks exterior the church.

Pastor John Onwuchekwa. Courtesy photograph

These tasks nonetheless ended up taking quite a lot of his time away from Cornerstone, which Onwuchekwa helped present in 2015. The church had grown pretty shortly to a congregation of about 400 individuals, which introduced challenges.

Onwuchekwa mentioned his talent set suits properly with being a pastor of a startup congregation — gathering individuals collectively, setting a imaginative and prescient and getting the church off the bottom. However he felt he didn’t have the type of administrative abilities wanted to pastor a bigger congregation.

“There was a mismatch between the church’s wants and my presents,” he mentioned.

The 24-7 realities of a pastor’s life additionally took their toll on the 38-year-old Onwuchekwa, who started working as a minister in his early 20s. He beloved preaching and instructing, saying that “I might do that every one day, each day, free of charge.”

However what he referred to as the “latent duty” of a pastor got here with a heavy load.

“One telephone name can change every thing,” he mentioned.

A turning level for Onwuchekwa got here this summer season, after doing the funeral for a church member who took their very own life. That occasion rocked Onwuchekwa. He ended up taking a while away and started contemplating leaving the church.

The 2020 pandemic and the realities of the decline of native congregations — the common church in the US now has solely about 65 individuals, down from 137 20 years in the past — have precipitated plenty of pastors to rethink their calling.

One problem in leaving the pastorate, mentioned Onwuchekwa, was discovering a blueprint for dealing with such a transition — each for himself and for the church. The church is doing properly and a minimum of from the skin, Onwuchekwa’s ministry is prospering. He’s a well-liked speaker and coach and has a new book out this yr referred to as “We Go On.”

“If I had been pastoring for 40 years and left,” he mentioned, “we might have had a blueprint for what to do. If I had an ethical failing, our church would have had a blueprint on what to do. If I used to be burned out, our church would have a blueprint.” 

Leaving when issues are going properly was new territory, particularly since Onwuchekwa isn’t going to pastor a distinct church or begin one other new job.

Pastor John Onwuchekwa planted Cornerstone Church in west Atlanta in 2015. Courtesy photo

Pastor John Onwuchekwa planted Cornerstone Church in west Atlanta in 2015. Courtesy photograph

As an alternative, he’ll concentrate on talking and training and serving to lead the Crete Collective to plant new church buildings. He’ll additionally work with Portrait Coffee, a espresso roasting firm he and a few colleagues began in Atlanta’s West Finish.

Portrait was lately named one of the best espresso roaster in Georgia by Food and Wine magazine.

For years, Onwuchekwa mentioned, he preached sermons telling individuals to construct their identification on their relationship with God — not on what they do. Now he finds himself making an attempt to stay out that recommendation — with the assistance of his household and a therapist.

He realized that in deciding to depart the pastorate, he was leaving a part of his identification. All he ever wished to do was lead a church and practice different pastors.

Now he hopes to nonetheless try this, as a church member. He mentioned he nonetheless believes within the mission of Cornerstone and the broader Christian church. However his function within the church can be totally different.

Onwuchekwa plans to take a while away from Cornerstone so the brand new pastor, a good friend who was already serving on the church, can set up his function as chief of the congregation. Onwuchekwa and his household plan to return to Cornerstone as church members, which can be a brand new expertise for them.

Being a church member as a substitute of a pastor will include some loss. Lots of the individuals on the church solely know him as pastor and that’s outlined their relationship. As soon as he’s now not a pastor, he gained’t have that type of connection to individuals’s lives.

“All of us need to embrace there’s a relationship that has been misplaced,” he mentioned.

There’s an upside to now not being a pastor. When he was a minister, the church bought most of his time, that means he had much less time for household and pals. “By and enormous, the church will get much less of me as a result of my household and pals will get extra of me,” he mentioned.

His departure caught a few of his pals abruptly. Some questioned why he was leaving, and others have been stunned he had the choice.

Onwuchekwa mentioned among the messages mentioned merely: “I didn’t know you would try this.” 

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