Sunday was an emotional day at The Chapel in Akron as hundreds of well-wishers lined the hallway outside the sanctuary after two morning worship services to bid farewell to their senior pastor and his wife — the Rev. Paul and Susan Sartarelli.
Ken and Becky May were among those who waited in line to share tears, hugs and sentiments of love with the Sartarellis.
“We wanted to thank them for what they’ve done for the church,” said Ken May of Tallmadge.
His wife, Becky, added, “Pastor Paul led this church so that we would be closer to the Lord. He’s been an example. Even in his leaving, he’s an example because he is showing us that even if you have to move out of your comfort zone, you have to follow God.”
Sartarelli, 54, announced in November that he would be stepping down as pastor of the church that attracts more than 4,500 worshippers to its Akron, Green and Wadsworth campuses. In his announcement, he told the church that he and his wife felt God calling them away from The Chapel but that they were not clear on what he is calling them to. Even now, they still aren’t sure.
“It’s bittersweet. The Chapel is home for us,” said the Rev. Paul Sartarelli. “We are sad to be leaving but we’re happy to be following God.”
Sartarelli became senior pastor in 2009, after a three-year transition period during which he served as associate senior pastor and co-senior pastor with the now retired Rev. Knute Larson.
Before taking the post as senior pastor, Sartarelli and his wife, Susan, had served in church ministry at The Chapel for eight years. The couple — who initially came to the church as college students in 1977 — left the Akron campus in 1991 to plant a daughter church, Riverwood Community Chapel, in Kent, where they were serving when Sartarelli was chosen as The Chapel’s fourth senior pastor.
Leslie Bell of Akron came to The Chapel 10 years ago. He said that he is thankful to Sartarelli for helping him grow spiritually. Although he is sorry to see the Sartarellis go, Bell said that he will pray for the best for them.
“I will pray for God to guide them to their next challenge,” Bell said. “They are wonderful people and I hope that God will lead them to a place where they can continue to grow spiritually and help others know the love of God.”
In Sartarelli’s absence, the congregation will be led by the church’s six-member pastoral leadership team, which includes four campus pastors.
The board of trustees is expected to select a search committee by the end of the month to begin looking for a new senior pastor, according to Randy Fairfax, chairman of the board. The committee will include church officers and staff members, who will be charged with making a recommendation for the next senior pastor. Once the recommendation is approved by the trustees, the candidate will be presented to the congregation for a vote.
During the last search, when Sartarelli was selected, about 400 candidates from across the nation expressed an interest in becoming senior pastor at the church.
Randy Fearer, a member of the board of trustees, said he expects the new committee to receive and review applications from a broad and diverse national pool as well. He said that he also expects the transition period without a senior pastor to go smoothly because Sartarelli has worked to keep a strong leadership team in place.
“We are very sad to see Paul go. He always put the interest of The Chapel before his own,” Fearer said. “As sad as this is for us, this is a brave move for him. We will be praying for him, and Susie, as God directs them to the next place in their spiritual journey.”
The Sartarellis said that after much prayer and discussion, they discerned that God was calling them away from The Chapel. Exactly where God is calling them to remains uncertain but the couple believes it is one of four places: church planting in the Cincinnati area (where their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter live); ministry to the Dalits (untouchables) in India; European ministry addressing human trafficking; or developing a ministry in the Cleveland area, a new choice on their list.
Since their plans are unclear, they are unsure if they will keep their Kent home.
“This has been so difficult. We have made so many good friends here,” said Susan Sartarelli. “There have been so many times in the past week that I couldn’t stop the tears. [Last week] at the Green campus, there was an older lady who looked into Paul’s eyes and asked if he would change his mind and stay. We said but if we do that, we’ll be ignoring what God is directing us to do. She understood, but it broke my heart. Then, there was a little boy who came up and said ‘Pastor Paul, would you sign my Bible?’ That just touched my heart.”
The Sartarellis said they will continue contemplating the next phase in their faith journey by staying in prayer and exploring the possibilities that are before them. They said there is a possibility that their next mission could be an opportunity to partner with The Chapel.
“We are walking out on faith. There is the tension of knowing we have responsibilities, but have no idea what the next stop on our journey is. But we’ve got to follow God’s leading and seek his will,” Sartarelli said. “Sue and I have promised the Lord we will go where the need is real and where our passions and abilities can connect to those needs.”
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org