Orchard Lake Community Church Congregation Embraces 'New' Pastor

The Rev. Paul Thwaite celebrates one year as pastor. One member says he understands "church isn't a physical structure – it's inside our souls."

Public speaking and moving to a new city are generally identified as two great fears of most people.

The Rev. Paul Thwaite of West Bloomfield is not like most people. And the congregation of , where Thwaite has preached now for just over a year, has taken notice.

"Paul exudes a sense of being a leader and you see that leadership," said Charles Keppel, 64, of West Bloomfield. "He brought it even in his first foray here when he was candidate-preaching.

"From the outside looking in, he looked strong, even if he admitted privately that he was nervous."

Thwaite moved in late 2009 with his wife, Jan, and two high-school-aged daughters from Pittsburgh to West Bloomfield to begin a three-month period as co-pastor with the Rev. David Robertson, who had announced his retirement after 14½ years of service. Thwaite took over as full-time pastor in February 2010.

"The former pastor was no slouch," Keppel said. "It's a privilege for me to be here with Paul."

Co-pastoring with Robertson eased the transition for both the congregation and for Thwaite in his family's move.

“David had designed this transition process so that the congregation would never be without a full-time pastor and that I could benefit from his knowledge and years,” said Thwaite, who received a bachelor's degree in history from Gordon College in Massachusetts and a master's of divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary in California. “Normally, a Presbyterian church hires an interim pastor, which can be difficult for a congregation who is trying to sustain its momentum.”

Lotoczky said Robertson’s idea, which was voted on and approved by a committee of congregation members prior to Thwaite’s arrival in Michigan, helped to maintain the values of the church, which has been led by six pastors since its organization in 1943.

“What Paul did with our church is something that had never been done before in the United States,” said Lynn Lotoczky, an office administrator at the church. “It was exciting to be a part of something like that, and he has done a fantastic job since he moved here."

I believe that he and Dr. Robertson helped find the energy of the congregation and transfer it and build around it. It ended up a big positive," said Keppel.

Lotoczky said Thwaite does a great job for two reasons. "First, despite not being a native, he understands the heritage of our church, as a student of history," she said. "Second, he understands our church’s dedication to mission, and he helps foster that by reaching out in to the community. He says that it helps him as a new neighbor.”

Thwaite encourages events and outreach in nontraditional ways,  said Jamie Ryder, 38, of West Bloomfield, who helps organize the church's annual Men's Communion Breakfast, which will take place for the second time . "He relates to everyone here in understanding that church isn't a physical structure," Ryder said. "It's inside our souls."

Pennsylvania connection fosters new beginning

Thwaite previously served for 14 years as associate pastor of Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, where he said that he was contacted by the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Detroit, the Rev. Allen Timm, who knew of both the opportunity in Orchard Lake and Thwaite’s desire for pastorate. 

“Al and I grew up together in Bethlehem (Penn.), and he recommended me to the committee of the church responsible for the search process,” Thwaite said. “In Pennsylvania, there’s no formal organization of pastors as in the Presbytery of Detroit.”

Lotoczky, who has attended the church since 1998 and worked there since December 2010, said that she served on the committee responsible for the search process. She said  the congregation has welcomed the Thwaite family in part thanks to the idea of co-pastorate.

“In the Presbyterian church, we’re not supposed to have contact with the former pastor once he leaves, so it can hurt a congregation to see that happen. When the pastor left at the church that I grew up going to in Detroit, it was not good,” she said. “Paul has a wonderful family who come to church with him and you see what a great man he is in his family. It’s been a smooth transition.”

People and experience help aid big transition

Thwaite, who has visited 50 states and enjoys riding his bicycle to church in the summer, was quick to credit the success of his first year to his wife, children, and fellow pastors.

“My wife is a Pittsburgh gal, and my daughters were both in school, so it was a challenging task, but my wife has been game and my daughters are feeling comfortable now in the Walled Lake School District,” he said. “I learned a lot from David as well as our associate pastor Marjorie Wilson, who departed the church recently as well.”

Thwaite said that he also appreciates what the congregation, which totals 950 members, has done to help his family ease in to life in Oakland County.

"They're a delight," said Liz Keppel. "His wife has become my walking partner. I see love exuding from all of them; it's something we need more of."

“Every day, the congregation has been helpful in offering advice and just being patient with the new guy," Thwaite said. "People have grown to love my wife, and that also makes things more comfortable.

“If you look at history, Pittsburgh and Detroit have parallel histories with regard to economic struggles, so that makes things easier. Detroit is flatter, but we love being able to look out to Orchard Lake from the church.”

Thwaite added that he is especially looking forward to a mission trip in April to Mississippi to work with his congregation in meeting a new community.

“Pastors come and go, but the strength of the church is in its congregation, and this is a great place to live and work because of that,” he said.


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