Thank You, Pastor Paul (continued)
“The blessing and strength anchor us and at the same time give us wings.”
The soaring poetic words come through when Pastor Paul shares his beliefs about worship and worship planning as part of a morning’s conversation regarding his looming retirement. He had expected to measure his time in leadership at our church in months. It has stretched to seven years.
Pentecost Sunday, June 5, will be his last as Director of Worship.
“It’s kind of funny because I retired 11 years ago. I was 66 and I had served for 40 years and I thought that’s a good time to retire,” notes Pastor Paul, whose long tenure as pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and School in Novato, California, was noteworthy enough to bring forth a commendation from the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
He and his wife, retired teacher Jean Gravrock, “loved it in Novato, but we thought, ‘Oh, it’s not fair for whoever comes next to be hanging around.’ And we had our daughters down here so we came down and have loved it ever since,” he says, referring to Sara Wallace and Kari Keit.
Four years of retirement came to an end when Pastor Paul took on the role of interim senior pastor at Ascension for 20 months, after Pastor Larry Wagner’s retirement in 2015 and before Pastor Tim Delkeskamp’s installation.
“I had a couple of other occasions where I was asked if I would consider an interim position and turned them down. I just kind of enjoyed being retired, being free to travel and do things,” recalls Pastor Paul, whose father, Walter, was Ascension’s first pastor back in 1948. “Then when Pastor Larry retired and they asked me, I thought, ‘Well, this is the one place I’d like to do it.’ It’s kind of a full circle piece in that my dad was the founding pastor of the congregation.”
With his snow-white hair, matinee-idol blue eyes and resonant voice, Pastor Paul projects a stately image. So his humor can sneak up on you. He notes that he was actually born before his predecessor. “It’s like I said to Larry, it was kind of ‘Out with the old, in with the older.’”
Pastor Paul continued on at Pastor Tim’s request, taking over worship planning as Howard Sonstegard scaled back his job, and then retired in 2018.
Pastor Paul considered re-retiring after a couple of years. “Then the pandemic came, and I thought, ‘Oh, man. This is no time to bail. We’re going to have to invent a new way of worship.’”
And that is what he and the pastors, and worship leaders and Lan Merrill and the tech team did. Overnight.
“The 15th of March in 2020 was the first Sunday we were not here in person. Leading up to that we’d had a Lenten service, and then we were talking about, in our planning meeting, ‘What shouldn’t we be doing to avoid this outbreak?’ ‘Well, we shouldn’t be passing a plate.’ ‘We shouldn’t have communion.’ No passing of the peace. No touch kind of things. Masks. Hand sanitizer.
“We kind of decided on Tuesday morning we’d have worship Sunday. But then Thursday it was like, ‘Whoops! It’s not safe to be here at all.’”
They went from thinking Covid would be “our Lenten journey this year” to realizing that the pandemic showed no sign of stopping. Pastor Paul and the worship team planned and prepared 15 hymns to be recorded at once. He recalls thinking, “’This will get us through the next month and a half.’ Then we did it again. Then we had round after round, as it became clear we had to go longer. The group would get together at 5:30 and at 6 PM record the hymns.” Then organist Margaret Ricci “would stay and record preludes and postludes, and that would go on until midnight.”
More adaptations had to be made as the Covid lockdown finally eased and congregants began to return, ever so slowly, to worship in person in the sanctuary. Hybrid in-person and online worship services became the order of the day.
It was all so much more complicated than the seamless production made it appear. “It was a learning process,” says Pastor Paul now. “I’m very proud of the job we did.”
Oh yes, and while Pastor Paul was busy helping Ascension find its way through the pandemic, he also wrote a book.
The idea began at his church in Novato, when he would explain some of the age-old stories to church members. The story explaining time became so popular that people began suggesting to him that he put his explanations into writing. So he thought of penning a collection of brief stories, each followed by study questions.
He had the working title for his book, “Wonder Anew,” the introduction and table of contents. It was Jean who suggested resuming the project when everyone was in lockdown.
It’s currently at a publishing house and Pastor Paul is awaiting word. “Hopefully that will happen,” he says.
He’d also like to get his hymns out to a wider audience. He’ll be talking about those hymns at this week’s adult ed. class at 10:10 AM in Founders Hall.
Next up: family time with his son Erik, a pastor in Washington state, and his family, and another trip, to Atlanta, in September for a family wedding. Perhaps the European trip he and Jean had to cancel due to Covid can be rescheduled. And Pastor Paul looks forward to more writing of hymns and poetic pieces.
He will continue to be a member here and enrich our services with that wonderful cantor’s voice of his, and enjoy seeing the next generations of Gravrocks in their respective roles.
His daughters are pillars of Ascension, each in her own right. Kari has served as Cherub Choir director alongside Jean, among many other contributions. And Sara, for those who aren’t aware, is Ascension’s Life Groups Coordinator, School Communications Coordinator and active leader in our school parent group, PALs. With their families, they represent the third and fourth generations of Gravrock leadership at Ascension.
Among the many noteworthy elements Pastor Paul has brought to Ascension worship is our rich Taize services, with their timeless chants and silences. He loves nighttime services, particularly Christmas Eve and Good Friday night. “In darkness there is also awe. Something about it makes you catch your breath,” he says. And the passion comes forth again.
“I obviously hope,” says Pastor Paul, “that whoever takes this over has the love for worship that I do.”
Thanks for blessing us with all that talent and love, Pastor Paul.