As the Rev. Craig Wagner reflects on the past two decades, he'll always remember the 4 a.m. phone call he received alerting him to a fire at Christ Lutheran Church in Palatine.
Investigators quickly determined the March 2005 blaze had multiple points of origin -- the altar, near the sanctuary and a Bible on the pulpit -- and ruled it arson.
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Wagner said it was a low point for his dejected congregation, one that could have permanently broken its spirit. Services had to be held outside for months.
But people instead began to see the disaster as an opportunity.
"God works in wonderful and mysterious ways, and it was a way for Him to guide us into the future," Wagner said.
"In that kind of situation of adversity, people really pulled together."
Those people, Wagner said, are what he'll miss most once he steps down as senior pastor later this month.
He'll preside over his final Sunday service Aug. 26.
Wagner, who said he's reached retirement age, was born in Chicago and raised in Mount Prospect. His work has taken him to communities throughout Illinois including Warren, Somonauk and Pontiac.
Twenty years ago, Wagner came to Christ Lutheran Church, located at 41 S. Rohlwing Road, and now lives in an Arlington Heights apartment a block from where he grew up.
To be near their grandchildren, Wagner and his wife, Lorna, will move to the same Texas town that's home to Texas Lutheran University, where they met nearly 45 years ago.
"It's joyful but also sorrowful, because I'm leaving people who are my friends," Wagner said.
"A building I can leave no problem, but I've walked with people through a lot of life's journeys."
The church, which was established in 1953, has yet to select a new resident pastor.
Wagner said that once he leaves, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will provide preachers until the decision is made.
One of the highest points of Wagner's ministry came during the last holiday season, when an anonymous donor gave $50 to all 120-plus families with the caveat it be used to help someone in need.
Some found charities where their money could be matched. Others helped to buy Christmas gifts for children of an out-of-work parent.
"It touched a lot of people in so many ways," Wagner said. "It's inspiring to see the way people have stepped up over the past 20 years."