Pastor of Elgin's oldest church to retire, take up writing
In 1991, the Rev. Paris Donehoo resigned from the church denomination he grew up in -- and had been pastoring churches in -- because, he says, it had been taken over by fundamentalists who had no room for people with a more liberal vision of Christianity.
But the atmosphere will be a lot more amicable on Sunday, June 3, when Donehoo retires after 16 years as pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Elgin. Here a bench outside the front door is painted like a rainbow -- the symbol of the LGBTQ movement -- and includes a sign stating that "All Are Welcome Here."
The 65-year-old plans to spend his remaining years spending time with family and writing books, beginning with one looking at how polarized America has become and what we can do to get back to an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance.
"I'm a transplanted Georgian and proud of it, and I was born and raised a Southern Baptist," the easygoing Donehoo said in his Peachtree State drawl. Feeling called to a career as a shepherd of fellow Christians, he earned a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas and a doctorate from Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia. He was hired to pastor Southern Baptist churches in his home state.
But then "a fundamentalist faction took over the denomination and I began to feel unwelcome in the very church that had taught me to appreciate the faith of others," Donehoo said.
The distressed young pastor found out about a church in Park Ridge, Illinois -- part of the more liberal United Church of Christ -- that was looking for a fill-in pastor. He got the job and stayed there nine years. That was followed by a stretch as a hospital chaplain. And in 2002 he was chosen to replace retiring longtime pastor Don Schmidt as the minister at First Congregational of Elgin.
First Congregational's lay leaders have named the Rev. Dr. Michael Montgomery to fill in as an interim pastor beginning July 1. Donehoo said Montgomery will "lead the church through a period of reflection and discernment about what the church needs to be and what our ministry should be." Then they will begin interviewing applicants to become a new permanent pastor, who Donehoo said likely won't be hired for another year or so.
Donehoo and his wife, Penny, expect to move away from their Elgin home to some more eastern Chicago suburb so they can be closer to their four grown children and six grandkids.
But Elgin's oldest church isn't going anywhere, Donehoo said.
Ever since it was founded in the cabin of city founder James Gifford in 1836, the congregation has been based near Elgin's center. Seven of the 15 churches and synagogues based in that neighborhood in 1950 -- most recently St. Paul's United Church of Christ, a member of the same denomination as First Congregational -- have moved to outlying areas where the parking spaces are wide open and there is more land to spread out a modern-style building.
Even at First Congregational weekly worship attendance had declined, from 300 in 1985 to about 130 now. But Donehoo said the congregation's members remain committed to staying downtown.
"Our mission is right here. Just look around," Donehoo said. With many homeless and low-income people living nearby, for example, the congregation has long housed the All People's Interfaith Food Pantry and one night a week of the revolving Elgin Soup Kettle.
Last fall, one First Congregational mission attracted attention all over town. Members distributed yard signs reading "Live. Love. Stop Hate." Many of those signs still are visible in front yards around the Elgin area.
Whether or not they move, the Donehoos will stop attending the Elgin church, he said.
"The last thing I want to hear is 'that's not the way Pastor Paris did it.' The church is bigger than the pastor. Always."