BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Growing up in Royal Oak, Mich., Rev. Matthew Lash was greatly influenced by the pastors who served in his church.
“I had pastors who cared about me, listened to me and let me preach. Those pastors shaped the call I had as a pastor, so I reach out to teens and hope that maybe they’ll reach out to serve,” said Rev. Lash, who is retiring from Community of Christ Lutheran Church on December 27 after nine years in Whitehouse and 38 in full-time ministry.
As his parishioners plan a farewell parade from the parking lot on Sunday, December 20 at 10:15 a.m., there’s no doubt that several of the youths he’s influenced will also be there – including those who are now in college or married with their own children.
Alex Swagler, a sophomore at Bowling Green State University, credits Lash for changing the dynamic of the youth group by taking middle and high school students each year to the BigStuf youth conference.
“He was a chaperone every year and I was able to open up to him and really get through some of my life’s biggest challenges so far,” Alex said. “Over these past years, Pastor Matt and I have gotten very close and I don’t know where I would be without him as far as my faith with God.”
His brother, Josh, a senior at Anthony Wayne High School, agrees.
“He has brought all ages – from high school to the pre-K kids – together, whether it was going on a church retreat or at Sunday school,” Josh said. “He has definitely changed my life in a positive way from the great sermons he taught us to all the smiles he has brought to our faces. He has given us a much more positive outlook on life, and I know he will be greatly missed.”
Haley Reid, an AWHS junior, said she was young when Pastor Matt came on board, but she remembers him sitting on the floor and looking at the little kids and talking to them about God.
“He would never read off a script. He just spoke from the heart. It’s pretty amazing that he could make us feel like we were the only people on the face of the Earth during this time, completely surrounded by his love for us and his love for the faith,” Haley said. As she grew up, Haley realized that these children’s sermons were just as much for the adults as for the children – making them feel like children of God as well.
Teen gatherings, including pizza and silly games, scavenger hunts around Toledo, trips to McDonald’s, Walleye games and service projects, fostered camaraderie.
“I will always cherish the friends I have made through these experiences,” she said.
When he was still in seminary in 1978, Lash started a youth group and hosted retreats that formed a lot of great memories, he said. Over the years he’s seen the youths he’s baptized, confirmed and married bring in their own children to be baptized.
“To walk through that whole life journey is extremely satisfying,” he said.
His journey as a pastor started not far away from his hometown of Royal Oak and included parishes in Gibsonburg, Bloomfield Hills and Clauson, Mich. Then, a friend in Georgia invited Lash and his wife Marsha to come serve in a church there.
It was an eight-year reprieve from the cold, he recounted, but as his parents were dealing with health issues, he began to look for a calling in Ohio. In 2012, he accepted the call to Community of Christ.
“During that time, I had a lot of opportunity to spend special time with my parents,” he said, noting that his father passed in 2017 and his mom earlier this year.
One of the challenges the Lashes faced was trying to sell their Georgia home during the recession. While Marsha remained in Georgia, he stayed in the home of Bea and Paul Ludwig, then a basement apartment of Barb Thober – all at no cost – for the two years it took to sell the home.
“It was a tough time, but the congregation surrounded me with a lot of support and made me part of their family,” he said.
Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the church is something that Lash and other pastors have never faced.
“It challenges your faith and it also deepens your faith,” Lash said. “There are times of doubts and then moments when God draws near.”
During this time, he’s worked more closely with area pastors, including Rev. Carol Williams-Young of Zion United Methodist Church and Rev. Warren Clifton of Hope United Methodist Church.
“We have to think outside the box and do what we can to share the word and prayer,” he said.
Since March, the church has been meeting virtually, and that’s been the most difficult time in his ministry, Lash said. Giving up the physical community doesn’t mean giving up the spiritual community, and he’s seen people reach out to one another and support each other.
“I think people are watching out for one another a little more,” he said. “Maybe this will draw us closer when this is over.”
While Lash is retiring on December 27, he said he will look for opportunities to serve as an interim pastor in his new home in Lexington, S.C., where he and Marsha will be closer to their children and grandchildren.
“I will not miss the snow,” he laughed.
As for Community of Christ, the church will have guest pastors until January 31, when Rev. Marcus Lohrman, retired bishop for the Northwest Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is installed as interim pastor.
“He will serve for several months, and later in the year a new pastor will be called to serve,” said church council president Max Kohr.
Supporters are welcome to join the parade on Sunday, December 20 at 10:15 a.m. Cars will line up in the parking lot near Dutch Road, wind through the parking lot and head south on Finzel Road and through the roundabout, back to the church. Bring posters and pompoms if standing along the road.