The Coast News Group
Pastor Jim Rauch is leaving his post as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, at 1500 S. Juniper St., near 15th and Idaho avenues in Escondido. Photo by Julie Gallant

Congregation says farewell to longtime pastor

ESCONDIDO — Like reaching the end of a treasured family photo album, the time has arrived for Jim Rauch’s reflective closure as he ends 21 years of pastoral service at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Escondido.

He said his tearful goodbyes at his last worship service held on Aug. 13 at the sanctuary he helped install through fundraising more than a decade ago.

Rauch, 57, says he’s long surpassed the average length of a pastor’s term, which is generally about seven or eight years, and after talking with his pastoral peer group, family members and other in his inner circle he felt he was getting a clear message from God that he should be investing more time in his family for a season.

“There was a sense in which I did feel God letting me know that work at this church was coming to a conclusion,” said Rauch, who earned a Master of Divinity from the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey in 1986. “Beyond the supernatural elements, I feel I need time to invest in my extended family.”

His decision was partly spurred by the death of his father-in-law, Jim Costanza, in late 2015 due to cancer, followed by the passing of his mother, Barbara Rauch, in April 2017 due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. He says he wants to be more available to the surviving spouses as well as to his medically fragile granddaughter, Nora Van Leeuwen. Three-year-old Nora has Aicardi Syndrome, which causes frequent seizures and developmental delays. She is fed through a G-tube and is often hospitalized due to respiratory distress from common colds.

Serving a congregation that has fluctuated between 200 and 300 members at any given time since his tenure at Westminster Presbyterian began in 1996, Pastor Rauch has attended to much more than Sunday sermons, weddings, Baptisms and memorials.

Day-to-day he has overseen a staff that has grown from a secretary, an organist, a choir director, a half-time youth director and a nighttime custodian, to a staff of between 10 and 15 part-time and full-time workers.

He also walked with families through times of crisis such as when some of his flock were affected by the Paradise fire that struck locally in 2003. In addition to providing eating and sleeping quarters at the church for those evacuated from their homes, Rauch performed funeral services at the church and at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido for fire victim Ashleigh Roach. Later, Pastor Rauch would officiate the wedding of the Roach’s other daughter, Allyson, who survived being burned over 80 percent of her body and is now a mom to two children.

“You can see how a church is part of a community and that’s a really good thing,” Rauch says. “We were part of rebuilding lives through love, prayer and compassion.”

Regular outings to Mexico were also on Rauch’s agenda as the church partnered with homebuilding organization Youth With A Mission to build one or two homes in Tijuana and Ensenada each year. A crew of about 25 church members will be returning this October. Other church programs conducted under Rauch’s guidance included sending at least five church members on missions to bring compassion, services and supplies to other countries every year, and gathering volunteers to serve meals once a month at the Escondido-based Interfaith Community Services’ homeless shelter called Haven House.

The church also supports dance ministry in the Westminster Presbyterian sanctuary that has the flexibility to be used for art, music, drama and dance. Rauch says the church has been building a relationship with the privately run Amazing Grace School of Performing Arts led by director Becky Dean.

“The dance ministry helps girls feel at home in their bodies and glorifies God with movement and music,” said Rauch, adding that dance and music recitals are held in the sanctuary for kids in the community, not just kids in the church. “We want to show people by example that we want to invest in people’s lives and well-being.”

Judy Tillyer has seen the church and its activities grow while attending Westminster Presbyterian since arriving in Escondido in 1968. Among other things, the church is active in providing backpacks with supplies to school children, giving financial aid and donations to Presbyterian Mission Church in San Diego and fundraising for Alternatives Women’s Center in Escondido, which offers counseling and other aid to pregnant women to avoid abortions.

Tillyer said some of Rauch’s strengths include utilizing lay people and encouraging church members to take leadership roles. For example, she said he lets others take the helm as elected members of “The Session,” a group of 15 elders who meet monthly to handle the church’s major issues such as budget maintenance.

Above all, she said Rauch is a compassionate person. He cares deeply about his flock and is always responsive to people not only in emergency situations but also to those who are in poor health or experiencing stressful situations such as a divorce.

“That’s his strongest area of pastoring in terms of leadership,” said Tillyer, who said he blends humor, personal anecdotes and scholarly preaching in his sermons. “He’s a man who doesn’t forget your name.”

The Rev. Dr. Jeff McCrory is the transitional pastor who is taking Rauch’s place during the next one to two years while the Westminster Presbyterian Church forms a pastor search committee and looks for a permanent replacement. The Westminster congregation will vote on the committee’s selection, then the Presbytery of San Diego Committee on Ministry will vote before the Presbytery of San Diego gives final approval before installing a new pastor.

Linda Therien, stated clerk of the Presbytery of San Diego which helps to oversee the work of the local congregations, said the national search for Rauch’s replacement begins with a mission study that considers such things as the demographics of the neighborhood and the financial health of the church. At the end, the pastor, the congregation and the Presbytery of San Diego must all be in agreement on the selection.

“Because our search process is so thorough, I’ve never experienced a call falling apart at the end but it is conceivable that it could happen,” Therien said. “Hopefully, during our process there is discernment such that when we’re at the finish line the parties are all in agreement.”

Now that Rauch has left his call at Westminster, he says other than filling in for absent pastors occasionally or possibly securing a temporary position with another church in the region, he may be involved in planting a new church in North County, probably in Escondido or Rancho Bernardo. Rauch said if church members follow through with the planting, they will try to focus on attracting younger Millennials as a way of growing the influence of God in people’s lives.

In reflecting on the work he’s done during the past two decades, Rauch is reminded of a passage from one of his favorite books, John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden:”

“A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?”