By Chris Moon
Antioch Christian Church in Marion, Iowa, has spent the past month doing what few churches ever have had to do—grieve the sudden death of its longtime pastor.
John Seitz Sr. had served at Antioch for nearly two decades when he began to suffer from poor health following an overseas trip in January 2018. Seitz had been battling an infection, and doctors were looking for a cause.
The pastor had not preached a lot this year after his church elders granted him an extended break to rest and heal. But his health continued to deteriorate.
He passed away June 20. He was just 51.
Seitz left behind his wife, Gail, and four children.
“The death was very sudden and unexpected,” Antioch elder Joel Grandon told Christian Standard in a recent interview.
So how does a church with an average attendance of nearly 2,000 cope with the loss of its head shepherd? The leadership at Antioch has simply tried to follow the Bible.
“It’s new for us. None of us has ever been through this,” Grandon said.
Grandon noted that Jesus, as he hung on the cross, expressed specific concern for his mother—his closest relative. And, so, church leaders gathered around Seitz’s family to care for their needs in the moments immediately following the pastor’s death.
The greater church began to come into focus a short time later. Within about six hours of Seitz’s death—and with the permission of the pastor’s family—the church leadership began to communicate the news to the congregation.
“If you don’t, the rumor mill goes crazy,” Grandon said.
The following day, the church opened the doors to its building for a two-hour evening prayer vigil. People gathered to pray and to comfort one another. There was no agenda other than those two things.
“We didn’t know what it needed to look like,” Grandon said of the vigil. “But we knew we needed to give people a chance” to gather and mourn and pray.
The church spent that first week focusing primarily on ministering to Seitz’s family. Since then, the church has maintained a very open stream of communication with the congregation and sought to minister to the needs of members as they’ve arisen.
The church continues to talk about Seitz’s passing during its weekend services, which include a Saturday evening service and three Sunday morning gatherings.
The church averages 1,800 to 1,900 each weekend, but Grandon said many more than that claim Antioch Christian Church as their church home. The weekly repetition in communication is aimed at making sure the full church is aware of the loss and the steps leadership is taking to move forward.
“It’s difficult to work through this in a group that size,” Grandon said.
He said the elders and the church’s executive pastor have been careful to regularly check in with the staff of the church to see how they are doing.
“We have a very close staff,” Grandon said. “I would truly say that everyone on our staff feels they are a family and not just co-workers.”
It just so happened that most of the church’s staff found themselves together at a previously scheduled church camp within a month of Seitz’s death.
“We continue to minister to them,” Grandon said.
Lincoln Christian University provided much of the pulpit supply during Seitz’s illness and has continued to do so since. The elders have not yet started serious discussions about a search for Seitz’s successor.
As of mid-July, the church’s homepage still announces news of Seitz’s death. The staff page still features the pastor’s photo, alongside his bio button that now reads, “Entered Rest 2019.”
“It’s a huge hole,” Grandon said. “But God is good, and we find new mercies every day.”
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.