‘Pivotal Pastor,’ the transformation of a local parish

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, November 30, 2022

David Kennebeck had a front-row seat to the transformation of St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish during the first six years of the pastorate of Father Ron Lewinski.

When Lewinski arrived in 1996, the parish was housed in a small, country church and was known as St. Mary-Fremont Center. Only a year or two earlier, one parishioner had said they didn’t want the historically German parish to become “more modern, or any more American, than it was” said Kennebeck, who served the parish in a variety of ministries including as chair of the parish pastoral council.

By 2002, the parish had more than tripled the size of its campus, had a new church designed by well-known architect Dirk Lohan, and had increased the number of parishioners and the ministries they participated in.

Lewinski led the parish until 2014, while also working with or directing several other projects. When he died in 2017, he was co-director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Department of Parish Vitality and Mission.

After Lewinski’s death, Kennebeck decided to tell the story of how Lewinski changed St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish. His book, “The Pivotal Pastor: Ronald J. Lewinski, Mission and St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish,” was released in November.

He spoke by phone with Chicago Catholic staff writer Michelle Martin Nov. 11. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What is this book about? Is it a book about church? About leadership?

A. It’s a story about our experience, so it is a human interest story. I didn’t write it with the intent of trying to identify certain arguments or points of view hoping at the end that the reader would understand some “position.” I didn’t really take a position in the story — I simply related what happened.

It’s a story that people can read and hopefully apply in some way to their context. If they built a church, they could compare what they are reading in my story to their experience and see what value that adds; if they’re going to build a church, maybe the story has some value in terms of what could be done and what shouldn’t be done. It wasn’t a perfectly ideal experience and there were several lessons learned from it.

The book was initially begun as a way to document what had happened. The parish already has a couple of books about its history, but I felt those six years were unique enough to warrant a more detailed story for current and future parishioners.

Then I realized that it also contained lessons of leadership and spirituality, teamwork, and communication, that maybe other people could benefit from.

Q. You said there were lessons learned. What were they?

A. There needs to be good communication. That was a point that Father Ron identified very early in his pastorate. Without communication, in all directions, there’s a void, and when there’s a void, there can be misunderstandings. People are left to their own devices about what to think about what’s happening. If what’s happening isn’t being communicated, and repeatedly communicated and clarified, then people will begin to form rumors, and those rumors can become very inaccurate.

The other important thing is a process of discernment. Father Ron’s approach was to enlist as many people as possible in the effort, including children. That was because he knew the more people who participated, the greater the support would be, but also, he wanted to hear the voices of everybody, including the people who didn’t agree with him. He wanted to hear those voices because they have value. If everybody is saying, “Oh, yeah, that’s great, let’s do this,” then you lose the benefit of hearing the diversity of what people have to say.

Those diverse opinions can be valuable, because they bring forth different ideas, but also because they cause the other people, who are thinking alike, to rethink their position or to work harder to make a success out of what’s happening. The diversity [of opinion] and the disagreement are actually positive in many ways.

Q. What other strengths did Father Ron have as a pastor?

A. His strengths arose from his sense of mission. In Father Ron’s case, that was about active participation in the liturgy, which is what Cardinal Cupich has been writing about recently; the formation and support of ministries; and understanding Scripture. He did everything he could, I think, to improve each of those behaviors at St. Mary’s.

One of the first things he did was to hire a director of music and liturgy, and then he hired a director of religious education. One of the most powerful things he did was hire a pastoral associate, [Franciscan] Sister Gael Gensler. She became the powerhouse behind getting parishioners involved developing ministries. Those were smart things Father Ron did: surrounding himself with people who were qualified and very capable.

When he first came to the parish, the number of ministries — depending on how you define a ministry — could be counted on one hand, and by the end of the project, we had at least a couple of dozen, and now I think there are 40 or 50 ministries. He and Sister Gael were instrumental in causing that to happen.

Q. It seems like Father Ron developed lasting friendships with you and many other parishioners. How did he do that?

A. Father Ron was really an introvert, and I think that makes what he did more interesting. From the beginning, when he first came to the parish, he wanted to get to know people, so he had neighborhood visits at different parishioners’ houses for the first couple of years. When I speak to parishioners about him now, it seems that most of them considered Father Ron as a part of their family, more than just a friend.

I don’t know how he found time to do it all, but he spent time with people away from the office. That caused the friendship to occur.

Some people said he was guarded, and he was, to a point, but I think if you were open with him, he reflected that, and friendship could develop.

One fault that he had was extreme humility. He wouldn’t toot his horn about things, which is fine, but there are times when he would accomplish things and he could have made a better case for himself and argued that it deserved more attention.

Q. Who is this book for?

A. To me, the story is a story about someone who came in, took the leadership role, empowered people to do what needed to be done, and gave them a vision that he could lead them towards. That’s a situation that applies to a lot of different environments.

Q. Is it a story of hope?

A. Absolutely. One of the things I’d like people to remember is a phrase [from Luke] we used as a slogan during the project: “With God, nothing is impossible.” If you had come to St. Mary’s in 1995 and said that in six or seven years, you’ll have a new church four times bigger, you’ll have a world-famous architect help design it, you’ll have a campus that’s 33 acres instead of 10, you’ll have double the number of households, and ministries will quadruple — that would have been crazy talk before Father Ron got there.

As we went through the project, it was what we thought needed to be done, but when you’re in the midst of it, you don’t realize you’re making history.

“The Pivotal Pastor” is available at Chicago Catholic readers can use coupon code CCP221121 for a discount.



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