'I want to go out on top'

This Sunday Dr. John Roark will preach his last sermon as the full-time pastor of Buford Presbyterian Church. After more than 44 years in the ministry, Roark is retiring.

Roark, who will be 70 years old in five weeks, will stay busy but is looking forward to a more relaxed pace. He's no different from many people his age in that regard, although his occupation is.

Being a minister is a calling for sure, but it's also a job, one with long hours and the obligations and pressures that go with them. That is why Roark is looking forward to some respite, but sad about leaving as well.

"On one hand you never retire," he said. "It is a job, but it is more than a job. So, I'll always be on call.

"I'm going to miss it - miss it terribly. I will miss having people I call 'my people.' I've been with people through thick and thin. Sometimes it is horrendous; sometimes it's no fun at all. Still, it's a great privilege that people would let you into their lives."

Those statements might explain why Roark's last sermon is entitled "On Being Lucky." He's served at five churches, saying the last is the best. But Buford Presbyterian is much different than when Roark arrived a little more than 19 years ago.

He had gone through several eye surgeries (both retinas were detached) and thought he needed to be at a smaller church. So he moved from Eastminster in Stone Mountain to Buford, which had less than 70 members when he took over.

"I really needed to be in a smaller place. I told people I was going (to Buford) to grow old, retire and sit and rock," Roark said. "I got older and I'm retiring, but I never did much rocking."

The congregation has grown to more than 500, a large number of those who turned out for a recent retirement dinner in Roark's honor at the 1818 Club.

"He was so happy," said Tom Grimaldi, a Dacula resident whose family has belonged to the church for 11 years. "He's been very touched.

"It's very difficult for us having him retire. He's a pastor, but he's also like a father to us. He's just a good guy and a great pastor. He's loved by the congregation."

Roark said the celebrations have created a prolonged goodbye, but Grimaldi said it's been a good thing, allowing church members to ease into the pastor's retirement. But Grimaldi, like the rest, knows they'll still see Roark around, maybe even sometimes playing the organ.

The pastor is a church organist by training. He attended the University of Georgia before going to seminary school in Belgium, where he earned a pair of degrees, including his doctorate. There he also honed his skills as an organist.

Grimaldi said Roark always enjoyed his chances to fill in when the regular organist couldn't play. A very accomplished player, Roark hopes to substitute at various churches.

There is no substitute for Roark, church members say. He will miss them as well, but feels this is the right time to leave.

He and Peggy, his wife of 46 years, will enjoy a trip to New England in October and plan to spend time at their mountain home in the Carolinas. It will be a time to relax and reflect, and to be content that he retired on his own terms.

"I want to go out on top of my game instead of people saying: 'When is that old guy going to leave?'" Roark said.

The pastor doesn't have to worry about that. As the congregation has told him and will tell him again this weekend, the privilege has been theirs.

E-mail Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Tuesdays.