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Pastor retiring to fight breast cancer: Craig's inclusive style lauded by church members, other pastors

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Breast cancer is unusual in a man, as it has occurred in Rob Craig, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Columbus. Also unusual is that it's the third type of cancer that has visited Craig in his 66 years. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)
Breast cancer is unusual in a man, as it has occurred in Rob Craig, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Columbus. Also unusual is that it's the third type of cancer that has visited Craig in his 66 years. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)

The gifts already are arriving to the Rev. Rob Craig’s office at Columbus’ First Presbyterian Church.

A handmade, rosewood cross, recently given by a church member, rests near his desk. So does a copy of the book, “Suffering and the Courage of God,” presented by the Rev. Peggy Casteel, associate pastor at the church.

“But the people are what have been God’s gift to me,” said Craig, 66, who deliver his final sermon Sunday as he prepares for a year-end retirement.

The farewell items are examples of members’ outreach as their pastor steps down to battle a form of breast cancer diagnosed this summer. In Sunday’s sermon, he will talk partly about his tenure at First Presbyterian and his recent health journey.

He acknowledged that emotion will accompany him to the pulpit.

“I don’t get teary very often,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if I do.”

He spoke in relaxed tones Thursday, including the internal conflict of both wanting to fight back tears while also perhaps wanting to let them flow Sunday.

There will be a farewell reception at the church Dec. 2, after which his time in the office will be sporadic and minimal as he undergoes chemotherapy.

“The people here have been a gift to me,” said Craig, who has been pastor at First Presbyterian since 2007.

This marks his third fight with cancer after successful battles against late-stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1979 and prostate cancer in 2004. He first publicly discussed his latest illness in a note in the church newsletter and in a Republic story in October.

Sherry Stark, a First Presbyterian elder and also chairwoman of the personnel committee, cried when Craig broke the news to her in a meeting.

“I dearly love him,” she said. “He has helped us grow and strengthen. And he has taught us all to be more effective in group decision making.”

For example, when Craig planned to preach a sermon on creationism and discovered that church member John Seltzer had done an extensive study on the topic, he quickly invited Seltzer to lead a Sunday school class on the topic.

“He always has been very careful not to dictate to any of us that his view is the right view,” Stark said.

But Stark said Craig possesses a glaring weakness: relaying horrible puns.

“And then he’ll just laugh and laugh,” she said.

Stark said that although the process has begun to find an interim pastor by early next year, a permanent replacement could take two years.

Part of Craig’s impact here has been his two-year-old, informal Different Ministers group meeting every other month with clergy from Presbyterian, Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal, independent and other denominations. The simple idea: to broaden one another’s view.

The Rev. Lanny Lawler, senior minister at Columbus’ North Christian Church, is a member of the group and an admirer of the way Craig has reached out to other congregations. First Presbyterian and Lawler’s congregation have shared Ash Wednesday services, for example.

“He certainly has a strong, ecumenical spirit,” Lawler said.

The Rev. Anne Marshall, another member of the ministers’ group and pastor at Columbus’ Fairlawn Presbyterian Church, sees Craig as a man with no pretense.

“What you see is what you get,” Marshall said, adding that he offered her encouragement when she arrived here in 2010 just two years out of seminary. “He’s very honest, yet very approachable.”

In his office, his small desk is wedged into a corner out of the way. He always meets with visitors at a modest-sized table, which he sees as a spiritual symbol of where people could break bread together.

“I’ve purposely never had a big desk to hide behind,” he said.

He acknowledged that he remains nervous about his cancer treatment that could stretch eight months in Indianapolis.

“But perhaps the bigger fear is no longer being needed,” he said.

Craig is fairly certain he will preach occasionally in retirement somewhere.

“I could pull out my six favorite messages and just keeping using those (at different churches),” he said facetiously.

However, he and wife Sharon have made no firm plans beyond late next year, when his medical journey is expected to end. They are considering a move, possibly to somewhere such as New Mexico, where they lived before coming to Columbus.

He smiled when he considered that he could have stayed at the Ghost Ranch retreat center in Abiquiu, N.M., where he served as executive director. Yet, he clearly knows he made the right call to come to Indiana five years ago.

“This,” he said, “is a whole lot nicer way to end up, surrounded by people than sitting alone on a ranch that gets pretty lonely in the winter.”

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