Influential Crossroads Church pastor hands the reins to young successor

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Church leadership transitions are famous for being less than perfectly spiritual. Egos get inflated, history and tradition get invoked, and some people's deep sense of belonging gets bruised.

Nothing of the kind appears to be happening at Crossroads Community Church, where "classic" Rev. Bill Ritchie, a button-down guy who always wears a tie when he preaches, is making way for "alt" Rev. Daniel Fusco, a bass-plucking jazz cat who sports dreadlocks and a disarming smile. Despite the change, Ritchie said the church has grown 15 percent over the past year.

"That is not the norm. Usually it does not go well. There is change but there's no transition," said Ritchie. "Some new guy parachutes in and the old guy is gone and everybody's wondering: 'What happened?'"

To prevent that disruption, Ritchie, who founded Crossroads in 1975 and watched it grow into one of Clark County's true megachurches, planned on a transition nearly two years long. That was supposed to last through this summer, he said — but the congregation has accepted Fusco so enthusiastically that Ritchie has decided to make Sunday, April 7, his last as senior pastor at Crossroads.

"We decided to make it the Sunday after Easter," Fusco said. "We think that's just perfect." Both Sunday morning services, at 9 a.m. and 11:15 a.m., will include a symbolic "commissioning" of the younger pastor by the older, and a 1 p.m. reception will follow. The church is at 7708 N.E. 78th St.

"People say, 'Isn't it overwhelming, aren't you feeling great sadness?' I have to say no," said Ritchie. "I am really excited. I think everybody feels excited because everybody feels included."

Both men are pursuing projects that aim to energize churchgoers of different generations. Ritchie, 69, is laying the groundwork for something called Nxt STP, a ministry for retiring baby boomers who are grappling with what comes next in life — and expecting a whole lot more than naps and TV reruns; Fusco, 38, is convening regular volunteer outings and even squeaky-clean dance parties where young Christians can get out their ya-yas while staying on the right side of the Gospels.

"We are seeing this church get mobilized for the next season of life," said Fusco.

Next step: Nxt STP

Ritchie founded Crossroads reluctantly -- he didn't want to do it, he said, but God convinced him — and watched it grow from a congregation of 350 housed at Columbia River High School to one that includes approximately 4,500 people and a campus with a K-8 elementary school, Cornerstone Christian.

"Across the years we have put down footprints everywhere," said Ritchie, ticking off a list of local institutions and programs — from Open House Ministries, the Christian homeless shelter, to the physical and brain-injury rehabilitation unit at what's now PeaceHealth hospital — that "Crossroads people" helped create or guide. "We're just everywhere," he said.

"Probably half the pastors in the county came through this church," said Fusco. "All these people that Bill and Betty (Ritchie's wife) had such a great impact on — it's really incredible."

All indications are Ritchie will continue to have an impact. His Nxt STP (that's text-speak) ministry aims to enrich the lives of retirees with the sorts of opportunities your local community center strives to provide: classes offering important skills such as financial management; support groups for Vietnam veterans; meaningful volunteer work in local schools; and even contra dance outings, which, Ritchie said, help older people build new neuropathways in their brains.

A quiet, sedentary retirement "is not how the people I hang with are going to roll," he said. "So many boomers are facing a healthy, active retirement."

That's one of many ways the whole world has changed dramatically since he started ministering, decades ago, and he feels compelled to keep up, he said. "Life is so different than what it was," Ritchie said.

Footprints

Ritchie said there seems to be a natural law governing church congregations: they tend to reflect the age

of the pastor. But keeping Crossroads a diverse, multigenerational church is vitally important, he said; as he considered stepping down as senior pastor, it felt right to look not just a few years younger than himself — but a few decades.

"We needed to reach the fresh, young generation," he said. "How do you do that except through one of them?"

He already knew Fusco, a New Jersey native who'd moved to the San Francisco area, from church conferences and retreats. Fusco asked him about the hiring process in person, then asked again a few weeks later by e-mail. A visit was arranged, Fusco preached a sermon and met the church's board of directors, and — dreadlocks and beard notwithstanding — the match seemed obvious to all. Fusco was hired in late 2011 and moved to Clark County with his wife, Lynn, and young children Obadiah and Maranatha.

"I don't think the church sees me as Bill's replacement at all. I don't think that's possible anyway," said Fusco. "I don't need to fill his footprints. I just need to plant my footprints next to his."

Fusco's smile is huge as he describes the projects he's pursuing for the younger set at Crossroads: frequent Friday night food-packing parties for people in need, followed by street outreach to deliver it in person ("love in a sack," he called it); quarterly dance parties with live music and preaching; meeting with Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt to find out how the church (which is outside the city limits) can help lift the city up; working with a regular group of leadership trainees; even school trips to Portland's Rescue Mission where elementary school students can learn about the needy and how to help.

"There's so much pain and brokenness in this world," said Fusco. "We're going to go help people exactly where they are. We want to bless our community."

All of this, he added, is against the background of what he called a "post-Christian culture." Young people are growing up with less grounding in religion and faith than ever before, he said. But, he added, they also seem to want to make a real difference in the world.

"What's transpired over the past year is really incredible," Fusco said. "And now it's Easter."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits