After 33 years, Pastor Kirby Unti says goodbye to Renton, hello to bishop post

Pastor Kirby Unti has served St. Matthew
Pastor Kirby Unti has served St. Matthew's Lutheran Church since Mt. St. Helens blew up in 1980. Thirty-three years later to the day he was elected to become a regional bishop.
— image credit: Tracey Compton, Renton Reporter

Pastor Kirby Unti of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church has been busy this week saying goodbye to his congregation and community members, as he prepares to become a bishop for the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

“I’m living between two worlds, you know,” Unti said last Friday. “I’m very excited about the future and at the same time, it’s very hard to leave the Renton community and this faith community, where I’ve developed wonderful, wonderful partnerships and friendships working together.”

St. Matthew’s will also loose Pastor Kathryn Buffum, as she will join Unti as assistant to the bishop.

The congregation and community members have expressed positive feedback so far on the changes, Unti said, because they are “proud somebody out of their congregation and out of their town would be elected bishop.”

“While I’m going through mixed feelings, they also are going through very mixed feelings,” he said.

Kathy Kellar, a member for six years, feels thankful and blessed to have experienced Unti’s service to the church.

“While we are all so happy for him, we all will feel the loss of no longer having our pastor within fingertip reach,” Kellar said.

Members of the church and faith community originally approached Unti about submitting his name to the nomination process. He didn’t see himself as a bishop and at first ignored the requests. When more people from different aspects of the church started asking him about the bishop position, he changed his mind and allowed his name to be submitted.

Next, at an annual Lutheran assembly of 400 pastors, rostered staff and lay people, 15 nominees, including Unti, went through the election process.

“It was a grueling process,” said Unti of the three days in May to select the next regional bishop. The 15 were whittled down to seven, then three, then two and finally to one: Unti.

For his six year term as bishop, Unti will be responsible for caring for 105 churches from the Kent/Des Moines border north to Canada. He will guide those churches if they have pastoral changes and conflicts and he will work to create learning opportunities and resources to strengthen the ministry.

Unti will also spend a portion of his time in Chicago, serving the “mother church,” as one of the 65 national bishops, who make up the Conference of Bishops.

Unti hopes to maintain his home in Renton and continue to serve on the Board of Trustees for Renton Technical College.

“I came to St. Matthew’s on May 18, 1980, which is the day Mount St. Helens blew up,” he said. “That was a monumental day and I always would tease people because they’d say, ‘You stayed there so long.’”

Unti always replied that he was waiting for a sign of equal magnitude before he left. He has served at the church for 33 years.

The biggest surprise has come from congregation members who are learning Unti won’t be around to bury their loved ones or officiate at their weddings.

Unti is proud to leave behind a legacy of community partnerships that were created while he was at St. Matthew’s. The church is known historically for its work with public health, the Renton School district, Communities in Schools of Renton, the ARISE men’s shelter program, Congregations for the Homeless, the Emergency Feeding Program and an adult daycare. He is also proud of two recent ministries: Grace Chinese Lutheran Church and Luther’s Table, a downtown Renton restaurant.

When he was assigned to St. Matthew’s back in 1980, the church was on the verge of collapse because of low membership. Unti had instructions to merge it with another church or provide good “hospice” care while it died. The bishop at the time also told Unti that he was young and might see that there was vitality yet at St. Matthew’s.

“Even though it was really, really struggling, it (the church) still was outwardly focused,” Unti said. “They were still connected to the community beyond the four walls and that’s what gave me the encouragement to believe that the church had a future.”

Churches in any sect need to know who their neighbors are and become friends,” he advises.

Now Unti is left with a deep sense of gratitude to Renton, the faith community and the people of the city for allowing him to be himself and teaching him, he said.

“I’ve learned by living in this community how to join hands to work together for the good of the community,” Unit said. “We’ve been very very fortunate. This community has been very good to not just me, but my entire family.”

All four of his daughters, who are now adults, were raised in St. Matthew’s and in Renton.

“What’s the irony here is that I will be the bishop,” Unti said laughing about next steps for St. Matthew’s. “So, yeah, there will be a certain level of care that I will bring to identifying potential pastors.”

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