St. Matthews bids 'emotional and bittersweet' goodbye to Pastor Kirby Unti

Friends and congregants wished Pastor Kirby Unti a fond farewell Sunday following his final service at St. Matthew
Friends and congregants wished Pastor Kirby Unti a fond farewell Sunday following his final service at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church.
— image credit: Tracey Compton, Renton Reporter

There weren't many dry eyes among the members of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church on Sunday, as they held their final service and farewell celebration for Pastor Kirby Unti.

Unti was elected to a six-year term as bishop of the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in May. After serving 33 years as St. Matthew's lead pastor in Renton, Unti will leave the church to take on more regional responsibilities as a bishop. Sunday he gave a farewell sermon to members and laughed, hugged and reminisced with the congregation and church staff.

The sanctuary was packed to the point where churchgoers spilled into the entryway, seated in chairs watching video of the service inside. Unti was given five gifts from the congregation representing the St. Matthew's five core values.

The idea of "welcome" was represented by coffee treats from Starbucks. The "story" value was represented by tickets to performances at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. The "cross" was represented by three liturgical books for conducting formal worship, which Unti is teased not to do. St. Matthew's value of "hands that care" was represented by a gift card to Gene Juarez Salon and Spa. "Humor" was represented by a card that read, 'Stay, I guess that only works with dogs.'

Unti was also presented with a check for $3,300 to represent his 33 years of service to S. Matthew's.

Members called the day emotional and bittersweet.

"It's the end of one journey and the beginning of another for Kirby and Kim and us," said Eric Black, a member for 13 years. "So we just have to continue on the work; we can't stop."

There have been some members who had already started to prepare mentally for Unti not being around forever, but the change is still difficult, Black said.

He said the shift is also hard because Pastor Kathryn Buffman is also leaving to join Unti as assistant to the bishop.

Black will remember Unti best for his ability to connect with everybody. Unti's sermons resonate with Black so much, he said, at times it's as if Unti has been following him around all week.

"A - he's not preaching," Black said. "He's just talking to us and it's like he knows exactly what we're going through because he does to a degree. He's not a deity; he's a person. He's human like the rest of us."

Kim Unti, the pastor's wife, gave her final performance for the children in the audience, as Peli the pelican puppet. Kim took on the character to teach the young members lessons, which she role-played in routines and banter with the pastor during service over the years.

When asked what the day felt like to her, she called it bittersweet and remarked on how well the Unti family has been treated at St. Matthew's.

"It's very difficult to leave our family, but we're so excited about what the future holds," Kim Unti said.

As spouse to the newly elected bishop, Kim is still deciding what activities and responsibilities she'll take on.

"Renton has enveloped us as just total family," she said. "They've been so good to us and so supportive - just a delight. And we're so happy that we can still live in the community."

Although, Unti will be responsible for more than 100 churches from the Kent/Des Moines area northward to the Canadian border and commute to headquarters in Chicago frequently, the Unti family intends to try and maintain their home in Renton.

At the close of the worship service Sunday morning, the choir sang "Jesus is Just Alright" and members, upbeat, but tearful, made their way to the Untis to say goodbye.

For his final sermon presiding as pastor, Unti delivered a message about being present, believing in the future and not living in the past.

"My belief is that when we become comfortable and settled in, we become nostalgic," he said after the service. "And all of our effort and energy goes into trying to protect and keep the past alive. And when that happens, I think we stop being faithful people. Because (as) faithful people, you have to go out where you don't know what the future is. You have to risk more. And in the end, for me, that's what faith is about."

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