Parishioners of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church describe their rector as honest, faithful and inspiring.
Father Tracy Wilder behaves like a real person, not a figurehead, they say. He serves the people and tells it like it is, even when the words hurt.
According to Wilder, nothing hurts quite as much as saying goodbye.
Wilder, who arrived at St. John's Ruskin campus in 2001, experienced an abrupt and unexpected role reversal in September. The man who spent his life caring for others learned he had leukemia. Enduring months of intensive chemotherapy, he became reliant on nurses and doctors, on the love of his wife and the kindness of parishioners.
Though hopeful his cancer may go into remission, Wilder, 67, announced in March he is retiring from St. John.
"It's no fun," he said. "There is a terrible sense of loss. It's painful. But I can look back on the last 12 years and feel good about a lot of things."
Parishioners say Wilder brought a renewed sense of purpose to St. John, attracting new members and reviving outreach programs such as the church's healing ministry.
Wilder oversaw the completion of the church's Sun City Center campus. He added a contemporary worship service and visited people in need at their homes. Between its campuses, the church now has 500 members, about twice as many as before Wilder.
Wilder also partnered with the Good Samaritan Mission to aid Ruskin's farm worker population. He brought young families into a congregation primarily made up of seniors.
"He took a small country church and guided it into being a church well known in the community," parishioner Alyson Barrett said.
Parishioner Sharon Van Loan said Wilder inspired her to help others. Before he came to St. John, she only attended Sunday services. Now, she leads a Wednesday night prayer group.
"He really helps people see where their spiritual gifts are," Van Loan said. "My faith is based so much in the strength of his belief."
Wilder calls such compliments humbling.
"I've always tried to do the best that I can for people," he said. "I came to maturity during the 1960s, when it was as simple as wanting to make the world a better place."
Wilder, who was ordained at age 27, served at churches in Virginia, New Jersey, Texas, Maryland and New York before coming to Florida. He has two children from his first marriage. He married his current wife, Susan, a nurse, in 1999. The couple live in Wimauma.
"We feel that God has led us to this path," Susan Wilder said of her husband's retirement. "It's okay, even though we don't know for sure what's on the other side."
Wilder, who is currently receiving treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, said it feels strange letting people take care of him. Most days he feels too fatigued to function. He prays for healing. He also has doubts.
"Everyone has areas where they struggle for understanding," he said. "I had a man tell me he is grateful to God for his cancer and I told him honestly, 'I don't share your view.' I am not glad to have cancer but I like to say God's in the midst somewhere. I want people to know I don't feel abandoned."
Wilder does not know who will replace him at St. John. The diocese will interview potential candidates, he said. In June, the church will host a farewell celebration in his honor.
"I wish I had pictures of all the things we did at the church," he said. "It's funny, we take pictures of special events but not the things we do every day. I wish I had those pictures."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected]