SPRING HILL — The Rev. Chet Okopski will preach his last sermon as senior pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church on Sunday. After 14 years at the church and 40 years in the ministry, the 63-year-old clergyman is retiring.
Though he will miss friends and especially hearing the worship music played by the organist, Jackie Major, and sung by the choir, it is time to move on, Okopski said.
"I just want to rest and see my grandchildren," he said. "I've got two beautiful grandchildren that live up in Iowa, and I would love to have them remember fishing with their grandfather. That's a part of my life that's been on the sidelines for many years. So it's part of the compulsion I have to let go."
Jerry and JoAnn Oberley are sorry to see their pastor go. They were among the nearly 300 members who gathered to celebrate Okopski's career at a retirement dinner last month.
"I have learned much more about the Bible than I knew before he came," said Mrs. Oberley, who, along with her husband, the church liturgist, has been a member of the church for 27 years. "His teaching at the Bible studies is in-depth, and his sermons are targeted so that the common person can understand them."
Even with Okopski's diverse background and teaching that includes references to the original Hebrew and Greek languages of the Scripture, Jerry Oberley found the minister to be "down to earth."
"In addition to being an excellent Christian, Rev. Chet has also brought to our church a lot of joy," Oberley said. "He has added joy and humor to our faith, which really represented a significant addition as far as JoAnn and I were concerned."
Okopski was 19 when he decided to enter the ministry.
"The Lord talked to me about it, and it was a very powerful, spiritual experience, one that left me in fear and trembling," he said. "It was a very profound sense of conversion and call. It was enough to not only transform my immediate life, but also to shape my future."
During his seminary studies in the early 1970s, Okopski, who by then had married his wife, Ginny, worked as a psychiatric aide at a state hospital and counseled at a maximum-security prison. His second two years of field work included ministering in national parks, along with serving as a student pastor.
After he was ordained, Okopski served churches in Wisconsin and Indiana. He came to Florida in 1999.
"I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I knew what I was supposed to do in life," Okopski said. "I feel very blessed."
A news release issued by the church speaks of Okopski's time at Grace.
"Major accomplishments during his tenure have included starting a contemporary/blended service and expanding the church's mission support to include annual trips to Nicaragua as well as support of several other missions, both locally and globally," says the article by Joyce Hagen-Flint. "Rev. Chet focused his leadership on development of the lay leadership in the congregation, transitioning the approach from a pastor-led to an elder-led congregation."
Physical improvements were made to the church and grounds without incurring debt, including the creation of the Memorial Walk of Faith and the Memorial Garden. Okopski is especially proud of making the church accessible to handicapped members.
"We changed some doorways and put in two beautiful handicapped-accessible restrooms right off of our sanctuary," the pastor said. "That was an important ministry for our people with walkers and wheelchairs."
People are what the ministry is all about for Okopski.
"The church really is the people of God. It's the fellowship. It's prayer. It's the connection. It's the Holy Spirit moving in God's people that makes a church," he said.
The minister speaks highly of the work done by church members and staff to feed and clothe the needy. He also noted a mentoring program for children and the purchase of a van to pick people up from care facilities and bring them to church on Sundays.
"When you serve people, you're blessed," he said. "A life of service is the highest calling, whether that service is in teaching or being a firefighter or being a police officer. Any kind of life of service is a very fulfilling life where you can look back and see that you've helped people. There's a satisfaction in that kind of life. It's a wonderful thing."
The Okopskis will continue to live in Spring Hill. Along with travel and visits with family and friends, they say they plan to do some writing.