Ian Lawton, 45, took the helm of the then-Christ Community Church in Spring Lake in 2004. He led his congregation through a controversial name change and cross removal, and eventually its relocation to the Grand Haven Community Center.
Lawton said he and his family plan to return to Sydney shortly before Christmas. He has not set a date for his final service with C3 Exchange.
“It's really just a lifestyle decision based on the age of our kids and the age of our parents,” said Lawton, whose parents and in-laws live in Australia. “All four of our parents are getting to the age where traveling is difficult. It's time to be closer to family.”
Lawton's oldest son, Hugo, is currently a student at the University of Michigan. He said he wants to relocate his younger son and daughter before they reach high school.
Lawton said gun violence in America also played a role in his family's decision.
“We've definitely been unsettled by the recent gun violence in America, and some of the mass shootings and aftermath with still-stubborn reluctance to talk about those issues,” he said. “We feel uncomfortable with some of the priorities and values in America.”
Lawton moved here from Australia nearly a decade ago to take take over for the Rev. Dick Rhem when Rhem retired from Christ Community Church.
Lawton forged a path of “inclusiveness,” setting aside traditional biblical teachings and symbols for what he calls a more progressive spiritual focus. Some community members found it difficult to embrace Lawton's teachings and left the church.
Lawton described those first few years as “agonizing.”
Russell Radford, chairman of the C3 Exchange Board of Directors, said many C3 members were shocked when Lawton told them at Sunday's gathering that he would be leaving.
“It really rattled people,” Radford said. “Quite a few people were visibly upset by the announcement.”
Bob Kleinheksel, who left C3 last year to pursue a private counseling practice, said he is saddened that Lawton is leaving.
“It was kind of an emotional morning for me Sunday, but all out of a pocket of positivity,” Kleinheksel said. “I'm incredibly grateful to have worked with him for nine years.”
Radford said C3's future is very much up in the air. He said the effects of the community leader's departure will not be known until it happens.
“It's an open question right now as to what is going to happen,” Radford said. “We need to get a handle on the options that are open to us and and also get a handle on what this does to the number of members we have. We don't know what the attrition is going to be in terms of numbers and in terms of dollars.”
Should members leave when Lawton does, Radford said the financial fallout could be devastating.
The congregation moved out of the church at 225 E. Exchange St. in Spring Lake two years ago because of financial struggles. A bank took over the property and later sold it to Harvest Bible Chapel, which started worshipping there this spring.
Prior to that, the congregation changed its name from Christ Community Church to C3 Exchange and took down the cross atop the Spring Lake building so as to not represent only Christianity. That move drew criticism from some in the community and some C3 members as well, and some left the church.
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