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St. Charles pastor has come to accept sudden dementia

ROY SYKES / JOURNAL Rev. Jeff Spaulding was initially angry, but has since accepted his diagnosis of dementia. He is with his wife Deb.

Last summer during a Sunday worship service, the Rev. Jeff Spaulding, 55, in his 32nd year of ministry, suddenly stopped. He could not recall the words for blessing the elements during communion.

He turned to a nearby communion server and confessed, "I don't know what to do."

During a different sermon last summer, he read the same two paragraphs over and over.

Those paragraphs "must have been pretty good," he jokes, looking back.

Spaulding was appointed pastor of Faith United Methodist Church, 2950 Droste Road in St. Charles, on July 1, 2000. His health declined precipitously in 2011. In January, he was working on a doctoral degree and, as always, reading two books a week.

But by summer his gait was unsteady, he was falling and once whacked his head, he could barely read, typed gibberish and his speech was slurred. He struggled and stressed so much over talking on the phone that he would break into a sweat.

At first, Deb, his wife of 35 years, suspected he was depressed and grieving over the loss of his parents in 2010. In May, his father died in his sleep at age 88. His mother, in the end stage of Alzheimer's, then moved in with them. She died in August at 84.

But Deb concluded it was not depression. Next, she thought Jeff might have suffered a stroke.

But in August he awoke in the middle of the night hallucinating. He told her to get the people playing loud music out of their bedroom. She asked if he was serious.

Jeff responded: "You don't see them? You don't hear the music?"

"Until that moment I did not realize that he was suffering from dementia," Deb says.

A series of tests revealed Jeff has frontotemporal lobe atrophy, a brain disease that has caused his dementia. There is no cure.

"We've found out early dementia is more common than people think," Deb says.

Since then, Jeff has taken medication and undergone therapies to improve his balance, speech and writing. He has improved greatly from last year, and seemed capable when I visited him last week.

"In October or November he would not have been able to talk to you," Deb says.

She and Jeff also attribute his improvement to the prayers of friends and church members.

Nevertheless, the atrophy likely will worsen and the medications will lose their effectiveness. That could happen within two years, Jeff says. Or it could happen within 20.

"I am going to love him," Deb says. "We are going to hang out together. It is going to be all right."

Jeff says that last summer he was unsure what was happening and grew angry.

"That is why I slept so much," he says. "I was angry at God. I was angry at life. I was angry at other people. I was angry at the doctors for not seeming to respond as quickly and as compassionately as I thought they should."

He has since come to accept this hardship. In a reference to Christ praying "let this cup pass from me" in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jeff says, "I would love for it to pass. But I do not know if that will happen."

In a sermon last summer — one actually written by Deb — Jeff told the congregation of his diagnosis.

His final sermon was during Labor Day weekend. The day before he had officiated at a wedding. Another United Methodist minister was there in case Jeff could not perform his duties. The backup was not needed.

In his final month he handled two funerals. Deb, a lay speaker in the church, was on hand if needed. Jeff handled it.

Faith United Methodist has an interim pastor, Bruce Pittman. The congregation has been caring and understanding, the Spauldings say. They can stay in the spacious parsonage, not far from the church, until June 30.

They are looking to buy a home in Arnold, near their daughter Rachel and her family. They have enlisted the help of a contractor to estimate how much it will cost to make the home they will buy handicap accessible.

Jeff will not serve as a pastor again. But he wants to worship on Sundays. He has retuned once to Faith, a church with a typical Sunday attendance of 230. That was for the Christmas Eve service.

Most denominations prefer that outgoing pastors make a clean break. That makes it clear it is now someone else's job to make hospital visits, baptize children and serve as confidant and spiritual adviser.

"It will be very hard to leave this church and this community," Deb says. "It is a weird situation that we are in. He served for 11 years. He loves these people and they love him and he is no longer their pastor."

But something else holds Jeff back from Sunday worship at Faith.

"It is a challenging step partly because I don't know what to tell people," he says. "I feel like I'm in a box. And now that I'm in that box, when people ask me how I'm doing I don't know what to say. Usually most people just say 'fine.'"

I ask: What is a more honest answer than "fine"?

"I'm not sure I know."

A date has not yet been set to celebrate Jeff Spaulding's ministry at Faith United Methodist Church. Those willing to help Jeff and Deborah pay off medical bills can donate. The simplest way is to mail a check to them at 458 Nantucket Drive, St. Charles, MO 63301. The contribution is not tax deductible.

POKIN AROUND Steve Pokin is a columnist for the Suburban Journals. He can be reached at spokin@yourjournal.com or by phone at 314-744-5704. His column is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PokinAround.