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OBrien leaving Smith Memorial Church

by: File photo The Rev. Cynthia  O’Brien is known for bringing music and art to  Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church in Fairview. She is leaving the church

After 15 years as pastor for Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church, Cynthia O'Brien is leaving the congregation.

'It was a painful decision, and I am going to miss the people terribly,' she said. Her last day is Sunday, Feb. 12.

O'Brien moved to the Northwest from California to take the church's leadership post in 1997.

Since then, she and her husband, Michael, have had two daughters, Rachel, 12, and Laurel, 10.

Michael works as an advanced math teacher and religion instructor at Portland Lutheran School, where the girls also attend school.

The pastor said her family plans to stay in the East Multnomah County area.

A 'dramatic personal renewal' that fanned the flames of O'Brien's interest in art, music and writing, coupled with church layoffs in 2009, caused her to take on music director duties in addition to her job as pastor.

'I love doing all of it, but I can't keep up with everything that a traditional small church pastor does,' she said. 'I feel compelled to keep doing new things, which just makes the job bigger.

'The leadership and I came to an understanding that it was time for a pastoral change. They put together a severance package, which will give me some time to go to counseling and reflect on what I'm going to do next.'

It's a tough, but also exciting, transition, O'Brien said. The church can benefit from new vision and fresh leadership, and she is curious to see what the next chapter of her life holds.

'I came here from San Diego when I was 32, intending to stay maybe 10 years,' she said. 'Now I'm 48.'

Fran Sunderland, a former church elder who's attended the 120-plus-year-old church since 1970, is sad to see O'Brien go.

'You know, I love that lady,' Sunderland said. 'She brought a lot of art into the church. She is forward thinking and organized. And she touched many lives in our congregation.'

O'Brien incorporated professional jazz musicians and singer-songwriters into services in recent years, and started a program of after-school music lessons.

She served as the chairwoman of the Gresham Chamber of Commerce's Government Affairs Council in 2010 and continues to serve as a chamber member.

For three years she lead the East County Mayors' Prayer Breakfast on the National Day of Prayer. Sunderland credits this community involvement for attracting several new members to the congregation under O'Brien's leadership.

And although O'Brien will no longer attend Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church to worship, she plans to remain active in the community. In May she will again lead the Mayors' Prayer Breakfast, which will be held at the Greater Gresham Baptist Church.