Early one Sunday morning, circa 2005, Rev. Dr. Thomas Dickelman — founder and minister of the Community Church of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff — discovered one of his church’s places of worship had been commandeered by a small phalanx of … Girl Scouts.
The venue then and now: the south shelter of Lake Bluff beach.
“We didn’t have money to rent anywhere, after committing to hold services year-round, so we had to meet outside,” says the 61-year-old Dickelman, a Lake Forest resident and the former minister at Union Church of Lake Bluff. “The beach was my favorite place, and if we went early we could get there before anyone else — and before the guards were there to charge us.”
Dickelman’s very first beach congregation had gathered in 2003 and matched the number of tennis players it takes to form a doubles team.
“The three of us sat at a metal picnic table,” Dickelman recalls, while sitting with me at a corner table at the Deer Path Inn in Lake Forest for a breakfast of Eggs Benedict and hot tea.
“Those Girls Scouts,” Dickelman adds, “were there on a campout, so we told the Lake Bluff Park District what we were doing and have rented the space each week ever since.”
Dickelman’s church offers two services (8:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m.) every Sunday and rents Lake Forest College’s Lily Reid Holt Memorial Chapel for the stretch of Sundays (usually 35) when a churchgoer wouldn’t dare leave home without donning either a heavy sweater or a parka.
It’s not unusual today for the Community Church of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff to draw 225 worshippers each Sunday. Dickelman figures 275 families consider his church their church.
“Originally I hoped we might have 80 families someday,” says Dickelman, who admits starting a church — with his money and without the backing from anybody else or from any organization — was “kind of a goofy idea.”
Kind of scary: Dickelman didn’t receive his first paycheck for the audacious undertaking until Year 3 (2002).
“I had a vision … a vision of providing a ‘micro church’ for people,” says Dickelman, who, in 1983, graduated with a Master of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and received a Doctor of Ministry from the same seminary eight years later. “I could not let go of it, despite being turned down to write my doctoral thesis on it because I was told it would never work. I saw a church that would not try to do everything but would do some things very well — primarily worship.
“Our singular focus has been on feeding people spiritually. I felt there was a need for a spiritually progressive community on the North Shore, where people could worship without feeling pressure to join.”
Don’t call a Community Church of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff churchgoer a “member”; Dickelman doesn’t. Looking to join or spearhead a committee at a church with the Rockwellian (Dickelman’s word choice) backdrop of colorful sailboats in the distance and beaming toddlers playing in the sand on 17 Sunday mornings each year? Committees don’t exist at the church. Wondering if the church models itself after the model of a major denomination? Stop wondering.
“Every other church I know has a single model it promotes or follows,” Dickelman says. “To be a member, you have to affirm and follow that model. We believe the job of our church is not to put forth a single model, but to serve as a source of inspiration and as a partner on someone’s journey.”
Dickelman — a letter winner in football and basketball at Glenbard West High School (Class of 1974) in Glen Ellyn — gets as excited about serving as the celebrant of beach services as he got moments before big games as a teenager suiting up for Hilltoppers squads.
“We emphasize music, and our music minister [Ken Hall] is connected with extraordinary musicians in the Chicago area,” Dickelman says. “We might have a jazz theme on a Sunday, then a blues or a folk theme on the next Sunday. We even had a ‘Grateful Dead’ Sunday, on the week after Easter. Packed; it was packed on that Sunday.
“Really busy people attend our services, with many facing battles or struggles. The one hour they spend with us on a Sunday allows them to breathe, unplug, recharge. I consider it a privilege to have opportunities to have a positive impact on the lives of people. Sometimes that’s spiritual in nature; sometimes that’s helping someone … find a job. Ultimately I see my job as a caregiver for families rooted in the Christian faith, as well as those from other traditions [Hebrew and Hindu, to name two].”
Thomas Dickelman’s unique and wildly circuitous journey from bank-shot-loving prep hoopster to beach-loving minister deserves to be told on the silver screen (it’s a shame actor Michael Caine is 84 years old). While studying in Austria, as a sophomore at Illinois State University, Dickelman learned to ski and fell in love with the activity, prompting him to transfer to snowy Salt Lake City and the University of Utah; years later — after answering the call to serve at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis — he developed a passion for windsurfing, got certified as a windsurf instructor and then taught the challenging pursuit to some of his parishioners in a program dubbed “Aquatic Experience”; in 1986, unsure of his future as a minister, Dickelman sold his house in Indiana and most of his belongings and drove around Florida.
“The one thing I really wanted to do back then was sail,” Dickelman says. “I lived in my car while I looked for the perfect live-aboard sailboat — I found it, in Fort Myers. I spent a year down there trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with my life.”
He returned to Illinois in 1988, his first year at Union Church in Lake Bluff. Stability became Dickelman’s steady partner. His tenure at Union Church lasted six-and-a-half years, and he managed to find time in between parish duties to complete corporate-training stints for Fortune 500 companies.
The man behind the birth of Lake Forest College’s Marketing and Communications Department was none other than Dickelman.
“I like to start things, start ventures,” says Dickelman, who has been married to his wife, Jean, since 1996; their child is Tommy, 20, and Jean has two daughters (Annie, 27, and Kate, 26).
“I’m a serial entrepreneur who happens to be a minister.”
Tommy’s indefatigable father — owner of a Ford F 150, with “SUNDAY” on the license plates — is a member of the nine-man Dancing Bohemian Ukulele Team.
“It features eight musicians and a minister,” the minister cracks.
Dickelman, along with musician Fred Koch and Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander, raised more than $30,000 through Net Gain, an inaugural event held at Lake Forest High School last month. Boys basketball players from Orr High School in Chicago traveled north to play Scouts players at the LFHS main gym and later received custom-made mouthguards — crafted by local dentists — as gifts. Funds also were earmarked for Orr’s hoops program (equipment, uniforms).
The Community Church of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff launched KidsUganda 11 years ago. It’s now a stand-alone charity, with more than 75 folks having participated in “Adventures in Service” mission trips to Africa. Funds generated to date, for a school and orphanage in Mityana, Uganda: more than $1.5 million.
“The church has blossomed in ways I’d never imagined,” Dickelman marvels. “I absolutely love what I do, love being present for people. But I don’t set myself apart from others; I’m like everybody else.”
Dickelman reserves five to 10 minutes each service for a “Joys and Concerns” segment. Some churchgoers stand to share wonderful news or thoughts with the congregation, and others stand to express worries.
“One Sunday a woman,” Dickelman recalls, “got up and said, ‘My joy is we have a minister who wears shorts with images of flying pigs on them.’ ”
A smiling Dickelman pushes his chair back at the Deer Path Inn.
He encourages me to glance at the part of his wardrobe I hadn’t noticed until that moment.
The minister is wearing shorts. Those shorts.
I think about oinking.
I chuckle instead.