The Rev. Gary Reierson, who built the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches into the biggest organization of its kind in North America, announced Thursday that he is retiring as its president and CEO.

Reierson, 62, who hadn't been dropping hints about retiring, said the idea popped into his mind during a spring trip to Oxford University.

"The timing just seemed right," he said, adding that he and his wife, a retired college professor, recently became first-time grandparents. "We want to travel, and we want to spend time with our new grandson. And it's not a total retirement. I plan to keep teaching [at St. John's University], and I serve on a number of boards."

When Reierson took over 22 years ago, the council's annual budget was $1.2 million. It now has an $8 million budget, 700 member congregations and 25,000 volunteers who help 350,000 people a year.

It's bigger than any other state or local council and twice the size of the National Council of Churches. And its reach far exceeds Minneapolis; its Minnesota FoodShare program provides more than half of all the food distributed by food shelves across the entire state.

His contract requires that he give one year's notice before leaving, and he's adamant that he will not spend his last year simply biding his time.

"We've had many very solid years, and I'm going to keep my nose to the grindstone to make sure that this year is as impactful as those," he said.

Programs come first

Susan Sands, the council's board chair, said Reierson's management philosophy is going to ease the transition.

"It's never been about Gary; it's always been about the needs of the people and how the GMCC can fit in to help meet those needs," she said. "That's reflective of Gary's values. He lets the programs lead, not his ego."

His two-decades-plus tenure is unusual in a field with a high burnout rate. It's a high-pressure position that the collapsing economy has made even more so as needs have grown and resources have shrunk. Several other local faith-based social-service organizations have or are going through leadership transitions, including the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, Lutheran Social Service and Catholic Charities.

"I think the long tenure is partly a result of me and the council going through changes together," he said. "We grew together. I think if it had been an $8 million operation at the start, it would have been a different story."

He has drawn national attention from fellow executives of nonprofit organizations for his aggressive pursuit of new programs and opportunities.

"I like change," he said in an interview last year. "I realize that change makes some people nervous. But I believe that even though we're a nonprofit, we need to think like entrepreneurs."

But he pooh-poohed the notion that the council's success is attributable solely to him.

"An undue amount of credit for success is focused on the leader," he said. "With the staff we have, along with the board and the support we get from the community, once a new leader is in place, I have no doubt that the council will continue to move forward."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392