The Rev. Chris Andrews, longtime pastor of First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, announced his retirement effective immediately during church services Sunday.

Andrews said his departure as senior pastor of the church was for “personal reasons” and that he could not elaborate.

“I believe First United Methodist has wonderful days ahead, and I will pray for this church and its ministry and ask for your prayers for me,” Andrews said, reading from a prepared statement, pausing at times to collect himself.

“After today, I will no longer be your pastor, but I will always be your friend,” he said.

Andrews was visibly upset and comforted by his fellow ministers as he addressed the congregation. He received a long, standing ovation as he left the pulpit immediately following his announcement.

He did not meet with parishioners after the service, but he asked for their understanding during his address.

Reached by phone Sunday afternoon, Andrews said he was not at liberty to talk any further about his decision to immediately enter into a retirement relationship with the church.

He said he feels a great sense of pride when he looks back on his time spent at the church and especially with his “great congregation.”

“I have been blessed more than any man could possibly be,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience.”

Louisiana United Methodist Bishop William H. Hutchinson will appoint an interim pastor to temporarily fill the vacancy left by Andrews, said Betty Backstrom, communications director for the Louisiana United Methodist Conference, in a news release.

Backstrom said she could not make any additional comments about Andrews’ retirement.

Parishioners at the church where Andrews served as senior pastor for 22 years were emotional following his announcement.

Many members began crying as the Rev. Katie McKay Simpson said a prayer asking for guidance and strength during this time of transition.

Stacy Johnson, a member of First United Methodist for 10 years, said she was “surprised and saddened” by Andrews’ sudden retirement.

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“To me, he is the church,” she said. “He knows everyone’s names, from the little children to the older members. He’s definitely going to be missed.”

Andrews, 64, had announced plans in March to retire by the end of the year, but had a change of heart a few weeks later.

“It was the strangest thing,” Andrews said at the time. “I just looked up at our sanctuary and felt God saying to me, ‘You need to stay here for some more time.’ ”

Andrews started at First United Methodist in Baton Rouge when the church was struggling to remain afloat.

The minister has said he received a letter in which his district superintendent predicted the downtown church had no future, but that Andrews could look forward to better appointments in the future.

Today, First Methodist is the largest Methodist church in Louisiana with 4,500 members and a weekly attendance of 1,300 to 1,400 people.

Andrews, an extremely visible and active religious leader in the community, is also involved in Together Baton Rouge, a coalition of civic groups and faith leaders seeking to combat several problems in the city.

He recently advocated for the One Baton Rouge resolution that expressed tolerance and acceptance by the community of people of all races, sexes, religions and sexual orientations.

Amy Malone has been a member of First United Methodist for 14 years, she said. She stood outside the church with friends after the service Sunday and was at times overcome by emotion as she talked about her pastor.

“I can remember on more than one occasion, if I missed a few services in a row, I would get an email from him checking on me,” she said. “And I even sit in the balcony.”

“He just knows and cares about each of his members,” she said.

Malone said she’s confident the church will remain strong even without the pastor who led the congregation for more than two decades.

“It’s just going to be different, but we’ll be OK,” she said.