Every time Erica King greeted her pastor, Dale Paulsen, on Sunday mornings, she always said the same thing: “Good morning, shepherd.”
The phrase was a sign of her respect and admiration for Paulsen, but most of the time the Morro Bay Presbyterian Church pastor didn’t quite know how to respond.
One time, however, King got Paulsen to say, “Good morning, sheep.”
“And I said, ‘Good!’ ” King recalled, smiling slightly before looking down.
Paulsen, who had been the church’s pastor for 23 years, died Sunday evening after he was struck by a car in a hit-and-run crash in Los Osos. The 67-year-old had just announced his retirement from the church that morning, said King, a church elder.
“He was so full of life and love and laughter and that’s a great loss. That’s a great loss,” King said.
Paulsen’s last Sunday leading services was to have been Jan. 6, 2019. Had he stayed until February, he would’ve celebrated 24 years at the church, King said.
In an emailed statement provided to The Tribune, Paulsen’s family said he “died tragically ... on his favorite walk along the bay.”
“He was a man of faith and of integrity who served Jesus with his wife Emily for over 40 years in ministry,” Paulsen’s family wrote. “Dale is survived by his wife, also by his three sons and their wives and seven young grandchildren who were looking forward to so much fun with him in his retirement and loved him very much.”
Paulsen’s funeral service is set for at Saturday, Nov. 24, at 11 a.m. at Morro Bay Presbyterian Church and will be open to the public, King said.
King said the impact of Paulsen’s death on the congregation was similar to walking into a wall.
“One moment you’re going about your business and the next, you’ve run headlong into an immovable object. And you recoil and you say, ‘This can’t be happening,’ but it just did,” she said.
King described Paulsen as “a clear thinker and a tenderhearted shepherd” who cared about and was committed to his congregants and his family. And he loved playing basketball.
In fact, on Sunday night, he was out walking on Ramona Avenue because he had injured himself and was trying to keep himself strong so he could return to the sport, King said.
Paulsen played in a men’s pickup league at the First Presbyterian Church in San Luis Obispo twice a week, King said.
“He wasn’t going to sit in a chair and get stodgy,” she said.
Paulsen was known for his booming laugh, which would echo through the church.
“People would say, ‘I knew he was around, I heard him laughing,’ ” King said.
She remembered one child who would always talk to the pastor from the back of the pews during services, and Paulsen would answer. And during a break in the service when people would greet each other, the child would run up to the pulpit to greet the pastor.
“Children, especially little ones, seemed to glom onto him, as it were,” King said.
Lynne Oliverius, the church’s music director, remembered Paulsen as a “silent sentinel” who was always looking out for her.
“I’ve just come through a horrific season of life and he and his wife, they were my rocks,” Oliverius said, crying. “Never once did they doubt, never once did they question.”
Oliverius said she was one of the few people who knew about Paulsen’s retirement, and they had met earlier to talk about what songs they would play at his final service — his favorites were “Be Thou My Vision” and “Give Me Jesus.” Now, Oliverius said, she’ll play those songs at his funeral.
“I was up there with him not 24 hours ago, leading worship,” Oliverius said, as she wiped away tears.
Paulsen used to call “staff meetings” before Sunday services, Oliverius said, where they would go over the music and plan everything out.
On Sunday morning, Oliverius knew he was going to announce his retirement, and asked him to wait until after the choir had finished singing a song.
“I do not want people weeping as we sing!” she told Paulsen. He ended up waiting until the very end of the service to make his announcement, she said.
Oliverius said that she’s worked with ministers throughout her career, but never one quite like Paulsen.
“He has a heart like no other,” she said. “I’m going to miss that silent sentinel so much.”
In one of his final sermons, delivered on Nov. 4, titled “God’s Peace, Your Peace,” Paulsen described a recent trip with his siblings — a brother and three sisters — to Davenport, Iowa, where they all had been born. On the last night of the trip, they gathered to pray as a family, Paulsen said, mostly about their brother, who was battling stage-four prostate cancer.
But the brother instead said he would pray for Paulsen and the rest of the family, to give them strength in the face of their coming trials and tribulations, he said.
“My brother, at the age of 64, is at tremendous peace in the face of death,” Paulsen said. “All because he knows Jesus, and Jesus has put his peace within him — the peace that passes all understanding.”
Then Paulsen offered an almost prescient piece of advice to his congregation:
“I would say to you all this morning, if you are facing some sort of crisis, some kind of difficulty — you’re facing a stressful situation and you think there is no way you are going to survive, there’s no way you are going to get through this — I encourage you to turn to Jesus,” he said in the sermon. “He may not answer the prayer you would like to be answered — he may not give you what you want — but he will give you his peace in the face of it all, and he will get you through it, no matter what you have to get through. He will get you through the darkest storm.”