Philip Brooks wrote that preaching is, “truth conveyed through personality.” Yet, most young preaches are scared of who they are so attempt to emulate another. Who was my choice in those days? W.A. Criswell.
The first book I read for a Preaching Class in college was Philip Brooks’, Lectures on Preaching. When it came time to preach, Hensworth Jonas had already preached for the class. I should have gone first. The bar would have been set low. Jonas grew up in Antigua and had a voice like James Earl Jones and the accent of a British Colonist. What a combination? Few wanted to follow him. It seemed he had already found his voice and some of the rest of us were still searching.
One of those fellows that would become what some refer to as a Peer Mentor, was Frank Gantz. Frank could well follow Hensworth quite well. He was a huge Charles Stanley fan. I never asked him but I would guess that early on Stanley was to Frank what Criswell was to me.
The relationship we shared in college would take a series of blog posts all its own. But, I will narrow it down to one or two things that marked me most.
Learn to trust your friends. Who knows, maybe Frank invited me to preach at his little church in Oklahoma because he knew there was little chance they would think me the better preacher. He had job security inviting me to be his pulpit supply!
Frank came to college after having served in the Army. He had been on staff at a church in Germany. Frank had been preaching a while as most of us were just learning the ropes. He needed to be away on a Sunday and he invited me to preach. My home church had me preach once or twice but not often. Frank invited me back!
Ministry may be a very lonely place. Friendships come few and far between. Things may be better today, but generally friendships that run deep are forged with those who share ministry. Looking back I appreciate that Frank trusted me. He may not have thought about it in those terms but that is one of my takeaways.
Give the children space to be children. The one piece of advice Frank offered as I was planning to preach that first time, “Don’t worry about the children. Just keep preaching.” I really had no idea except that Frank said a number of children from the small community came to church without their parents. They might make a little noise.
Lots of noise! Those two occasions to preach provided an opportunity to learn to focus and not become distracted by what some might do. Children were indeed active. Some crawled under the pews. Others stood up in theirs. The people were so excited for the children to come they gave them space to be children. Some may think this is the prefect opportunity to teach them respect or manners. But, it was really the place to practice, “Suffer the little children.” They needed the people in that community, they needed the love of that small church.
Today I tell young parents nervous their little one might be disruptive, “They will bother you more than they bother me.” Occasionally I retell the story of preaching at Frank’s church. Focus has come in handy in the age of the cell phone, the small bladder, and those who stand to say, “This is ridiculous.” Yes, it has happened.
Another college friend, Jeff Moore, fits the descriptor, Peer Mentor. We both pastored in Southwest Oklahoma. I served in Gould and he in Martha. My first church, Jeff’s second. We grew to be quick friends after college and seminary.
Get a conversation partner, at least one. We spent many a rounds of golf talking about church, family, and our future. We talked theology, ecclesiology, and about lots of more important stuff. Until Jeff moved back to Southwest Oklahoma, we met up often for a round of golf, more interested in the conversation than the score.
As I type other names come to mind – Mack, Scott, Marty, Alan, Art, David, and Paul. For 18 years Paul, my brother who was also a pastor, served as one of my more frequent conversation partners. I miss those days.
Patty and I moved to Dallas with our 6-month old in 1985. We had never looked for a church home, a place to regularly worship and serve. We had been members of the church in which I grew up. Church hunting did not fit us well.
Soon we found a small-ish church not far from our apartment. We later learned locals referred to the area as, The Hood. Patty actually fended off two muggers in the courtyard of our particular building. Don’t mess with Patty!
Rick Davis, Dr. Rick Davis, set up an appointment with this young couple. He took us to lunch. He asked about our story. Rick invited us back to church. We found our place.
Over the next six months a friendship began to grow. Later in the summer of 1986 I was invited to join the staff. For the better part of three years Rick poured his wit and wisdom into our lives.
Put your head down and do your job. Criticism may be met with a variety of responses but Rick always suggested doing your job was the best remedy. Provide the evidence; let it be your argument.
Not only is this sage advice, but also it applies to more than those times we face criticism. When Rick dabbled in denominational affairs, when he pushed back against pragmatic peers, the fruit of his labors headed off arguments over faithfulness to Jesus and the Scriptures. Sadly Jesus lost some of those battles with the Scriptures.
The phrase meant one more thing. It really reinforced what I learned watching my Dad. Work is good. Work hard. Rick worked me. My course load in Seminary was quite ambitious. One year I completed some 38 hours. On top of that I had a part-time job cleaning swimming pools in the DFW area. Then, I was to put in 20 hours a week at the church. Generally I put in more.
If Rick got a call to go to the hospital, he called me and we went. If he received a call for benevolent help, he took me. The thing is, I wanted to go. Eager to learn and put into practice the things I was learning and studying meant no sense of bitterness for the hours but glad Rick felt it a good thing to show me what it looked like for a pastor to put his head down and do his job.
Read. Read. Read. Rick always has a book in his hand. Few people I know read more than Rick. He reads widely. Biographies. Novels. He did not only consume volumes associated with his vocation. I was in Seminary in those days and so there was a ready made excuse to have a book in hand. Rick’s habit has stayed with me. When the girls were playing sports in High School, I could be spotted with a book to read between quarters, at half time, and during blowouts.
I could go on but this would need a Part 3 for this first installment of the series. Let me say, I would not have learned the skills and possessed the tools to remain in ministry, let alone stay in one place for 20 years, were it not for the investment Rick made in our lives.
I am slipping in a nuance on the term mentor. When I set out in ministry the term coach applied to heads of sports teams – amateur or professional. Now you may look around and find life coaches, professional coaches, ministry coaches, and on and on.
Leaders are always learners. One of my personal mantras grew out of a desire to lead well. Always learning means never arriving. While I had little shortage of self-confidence, I always believed I could learn more and serve better. You may be sure the mantra, “Leaders are always learners,” will show up again in this series. I use it here to set the stage for one of the most important pieces of advice I have ever been given.
Don’t Be Rude. I learned of an educational experience, a learning journey it was called. Providentially, it would come at a good time. Hindsight helps see these things. Spencer Burke put together a 9-month learning experience. I viewed it as continuing education. We would interact with some of the leading authors and thinkers. We read several pre-publication manuscripts and shared conference calls with each of those Spencer lined up.
The learning event coincided with a very difficult season for our church. Tragedy struck three times in nine months. I was a mess. Answers I thought would not only help those grieving but also help me, sounded hollow. I remember thinking to myself on more than one occasion, “I am not sure that helped.” I had learned it sometimes best to be present and not say anything. But, I found myself with as much need as those who suffered great loss. Light depression fell on a normally overt optimist.
One day I had a coaching call with Spencer. It was part of the learning journey. The events had left me questioning all sorts of things. I described my situation to Spencer. I loved my church. We loved our church. But, I feared that these events changed me, changed the way I saw the world, life, and faith. I asked for his best shot, his best bit of wisdom. Spencer had been a Teaching Pastor at a very large church in California. I just knew he would dig deep into his reservoir of experience and pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat.
He did. It was not what I expected. He simply said, “Don’t be rude.” That may have been the moment when I realized, “I could stay.”
Practice Your Advice. I attended an event in Dallas. Spencer happened to be at the event. We were out getting lunch or coffee. Spencer’s phone rang. A cordial conversation ensued. Once he hung up he explained that a prominent theologian had written some things about him. He wanted an opportunity to have a conversation with the professor/writer/speaker. Spencer had placed a call and the fellow was returning the call. In short, the prominent theologian declined to have a conversation, suggesting that he did not have time or the need. Spencer was not rude and left the door open in the event he changed his mind. What Spencer had suggested I do, he did. Don’t be rude.
If leaders are always learners, then they must also hold the maxim that leaders may learn from anyone. Age does not matter. Currently I enjoy a number of relationships with younger fellows. Tripp, Damien, Mark, Jimmy, and a band of pirates I am just getting to know. Not only do they keep me young but they help me keep learning.
If you don’t have a mentor, get one. If you only have one mentor, get more.