We were never exactly friends. He served as my predecessor for 23 years, and I served as his successor, full of youth and new ideas. We viewed each other through the lens of different generations. I think I blamed him, usually unfairly, for some of the church’s problems. I’m sure he saw my immaturity and questioned my leadership, as I do too with the benefit of hindsight. But we both knew what it was like to pastor the same church, and we experienced many of the same challenges and sorrows.
I attended his memorial service this past weekend. When he retired, he confronted the question Zack Eswine raises in The Imperfect Pastor: Did he know that he could serve Christ humanly and significantly whether or not he was a pastor or leader in ministry? For almost 40 years, he made things happen. Now, for 20 years, he could no longer get his identity from preaching another sermon series, leading another building program, or writing another vision.
He answered the question well. He passed the test.
I heard about some of his ministry accomplishments at the funeral. But mostly I heard stories that had little to do with pastoring: how he loved his grandchildren, taking them on long road-trips, showing up at their first jobs, and driving his 53 Chevy to their graduations; how he set the goal to meet and encourage five new people a day; how he especially prioritized getting to know personal support workers, people who are underpaid and underappreciated for the work they do. I heard, most movingly, about how he sat with his wife for three hours at a time, holding her hand, even though her mind was clouded by Alzheimer’s. He spoke of the privilege of loving her. I saw his legacy too: children and grandchildren rising to speak not only of him but of Jesus.
David Brooks speaks of the difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. “The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” I’ve spent years trying to develop my résumé virtues, only to discover that while these virtues are important, other virtues matter more: how I love my wife, how I am growing in my affections toward the Lord, how willing I am to define greatness not by tasks accomplished and visions fulfilled, but by simple obedience and patient love. I didn’t understand this twenty years ago when I succeeded him as pastor, but I think I’m beginning to understand it now.
I last saw him late last year when I preached at the church we both used to pastor. If I could do it again, I said, I would focus on two things: preaching Christ more clearly, and loving them. He stopped me on the way out while sitting on a couch in the lobby. “That was a good sermon,” he said. I think he realized I was beginning to understand what matters most. Finally we agreed on what good pastoring looks like.
My predecessor served well. He preached, baptized, discipled, led, and lasted through the ups and downs of ministry. But even more importantly, he died well. He died loving his wife, encouraging others, and clinging to his Lord.
I was reminded of D.A. Carson’s words about his father, a pastor in Québec, at the end of his life.
“When he died, there were no crowds outside the hospital, no editorial comments in the papers, no announcements on television, no mention in Parliament, no attention paid by the nation. In his hospital room there was no one by his bedside. There was only the quiet hiss of oxygen, vainly venting because he had stopped breathing and would never need it again.”
“But on the other side all the trumpets sounded. Dad won entrance to the only throne room that matters, not because he was a good man or a great man— he was, after all, a most ordinary pastor— but because he was a forgiven man. And he heard the voice of him whom he longed to hear saying, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.’”