God has called us together as a community of faith, to be a servant people, to become mature persons in Christ, to be His witnesses to our world, to be unified together as the Body of Christ, and to ministering in our communities and around the world.
The Great Lakes conference recognizes and celebrates their pastors years of service annually. This year, we have 3 pastors who have hit significant milestones. I was blessed to talk with Pastors Lewis Johnston, Paul Rutledge, and Director Lance Finley, and each of these leaders allowed me to mine their wisdom with a few targeted questions. As we come to the end of COVID restrictions, many leaders may be feeling disillusioned or exhausted with their ministries. Yet, I walked away from each of these conversations feeling more encouraged and more refreshed. Provided you take the time to read their responses, I believe you will too. The combined knowledge base of these 3 church leaders represents a century of wisdom gained by success, failure, and everything else on that spectrum. We honor their time in ministry by listening to them, and learning from them. Try and see if you can find where these 3 leaders were in harmonious agreement. – Jacob Clagg
Pastors Being Recognized
After so many years, you certainly had times of struggle, how did you manage to stick with it for so long?
Paul Rutledge – “Number 1 is my wife. My wife has just been very supportive. My wife can see things I don’t see, she can get me to think ways I don’t think. I really think God speaks through pastors’ wives and spouses.
The other thing is the Holy spirit working through people in the congregation. Earl Mills, Dave Green, Lance Finley, people in leadership, it’s amazing how they can have the right words of encouragement or the right words of advice. I don’t think God puts people in your path for no reason.”
Lance Finley – “I have been abundantly blessed with folks in my life, relationships that span decades, who aren’t necessarily impressed or intimated by me, but they love me. We’ve done enough time [together] that they feel the freedom to speak into my life, and I’ve given them that permission to tell me what I’m off the rails. That alone is huge. I get the sense that many of my peers in ministry that they feel more isolated ad lonely. That’s not been my experience. There are relationships that I’ve had long years of developing…. I have an abundance of folks who help me understand my part in this. [Who] help me understand what my critics are saying, what I need to own and what I need to ignore.”
How do you think the years of service changed you? How are you different now then when you began your pastoral journey?
Lewis Johnston – Through the years, as I’ve gotten older, realized how much I really didn’t know. And that, to me, no matter what, it helped me to take things very serious… Through some of the experiences I’ve had at churches, I’ve grown closer to the Lord. I have found a peace there, in my own life. And, I have learned a lot in serving churches and from churches. They’ve been good teachers.
Lance Finley – “I was much more absorbed… we all have a lot of ‘people pleasing’ in us. I have felt much more freedom in my own skin. There are things that God has gifted me to do well. Others place expectations on all of us that we should be better at this or that. I can rest in Christ and know that he is going to love me. If he loves me, that makes all the difference. I wish it didn’t take me to my late 30’s or early 40’s to get that figured out. But it did.
I don’t have to be subject to the tyranny of everyone’s expectations or even my own. In my 20’s I was my own worst critic. I’m much freer from that. I know who I am in Christ now. I don’t have to beat myself up at every turn.”
After the struggles of Covid19, do you have any words of wisdom for pastors or church leaders who feel exhausted in their ministries?
Paul Rutledge – “It was freaky in March, but after that, it got easier. And granted, we were very fortunate, giving went up, people had no problem being away. I didn’t have anyone who was really nuts about it. The church takes on the personality of the pastor and I’m kind of laid back. We will figure it out (kind of thing). Covid19 became a time of refreshment rather than exhaustion. It reaffirmed the churches love for each other. At least for rising sun, that time apart people really realized the connection that they had that was lost, and when it was reaffirmed, people were really excited to have it back. But in all the ministries that go on around here, not just Sunday morning.
I serve on church planting committee, camp Otyokwah, bible studies, etc. All that stopped. Then I realize I had time freed up… I could spend that time doing some soul refreshment, being away from people. Everyone’s lives stopped too! They can’t get into trouble! I heard God saying “instead of worrying about what you can’t do, why don’t you just focus on me and our relationship”. When we reopened, a lot of our external programming was ramping up, because of summer and COVID. So [during COVID] I could concentrate more on just relationships. I kind of miss that aspect of it. My calendar is starting to fill back up.”
Lewis Johnston – “Well I think we can get, sometimes, too busy for our own good. There are times you get exhausted. You have to slow down a little bit, I found this through prayer with the Lord. Rev. Thompson… really helped me along. I had encouragement through other ministers, greatly. I never would have made it through. That’s what helped me to keep going. And I could always talk to them. We have good fellowship. I thank God for these people who helped me along the way. They encouraged me that it was worthwhile when I wasn’t sure.”
At the 2020 Conference Sessions (happening on October 3rd, 2020) the Great Lakes Conference will be recognizing some of it’s pastors for their long years of service. In celebration of their tenure, we thought it prudent to also ask these pastors to share some of their wisdom and insight. The breadth and depth of their experience is truly difficult to fathom, especially for a 27 year old man like myself. The combined service of these pastors is an astonishing 230 years! If we counted 230 years back that would put us at 1790 A.D. (C.E.). That is 40 years more combined experience than the Church of God General Conference is old (1830) and 7 years older than John Winebrenner himself. Their service has not been easy, and their lives, like all of ours, have had both joys and challenges. One way in which the GLC can honor it’s pastors is to quietly listen to their experiences, and to learn from their hard fought knowledge. We do this in hopes of learning to better support our pastors and also to build up the institutional memory of the GLC. It was an honor to speak with each of these pastors, and I hope you are blessed by reading their words as I was hearing them. – Jacob Clagg
Pastors Being Recognized
After so many years, you certainly had times of struggle, how did you manage to stick with it for so long?
Jim Bear – “A very strong faithful wife who supports me. In those times of discouragement and trial/ She has been by my side, a wonderful Christian advisor. The call in my life came early, I didn’t respond to that call until I was 40 years old. The urgency to stay the course has been important to me. My call from God has been that strong source of power to continue throughout whatever. The third thing is that I just don’t think I would like to do anything else. I have enjoyed my walk with him, and it has taken me places I would never anticipated I would go in ministry. I have gotten involved in the local, state, and regional level over 25 years and that has been very rewarding.”
Lloyd Harlan – “I think it’s the commitment that I made. The understanding of the scripture, this is a lifelong commitment, you’re not in it just for the moment. For the long haul. I love the lord and I wanted to serve him. I appreciated all that he did for me, and I could never fully repay him.”
Morris Now – “I had a kind of difficult time in the pastorate because I had 6 children, for the most part could not afford to be a minister. I had to look for other work, besides three churches in Penn, when Dr. Fox came to me, I took it. When the Y came to me, I took it, When the county came to me I took it. Not because I wanted to do secular work necessarily, I had 6 kids they take support. Most of the churches were not paying the kind of salaries that I really needed. I did not stop doing Christian work… I served as a supply pastor in probably 50% of churches in Ohio in the last 50 years. For the last 18 years I was the director of human services in Mercer county (Welfare services). Worked for 14 Years in the YMCA, 2 year spent as director of admission of UF. I was a Christian in my secular work. Taking care of people is a Christian profession.”
How do you think the years of service changed you? How are you different now then when you began your pastoral journey?
Rick Mason – “Obviously you grow and mature. You learn to sort out those things that are important and critical. Chuck Swindoll is always saying keep the main thing the main thing. That would be my summary, you grow in faith, you mature. You learn which things are worth fighting for. Choose your battles. I think over the years, at this point of life, finding myself not so quick to become bothered by things that won’t make a difference in the long run but keep focused on what matters today and what is going to make the difference for the long future. I’m 72 years old and I still don’t know what I’m doing. When you think you know something. You find you know nothing as you ought to know.”
Tim Eding – “I would like to think that I am the same person today that I was when I began ministry. Obviously, I was very naïve when I began—very care free and vibrant in how I approach all things. I’d like to think that I continue to have vibrancy in ministry. I continue to awaken each day excited about what I get to do and what God may do through me. As I’ve aged through the years, I would like to think that I picked up at least a small amount of wisdom that allows me to be effective in my work. I certainly am more efficient and have a great handle on time management. One of the greatest honors that I ever had was the opportunity to be under the mentorship of Dr. George Weaver after he retired as president of Winebrenner Seminary while I was in Reynoldsburg. He would meet me once a month and mentor me in spiritual discipline and was a great source of encouragement to my ministry. I can say that most of the daily spiritual discipline that I enjoy today was the result of how Dr. Weaver guided me in creating these disciplines in my life. I am still amazed that he took the time to give me that particular guidance then. My neurological issues that came on me nearly 20 years ago has caused me to physically slow down (more so than I desire). It’s even created a shift in my leadership with the great people of the church I am now serving. Before it was so easy to take the lead and charge up whatever “hill’ we as a church may desire to take. Now I am blessed to have many leaders—young and older alike—to lead the charge. My leadership has been more from “behind” and providing the encouragement and support as leaders are trained and set forth to minister.”
Lloyd Harlan – “Oh my. I’m sure the one thing that doesn’t change is change itself. I’ve appreciated things about my early ministry, but it’s always good to see some changes. Some are good, some are not so good. But we have to show forth the love of Christ external circumstances are. I suppose that change that’s been made in me, as you experience new things, it helps you grow, more understanding of people around you. You come to realize that there is a reason for everything, so if you plant good seed, you’ll get better results. God doesn’t change, it’s the world, or us that changes.”
Any words of wisdom for pastors young and old who aspire to a long life of service?
Jim Bear – “Yes. A word of wisdom to an individual going into ministry. Follow your heart. I’m not a logical thinker, but I do follow my heart. My wife is, and she helps me in the details. I just spoke to a young pastor, and he is worried about the congregation. I said look “You have a call, follow your heart and really pray to know God’s guidance for you. Spend time with him, find quiet time together.” Its exceptionally hard to do, especially for bi-vocational pastors. I’ve been bi-vocational for nearly 20 years. My heart has always been true so long as I am staying in the guidance of the word of God, not trying to do it on my own. Follow your heart, whatever God has laid on your heart for ministry. There is a place for both types of ministry. God uses the Timothys and the Moses and the Abrahams. Age is not anything that God considers to be favorable or detrimental to ministry.“
Tim Eding – “Quite frankly, I think this question is the easiest of all. I believe the key to a long and successful pastorate are two words. Love and Transparency. I do my very best to look at the people I have served over the past 40 years in the same way that Jesus looks at every one of them: with total love. The other word of wisdom I might offer is to not take oneself so seriously or pretend to be someone that you are not. I am not afraid to let the people that I serve know of my imperfections and my failures. My struggle at walking with the Lord is just as real as anyone else. For me to pretend that I have it all together spiritually is a lie and the people I serve need to know where I fall short. I am not above using my own life as a sermon illustration in my messages when I have messed up. I want people to see me as one who is saved by the grace of God and that I am not deserving of this grace. I think it makes me very relatable and it has helped me with the longevity I have had in all of the churches I have served.”
Rick Mason – “Number 1, make sure you spend time in the word for the purpose of growth, not just for ministry. Within the pastorate we have a tendency to spend time in the scripture to prepare sermons. We have a tendency to lose fervor and love for Christ. Always make your family and your marriage top priorities. Never allow the church to become your mistress. It’s really never about you. It’s always about the kingdom of Christ first. It’s about the places he gives you to serve second, and about you third. I would encourage every young pastor, if they are married, to have getaway time. Keep your marriage fresh. It doesn’t matter what stage of life you’re in, taking care of yourself, your family, spending time alone. Try to do some kind of self improvement seminar once a year. I do something for my wife to get away, and then do something for myself personally. Seasoned pastors have become complacent or burnt out and that is a poison to your soul. Be excited about the people God has given to you to minister.”
On Wednesday June 22nd I sat down to speak with the Teaching Pastor from Celina First Church of God, Craig Flack. We spoke for close to 2 hours, and in that time Pastor Craig spoke to me about his successes, his struggles, and his beliefs. At risk of giving the rest of the story away, I found his story and his perspective on it to be immensely uplifting. At the core of Craig’s pastoral philosophy is recognizing God as sovereign and embracing the way in which God has created you, with uniqueness and originality.
Which brings us to Craig’s title, “Teaching Pastor”. On the Celina First website he is titled as a Teaching Pastor, and his emails are also signatured the same. I asked him about this somewhat trendy title, in light of the fact that the position Craig is in would normally be called “Lead/Senior Pastor”. He told me that “My primary job is to teach and preach. Where God has gifted me is teaching the word of God.” Pastor Craig’s history and life experiences line up with this assessment. He started college with a trajectory towards history education, a.k.a. teaching. By the time he realized that he wanted to pursue ministry, he was already so far down the history program that he switched to being just a history major instead. But his work with the Christian organization Young Life, and his discipleship opportunities galvanized his resolve to keep learning (this time about theology) and to pursue teaching.
“God has turned it around and used it as an amazing tool.”
That God has gifted him with the ability to teach well, I think, is worn like a badge of honor for Pastor Craig. You see, Craig has a learning disability, which is not something you would know while talking to him. In fact, he spoke so quickly that I struggled to take notes. But it means he has always struggled with certain aspects of study. “I have been in remedial English and language classes from grade school on up. I had extra time in every test. I had tests read to me. Reading and reading retention, I’ve always struggled in school.” And yet he still believes he is gifted at teaching. He describes his preparation process as so strenuous, that by the time he is done, anyone can understand it. “God has turned it around and used it as an amazing tool. I have to simplify things way down, and then naturally I teach it in such a way that anybody can get it. It’s low shelf, accessible to anyone. I put it at a 7th grade reading level.”
Somewhat humorously, Pastor Craig called himself the “NIV of teaching”, referencing the fact that the NIV intends to use common English that can be understood by a wide range of people and audiences across the globe. It’s because of this that Pastor Craig doesn’t accept excuses from others who say that “reading scripture is too hard”, or that “they just don’t understand it.” He says that “I’m not the smartest person in the room. So what else is your excuse?” Craig sees his learning disability in the light of how it benefits his community, of how God has used it to improve his teaching skills. The older folks in his congregation were given hope by his deep knowledge of scripture, and with how well he communicated it. Some said that “I didn’t know the young generation still believed” although, somewhat ironically, Craig wanted nothing to do with God through most of his adolescent years. Yet he was proof to them that the young generation could still grapple with the text and preach it with sincerity and truth.
Pastor Craig’s perspective on this issue upholds his belief that God’s sovereignty is at play in the way we are created as individuals, that we are made uniquely, with intention and purpose. This is not to say that he didn’t struggle, that he never wanted to give up or that he didn’t become overwhelmed at times. In fact, his seminary experience was so tough that he was ready to quit. “I felt very dumb because the rest of my classmates were crushing it. I had an arrogance to hide behind other giftings God has given to me. [I felt that] I shouldn’t have to feel dumb.” But it was Becca, his wife, who, without saying a word, sat him down and helped him study, reinforcing the fact that, with time and perseverance, he could learn the material. He said “she literally read every single paper I wrote for Winebrenner. Seminary is OUR degree. Graduation felt like a culmination for us. We did this together.”
Winebrenner proved to be just the right place for Pastor Craig. “They were looking to equip the called. Dr. Sweeney (current director of the M.Div. program) would remake tests and give me the opportunity to retake the test after he personally tutored me. That’s what’s special about Winebrenner. They were going to work with me because I was going to put the work in. They cared about me enough to walk alongside me. You didn’t have to be a 4.0 student for them to care.”
Craig recalled that during one of his courses, while learning about flood myths from other religions, he was simultaneously helping a woman who was struggling to feed her children. It was this balance of perspectives, the vast breadth of learning he was accomplishing at seminary, in combination with his practical ministry experience that enabled him to be a Teaching Pastor. Not just a teacher, whose goal is to help people learn new things, like ancient flood myths, but a pastor who was knowledgeable and capable of meeting people where they are in their faith journey.
“They cared about me enough to walk alongside me. You didn’t have to be a 4.0 student for them to care.”
For Pastor Craig, having a clear, intentional label also “establishes healthy expectations.” It helps the congregation understand that he has a specific gifting and calling, and that likewise, other pastors, elders, and leaders in the church have their own giftings which should be utilized. He didn’t want to set the precedent that by being the “lead” pastor or the “senior” pastor, that he felt he was more important or wholly in charge.
Not long after graduating, Pastor David Odegard (a seminary “battle-buddy”, from Wharton First Church of God) suggested that Craig should apply for the open pastor position at Celina First CoG. When applying for the position, Craig was told by a close friend (Matt Cable) to “Go in and be completely yourself. The worst thing that can happen is they hire the person you pretended to be.” There was some speculation that Craig might not get the job, given that it was a very good position and he was fresh out of seminary with about 5 years of practical ministry experience. After his first interview, Celina First called the Flack family almost immediately to schedule a second interview. Apparently, God was moving on the elders of Celina. Craig preached at Celina the following week, did a second interview, and was unanimously accepted as the next pastor of Celina First Church of God. If it sounds fast written down, that’s because it all happened quickly for Pastor Craig as well. In about 8 days, Craig went from a ‘hail Mary’ interview for a dream job to accepted. Meanwhile, Celina First gave the Flack family the stability they needed for Becca to be able to be a stay at home mother, something that has been a tremendous blessing for their family.
It is no secret that Celina First has been flourishing. When Pastor Craig officially started in January of 2016, the church was averaging around 130 people every week. Now, they average around 300. When asked about this, Pastor Craig said that “The reason we have succeeded in a ministry sense is that we are a healthy church. God has provided the growth, a word that people can understand, and a healthy church family. It wasn’t because I was cool.” He stressed just how lovely his church family is, and how they have enabled him to flourish and have supported his vision for the community. Craig says that he is able to lead from “90% relational authority and 10% positional authority”. It’s not his title that keeps people listening to him, it’s the strong relationships he, and his church family, have built. Likewise, he attributes the church’s success in every category first to God’s sovereignty, and second, to the kind, welcoming nature of the congregation.
At the same time, he recognizes that this isn’t a simple rubric for church success. “I have no tips. There are many pastors who have done this and do not have growth. I’ve seen others do the same things and haven’t seen that growth. It’s hard and difficult.”
I next asked Pastor Craig about how being a pastor has affected his family life. Largely, I get the sense that the church has been a boon and a blessing, particularly in the way the church has adopted Becca and their children, Elsie and Lincoln. Still, like many of the pastors I have spoken to, Pastor Craig mentioned the value of proper boundaries. He puts his phone down from the time he’s home until his children go to bed. His vacations are off limits from ministry work. Overall, he doesn’t want his family to resent the church or his occupation as a pastor. For Pastor Craig this takes the form of modeling consistency of character, being the same person on Sunday as he is on Tuesday. And again, that ever-present focus on God’s calling for your life is modeled for his children, who he doesn’t expect to go into ministry. Craig and Becca are excited to see what “wonderful plans” God has in store for their children’s lives. “I just hope I can teach her [Elsie] values. But it’s not for me to decide.” The rest is presumably between God and their children as individuals.
Lastly, I asked Pastor Craig to tell me what the gospel meant to him. His response is below, in full. But before that, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to read, and to Pastor Craig Flack for giving me his valuable time and sharing so many powerful pieces of advice.
“The blessing is that I get to be with the Lord through it all.”
“The gospel is first and foremost salvation. It is salvation from Hell and from self. Because Christ died, paid the penalty from my sins.
I am free from eternal punishment. It is freedom from hell and from my flesh.
It is a blessing. I am blessed to walk in the spirit. To walk in the path of righteousness. That can lead to a good home, good family. Not a health and wealth blessing. But I get to walk in with the lord in good days and bad days. The blessing is that I get to be with the lord through it all.”
If you want to visit Celina First Church of God, you can find more information on their websitehere. Or you can find them on Facebookhere.
I had always imagined that being a bi-vocational pastor was a last resort. A pessimistic view, I know, but you should understand that I had only ever seen full time pastors make the change to be bi-vocational because the church could no longer support them financially. Dwindling congregants and religious apathy means that small town churches sometimes find themselves with an ever aging, ever shrinking population. I had always assumed that pastors felt they were called into ministry, and that this calling could only be fully realized if they were a full-time pastor. I say “I had” because my opinion has since changed, in no small part because of a fruitful discussion I had with Pastor Jason Boroff of Mendon First Church of God. Jason told me his story while sitting in his backyard, surrounded by 3 acres, some chickens, a few goats, and a lovely garden (or so he tells me, we were doing this over zoom after all). He spoke to me about his journey to Christ, about his immediate family, his church family, and about the Mendon community.
“It scared hell out of me. That was my version of coming to Christ”
Jason was 34 years old when he came to Christ. Before this he had already been going to church for a few years because Kristina, his wife, had been attending Mendon for most of her life. He hadn’t grown up Christian, and he told me that in his youth, “I wasn’t interested. I always felt really uncomfortable. Like I was being watched.” Jason’s decision to commit himself was largely because of Pastor Dean Bruce’s influence, and a Christian radio show that had caught his attention. When I asked what clicked for him, he said “Being prepared for, not the end, but your end. You don’t know when your time is done.” Being puny, he chuckled that “It scared hell out of me. That was my version of coming to Christ”
It’s interesting to me that Jason, who had been largely uninterested in God for 3 decades, would feel compelled to seek Him out when confronted with ideas of death. And that is an important distinction that should be made. Despite not being a Christian, Jason was probably never an atheist. I asked him if there was always an underlying belief in God and he said “One of the influences in my life was my uncle. When we were just little kids, I remember him taking us to vacation bible school. There were nudges all along the way. You find yourself praying but you don’t know how to do it, or who you’re praying too. I would say, definitely was.” The family and culture that Jason grew up in had instilled in him a sense, however faint, that there was a god out there somewhere, watching and listening. I wonder how often this still happens? Is a growing atheistic sense in our culture making this less likely? About 5 years ago, Jason was being considered for the pastorship of Mendon First Church of God. Pastor Dean had decided that it was time for him to retire, and be with his family in Montana. The elders of the church convened to decide who would move into a position of leadership. By this time, Jason had genuinely taken hold of his faith. His many questions required answers and so he asked his wife, and if she couldn’t answer them, he asked Pastor Dean. He found a passion for learning about the Christian faith, and as his knowledge grew, he found an equal passion in educating others about Christianity. He taught children, and this naturally extended into teaching adults as well. All along, Jason never stopped asking, learning and teaching. Even as he moved out of the area of Christian ed, he assumed the role of Elder and helped give the sermon when Pastor Dean was away, sometimes preaching for a whole month straight. This transformation, from anxious outsider to gospel preacher, was one reason why the elders agreed that Jason should become the pastor of Mendon First CoG.
Yet, before Jason could accept the role, he needed to make one thing clear, he would not be leaving his current job, he would have to be a bi-vocational pastor. Jason works for an IT company, and he loves his job. So much so that he describes himself as a “data guy, a facts and figures kind of guy”. It’s the way he thinks, it’s even the way he approaches Christianity. He asks questions, gathers the data, and comes to a conclusion. One conclusion that Jason came to was that things in the church were going to need to change. “The church went from a full time pastor to a part time pastor. I knew I was going to need a lot of help from our church for them to step up and fill in.”
The way Pastor Jason describes his church family has helped to reframe the way I think about pastorship. Every year more and more books are published for pastors to read about motivating their congregation, about how to lead more effectively. Still, there is a sense that for some congregations, God is relegated to Sunday mornings, some holidays, and maybe the occasional potluck. If it is hard for a full time pastor to achieve and motivate their church family, how much harder for a bi-vocational pastor (I thought!). Pastor Jason suggests this is a misconception, and that, at least for his church family, it was exactly the opposite. “One of the benefits was to spread the need to be doers, instead of hearers only, to the rest of the church. It’s been really good, as far as that goes”.
“The church can’t just fall on the shoulders of one or two people. Sometimes it feels like it is. Like right now.”
Mendon First CoG responded by stepping in when Pastor Jason could not. Jason recalled a story he named “The March of the Moms”. According to him, there was a non-churched family that was struggling during a church gathering. Before he could move to comfort them, he watched as the church responded. “All the moms got up and took care of this family. I watched these people step out where I wasn’t used to them doing that. We all have to pull together to make this work. This is the only way we can do this. It’s one of those things that sticks in my brain.”
I have a heart for pastors who struggle under the weight of church obligations. Pastors who feel overwhelmed by their calling. And Pastor Jason summed a potential solution to this well, while speaking about the Covid19 pandemic. “The church can’t just fall on the shoulders of one or two people. Sometimes it feels like it is. Like right now.” The isolation exacerbates the feeling of having everything on your shoulders. Even still, Jason spoke fondly of the emails, texts, and phone calls that he gets from his church family, who are all yearning to worship and work together again.
“I would love to work myself out of a job. How cool would that be?”
When speaking about his calling to ministry, Jason spoke candidly about his goals. When Pastor Dean was the lead pastor, Jason had come alongside as a disciple, and grew under his leadership. Jason is currently looking for someone like that. He wants to raise up disciples who make disciples. He told me that “I would love to work myself out of a job. How cool would that be?” There is a humility to Pastor Jason that allows him to see his place at Mendon, not as the most important figure of his town, but as a dutiful servant. He cherishes this church and community and despite Mendon being a small church family, he doesn’t see it as a steppingstone to some extravagant church.
During the interview Jason often called his congregation his “church family”, and I’ve tried to reflect that here as well. The change of terms isn’t just idiosyncratic though, he has a good reason. Jason’s wife and four children have all helped and been a part of the church. In a way, the church has become a family business, with Kristina helping with church finances and while one of his sons has become a trustee. When Jason goes to work at the church, they all go. I asked Pastor Jason about the struggles of being a pastor, and about how it might have affected his family life. He told me that first and foremost, he works to protect his wife from the ugly side of ministry. “It’s something I still practice as much as I can. Protecting our marriage at the same time. Family comes before that, for us, but at the same time, our family does all that. It’s all together.” This strategy was learned from one of his mentors, Pastor Randy Christian of the Lord’s Abounding Grace Church in Celina, OH. Pastor Darwin Dunten of Mt. Tabor Church of God has also been influential and helpful to Jason, who found that confiding only in his family about the struggles of ministry can over burden them with stress.
Another aspect of ministry that Jason helped illuminate for me is that bi-vocational could just as easily be called bi-ministerial. His IT job has also been a place where he can have meaningful discussions at the lunch table, sometimes even gospel discussions. Speaking fondly of his co-workers and his IT job he said, “It’s an opportunity to make connections. We joke about things. It’s an opportunity to show how Christians in general can be examples outside of the church.” And opportunities like this extend out to his Kristina’s occupation as well, who gets to talk about her faith and beliefs. It’s a ministry for the whole family, and it’s a way of life for the Boroffs.
Bi-vocational ministry is as much of a calling as any form of ministry, and it’s something I’ve had to reconsider. Pastor Jason and his family demonstrate the Christian values of service that Christian ministers often aspire to. His continued pursuit of Christian learning, as he pursues a PTI degree from Winebrenner Theological Seminary is also indicative of this. Likewise, his fresh take on the benefits of a small churches, and bi-vocational ministry were genuinely uplifting.
The last question I asked Pastor Jason was “what the gospel means to you?” His response is below. Before I leave you with that, I want to thank Pastor Jason for donating to me his time, and for graciously correcting me when I said “Nice to meet you”. (We were together in class for 12 weeks!)
“The gospel is the good news that helps us point them towards Jesus. What it means to me is: the way to live. It travels with you through your faith. It’s the truth that leads you to Christ. Shows you how to live. The light we give to others as we are handing it on. The guide to how we treat others. It encompasses all of life. The fact that the gospel is bound, in and through Jesus. It’s the meaning of everything. Living for him, through him, being his hands and feet through it all. And trusting.”
Thanks to the power of Zoom (which has seemingly become a national treasure for face to face interaction) I was able to speak with Pastor Tim Eding of Leipsic First Christian Church. What unfolded from this discussion was a two-hour long interview in which Pastor Tim told me his life story. He didn’t spare me his failures, nor did he flaunt his successes. For instance, he failed to mention his 15 yearlong firefighting career for the first hour and a half! To make up for that I’ve made sure to include it in the first paragraph. That being said, Pastor Tim’s story is one of shocking coherence and symmetry, and I hope to do justice to it (and him) by relaying it to you.
For the first 18 years of Tim Eding’s life, I don’t believe anyone would have guessed he was called to ministry. Not his family, not his friends, not even himself. By his own admission, he said “I grew up a heathen”. While Tim’s mother had been involved in the church, and had even had Tim baptized as a baby, that essentially stopped when she married. Tim’s father was, to put it kindly, uninterested in the church and young Pastor Tim’s own feelings reflected his father’s when he told me about an incident at his school’s cafeteria. “I was not kind to Christians at all. There was a young man, my classmate when we were in the 10th grade, attempting to witness Jesus to me. I shouted him down in front of a whole cafeteria full of kids. Told him, he wasn’t going to turn me into a Jesus freak like he was…I never heard him talk about Jesus again.” While this friend was unable to penetrate Tim’s heart, someone else did, and in more ways than one. After taking a job at a grocery store, Tim met a young lady by the name of Denise. As it turns out, Denise herself was a Christian, and while contemplating her faith, she decided she couldn’t date anyone who wasn’t also a Christian. Upon learning of this, Tim decided to do some research. “I read the definition of Christianity; I remember thinking ‘I could pretend to be a Christian’.” Tim fell in love with Denise, and the feelings were mutual, given that Tim and Denise have been married for 45 years.
Denise would prove to be massively influential in Pastor Tim’s life in general, and his Christian life specifically. She invited him to camp Otyokwah where he would finally make a quiet, private confession to God for salvation. Tim said that when he arrived, “I was a fish out of water. I had no desire to be a part of this youth program. That evening, a girl from Toledo was baptized and I didn’t know what was going on.” But the next morning, at Vesper Hill, Steve Binkley, preached and an 18-year-old Tim Eding listened. “He told a story about Jesus going to the cross to die and said, ‘If I was the only person left on earth, Jesus still would have died for my sins.’ I looked up at the cross on Vesper Hill and in my mind’s eye I could visualize Jesus up on that cross and it shook me up.” Tim Eding was saved September 23rd, 1974, at 18 years old. But Tim’s journey to ministry was arduous. He struggled with accepting his faith because he knew that becoming a Christian wasn’t something to be taken lightly. Likewise, he knew that accepting Christ would mean rejection elsewhere.
It was months before he found the strength to tell the friend who he had shouted down in high school. After that, Tim told me he “felt permission to tell anybody”. While Denise was excited and supportive when she found out, Tim’s closest friends turned their backs on him. Perhaps most crushing was the rejection from his own family. Having myself grown up with an entirely supportive family, this part of Tim’s story was particularly challenging for me to consider. How does someone who’s rejected Christianity their whole life suddenly find meaning in it, even when it comes at great personal cost?
Tim’s father had been grooming him for political life, and his first year of college had continued on that trajectory, but during that year he was continually feeling the call of ministry. His first attempt to realize this call came when he spoke to his mother. He surprised her by meeting her at work and asked her what she thought of his pursuing ministry. “There are worse things you could do”, she said. It wasn’t the rousing vote of confidence Tim might have desired, but it was the push he needed to tell his father. Tim’s father didn’t understand, in the same way that Tim himself hadn’t understood. A year prior at Tim’s high school graduation party, Tim’s father had spoken so boldly to aunts and uncles about his son’s political aspirations, about his college potential. And now Tim was threatening to dash those vicarious dreams.
You see, Tim’s father hadn’t received an advanced education, and according to Tim, his father seemed to believe that his life would have been better if he had. He was himself motivated to political action within his community and he wanted a better life for Tim. “He equated college with financial success. He felt that his life would have been better with a degree. When he realized I wasn’t going to be making money in ministry he didn’t understand…he didn’t know what to do with me.” Despite this turmoil, Tim’s life was full of joy. Tim and Denise married in December of 1975.
What support he couldn’t find from his immediate family and friends, He found in Denise and Home Acres First Church of Toledo (Now Pathway Community Church). Tim described that at this point in life he was “going 100 miles an hour.” He worked part time as the youth minister for Home Acres, was a full-time student at University of Toledo, while still working full time at the grocery store. At Home Acres, he found a church family. “They nurtured me. Modeled for me what ministry was. They were so encouraging.”
“My first ministry is to my wife and my three sons and then to my church.”
At the age of 27, his breakneck pace carried him to two churches in western Ohio, Sugar Ridge Church of God and Olive Branch Church. Tim pastored both churches simultaneously while finishing his degree at Winebrenner Theological Seminary. “I was a city boy and they were as rural as rural could be. They were encouraging and they loved me as I love them.” Tim told me of humorous occasions where church congregants would hide toy mice in the church to scare Pastor Tim (who was deathly afraid of mice). “They took this green kid and loved me. I couldn’t have started in a better place.” There was a genuine fondness to the way Pastor Tim spoke about these two churches. But as we continued on with the interview, I asked about how pastorship had affected or changed his family dynamic. “I was so busy, and so focused that I missed a lot of my boys growing up. My poor wife was in the middle of a corn field, longing for adult conversation.” Pastor Tim’s 100 mile an hour lifestyle was taking a toll that went unnoticed for some time, and which, I would argue, isn’t talked about enough. While at a Billy Graham crusade, he became convicted that he was messing up his family life. “I had a breakdown.” He told me about how he had prioritized his ministry work over his family, and when Denise would speak up about it, he confessed that “I would put my wife in this horrible guilt trip.” After understanding what he had to do, Tim spoke earnestly with Denise, and changed course. In a profound statement that had me swallowing back tears, Tim said “My first ministry is to my wife and my three sons and then to my church.”
Pastor Tim next told me about one of the defining moments of his pastoral journey, which was a church plant in the Columbus area called “Sonlight Community Church.” (I’ve always appreciated a good pun). It was one of three Churches of God church plants in that area, and unfortunately, all three had to close eventually. Despite all the fancy marketing strategies they employed, despite all the adversity the church overcame at its start, it still closed down. As if this wasn’t disheartening enough, both Tim and Denise lost their other jobs at this time. In retrospect, I asked Tim how he managed to view all of this with a silver lining. “I refuse to listen to the people who said it failed”, he told me with sincerity. “The thing I took away, even though we had to close, I know 89 people who gave their life to Christ.” Pastor Tim has an infectiously positive attitude, and I found myself agreeing. “We closed the church in June, lost our jobs in August. We had 3 young boys, expensive rent. But we trusted in God. We never missed bills or rent payments…We would come home, and someone would have put a check in the mailbox or in the door. God never took his hand off us.” Pastor Tim described this whole experience as “failing forward” (borrowing the term from author John C. Maxwell). This church plant had taken Tim and his family from the country churches that they loved for the promise of pushing forward the kingdom. When Sonlight closed, it had Tim reconsidering his calling altogether.
“The thing I took away, even though we had to close, I know 89 people who gave their life to Christ.”
Yet, Tim and his family persevered as they looked for another church to pastor and serve. At the time, the Churches of God General Conference had almost no openings. Kris Cupp, a friend of Tim’s at the CGGC (and the current Director of Strengthening Churches), told him about her church in Leipsic that was looking for a pastor. The only problem was that it was not part of the CGGC. Upon hearing this, Tim turned it down. He explained the situation to Denise who asked, with wisdom, “what did the name of a church have to do with the Kingdom of God?” In September of 1994, Tim preached a trial sermon at Leipsic First Christian Church. The church then met without Tim to vote on whether or not he would be their pastor. Tim was warned by a friend that if the vote didn’t go in his favor, to not take it personally, because the church was likely to be partial to people from their denomination (Disciples of Christ). Tim patiently waited for the vote to be over. He described it as being somewhat agonizing, but it was worth it. The result was unanimous, 100% of the members had voted in favor of Pastor Tim.
It is here that Tim has stayed and served faithfully. Leipsic is where he and his family call home. Although, Tim has continued to serve the CGGC through many commissions, the Executive Board, and being the President of the Great Lakes Conference for the last 4 years (at time of writing). He told me that despite Leipsic having numerous other churches, he feels like he pastors the whole community in one capacity or another. For 15 years Tim was part of Leipsic’s Fire Department as a firefighter. And while he no longer fights fires, he still serves the department as a chaplain. As incredible as that is, other people openly questioned how a pastor could be around firefighters (who, in this case, were apparently comfortable with profanity). Tim told me that “I think Jesus would have been part of the fire department.”
Pastor Tim’s almost boundless optimism covered over one other significant aspect of his life, which is that Pastor Tim has Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP). I am, of course, not an expert, but Tim’s description is that HSP has severely limited his mobility. For instance, he drives with hand controls rather than pedals. Likewise, he tends to preach while sitting down. Yet he refuses to be wheelchair bound and Leipsic FCC has been immensely supportive, having funded a building project to put an elevator in the church. Despite his mobility challenges, you’re unlikely to catch Pastor Tim feeling sorry for himself. When a prophetic woman told him that he “would be healed if only he had more faith”, Pastor Tim responded by saying “God has healed me in many ways already.” Likewise, Tim held confidently to the fact that whether it’s in this life or the next, he would walk again unaided. Have I mentioned his optimism?
Lastly, I asked Tim what the Gospel meant to him. I will leave you with his response below. Thank you for reading and thank you Pastor Tim Eding for being so gracious with his time.
“It’s the good news of Jesus Christ. Especially in today’s day and time, it’s news that needs to be proclaimed. With the fact that there are so many people without hope. They don’t see a future. If it hadn’t been for the gospel, the good news, it would be so devastating to not have any hope at all…. Jesus Christ has come, died for our sins, resurrected on the third day and offers eternal life for all who believe…. It’s pretty simple, Jesus lays it right out for us.”
On April 20th I sat down for a phone call with Paul Rutledge, the Pastor of Risingsun First Church of God, in Risingsun Ohio. During our hour and a half long call, Pastor Paul spoke candidly about his life, with occasional injections of humor. Pastor Paul’s story has been at times conventional, at other times genuinely shocking and yet he told all of it with humility, and often fondness at even the roughest patches. What follows is an overview of my interview with Pastor Paul Rutledge about his life and pastoral journey. I hope reading it will be as uplifting for you as hearing it was for me.
“That is where my grandparents faith became my faith.”
One could say (and indeed I am saying) that Pastor Paul Rutledge is a quintessential Churches of God General Conference pastor. Not because the CGGC would collapse without him, instead Pastor Paul has brought to bear a lifetime of loyalty to the Churches of God. Having been brought up in the Ohio City Community Church of God in his youth, Pastor Paul has continued to serve in some capacity since his initial conversion experience at Camp Otyokwa when he was about 10. Kneeling at the cross on Vesper Hill in 1979, a young Paul Rutledge prayed to God. But, he did not pray alone, and this is a point worth mentioning. Pastor Paul’s story is filled with the names of those people who have helped him along the way. Wayne Hefner prayed with him on that hill, while Bob Eatherton was the Vesper Leader. And he drove the point home when he said, “That is where my grandparent’s faith became my faith.”
“From 1990 through 1993 I got a rejection letter from all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii…”
Pastor Paul’s grandparents (Joe and Juanita Brown – Mother’s side, and Jake and Betty Rutledge – Fathers side) were absolutely foundational in his Christian walk. “I am a pastor because of my grandparents”, he told me. Yet, despite this strong Christian foundation, and despite his numerous church/camp involvements, Pastor Paul seemed to push away the thought of an explicitly Christian vocation. To be sure, his professional intentions were to be an educator, while his religious intentions were “to grow up and be a good church adult.” On more than one occasion, mentors and leadership figures in Paul’s life expressed that he was clearly cut out for ministry. And while a young Paul Rutledge pushed forward with his B.A. in Comprehensive Social Science Education at the University of Findlay (then Findlay College), it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that God had other plans.
Having graduated in 1990, Paul struck out to find a teaching job. It would be an understatement to say that he cast a wide net. Paul found out quickly that very few places were looking for social science teachers. Paul’s search lasted for three years and during much of that time he was working at a factory job that he hated. “From 1990 through 1993 I got a rejection letter from all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii…”, it’s hard to imagine how difficult 50 separate rejections letters would be, but to hear him tell it now, it sounded more like brag or a badge of honor. At the end of this, Paul told me that he had “a dark night of the soul”, where he spoke to God frankly, and God spoke back essentially saying “you’re not doing what I want you to do, I want you to be a pastor”.
On Paul’s birthday in 1993, he spoke with pastor Bill Reist, who (while working at Winebrenner) apparently asked him the right questions, and Paul began to see his calling more clearly. He initially enrolled at Winebrenner as a half measure, intending to take only a few classes. With his trademark honesty, and somewhat ironically, Paul told me that “Seminary was hard as hell. When I finally got with the program, life got a lot better.” And through this time, God continued to open doors, clear paths, and make ways. Finances were taken care of, and clear confirmation of Paul’s calling came from both Christians and non-Christians alike.
“The number one thing you are getting paid to do is to love people.”
What interested me in his tumultuous journey is that Pastor Paul had a God focused mindset through it all. This is something that we may take for granted, as postmodern thought has moved us away from God as a foundational part of the world. Today struggles are often seen as a sign of God’s absence, instead of his dogged persistence to move you into a particular direction. But, this is how Pastor Paul understood his trials, not as meaningless suffering, but as God closing doors with a purpose. Paul’s view on God’s testing was made explicit when he said that “The proof that there is a God is because of the challenges in life.” When I asked Pastor Paul about this point, he reiterated that through all of his struggles, he has been empowered and uplifted by the people around him, going as far to definitively say that “Pastors wives are the unsung heroes of pastoral ministry.”
During seminary, Paul started an internship at Risingsun Church of God, and had very little intentions of staying there. But, the internship transitioned into a youth position, and eventually Risingsun hired him as their full-time pastor in 1996. But, even at this point, Pastor Paul was confident that he wouldn’t be there long. If for no other reason than because pastors don’t historically stay at any church for as long as he has.
Pastor Paul intended to be at Risingsun for no more than 7 years, with hopes of moving to a bigger city. Yet 24 years after arriving at Risingsun, he’s still there. Paul recognizes that he is a small-town kind of guy. “The church is small and rural, and I can’t seem to get away from small and rural… I seem to relate to that demographic really well.”
I assumed that 24 years of pastoral service was not all sunshine, and Pastor Paul assured me that it wasn’t. When asked about becoming disillusioned with pastoral work he responded “Oh yeah. I don’t have enough fingers and toes. It’s been too many [times].” He seemed to struggle with figuring out the metrics, about what defines success for a pastor, and what defines failure. “The number one thing you are getting paid to do is to love people. But, every person you are getting paid to love gets to define what that is, and it can change at any moment.” This relational aspect was central to Paul’s philosophy of ministry, but its clear that it is also a point of frustration. “It is tough, draining and confusing”, he said, before telling me that anyone seeking to be a pastor need to steel themselves, because “you are going to have your guts ripped out a couple of times. You are going to be hurt in ways you didn’t think was fathomable.” Despite how bleak this might sound, Paul made sure to reiterate that this is just part of the job. It is part of loving people and helping them deal with their problems. In what felt like a summation of 1 Corinthians 13, Pastor Paul said “I can have all the training I want. I can preach brilliantly, but if they don’t think you love them, you are not going anywhere.” While pastoralship isn’t always sunshine, sometimes it is and Paul reflected on how well his years of service have gone at Risingsun. “My church gave me a lot of flexibility, they let me do extracurriculars. They have been very good to me.” Being a self-described ‘family man”, he was also thankful for not having missed much time with his children. In fact, Paul described a particular type of bond that formed between his family and the church when he had his first child there. “Having your first kid while pastoring, it does something for the congregation.”
While speaking to Paul about stressors, he spoke about how things that stressed him when he first started, like writing sermons or leading studies, have all become natural for him. It’s the special circumstances, like weddings, or funerals that can put him on edge. He said, somewhat comedically that “Even after 24 years of public speaking, I can still walk up and sound like a blithering idiot.” Despite his self-deprecating sense of humor, Paul recognizes that he has become “the funeral pastor” because his eulogies are often meaningful gifts to the family of the deceased. Probably due, in no small part, to his candor and humor. As a closing question I asked, “What does the gospel mean to you?” And rather than expound upon his answer, I will leave it as it is below.
“For me, it’s why I fell in love with Jesus in the first place. Christianity is the most fun you will have in this life with no regrets. When Jesus shows up, you have forgiveness of sins, you have the promise of eternal life. You have purpose, and truth, and in a sense, you have morality. You have love. And it’s all about relationships. If people don’t believe you love them, you’re sunk. It will change your reason for being here.”
Thank you for reading and thank you to Pastor Paul Rutledge for giving up his time to talk with me and to open up with such sincerity. Listening to him speak and writing this brief interview has been very moving for me. Likewise, I hope this small portion of Paul’s story has spoken to you.