Over my 25 years as a pastor, I worked with various church boards, and many board chairmen.
Up until my last several years in ministry, I got along with all of them, and considered each one a personal friend.
The first chairman I served with was 74 years old. I was only 27. We used to drive up Interstate 880 to Oakland from Silicon Valley together and watch the Oakland A’s play.
Another chairman met me at 6:00 am on Tuesday mornings for prayer. He lived right behind the church and could tell when I was working because he could see my car in the parking lot.
A third chairman helped spearhead a radical change: selling our church property so we could start a new church with a new name in a new location … with a new mission.
The above gentleman have all gone home to be with the Lord.
Still another chairman helped guide my last church through fundraising and the construction of a new worship center … and always had my back, for which I will always be grateful.
But I’d like to tell you about someone who was, in my mind, the ideal board chairman. His name?
Russ and his wife AJ came to our church in Santa Clara in the spring of 1993.
At the time, we were meeting in a warehouse with a concrete floor. The sound from the stage during the Sunday service was bouncing all over the room.
Russ and his wife kept coming back to the church, and they eventually donated funds for the warehouse to be carpeted.
Through a series of events, Russ became an elder, and then chairman of the board.
Here’s why he did such a great job:
*Russ spent time getting to know me. He knew what I liked and didn’t like. He knew how to talk my language so that I listened and heeded his advice. We became a team.
*Russ had an extensive business background and wasn’t intimidated by the company that managed the warehouse (which I was). Because a contractor had cheated us financially before Russ’ arrival, we had some rough days financially as a congregation, yet Russ handled all financial discussions with a calm and confident demeanor, which freed me to focus on ministry.
*Russ also knew how to correct me when necessary. One time, when ministry stresses were getting to me, I didn’t handle myself well in a board meeting. Russ took me out to breakfast, told me how I was coming across, suggested how to handle things in the future, and gave me a letter to reiterate his concerns (which I still have). He never ran me down to others or plotted behind my back. He was always up front and honest with me.
*Russ let me know that he was there to serve me and the agenda God had given me. He considered me to be the professional. While this didn’t mean that he always agreed with my ideas, he always respected me, and I could sense that respect. Russ didn’t meet with the board in secret to create and institute his own agenda: he always tried to carry out mine.
In fact, five years ago, he wrote a blog article about the role of the board chairman in relation to the pastor at my request:
Russ also had some personal qualities that I found endearing:
*He was a big kidder. I come from a family where some of the men – including my father – enjoyed verbal sparring, and I enjoyed joking with Russ immensely.
*He was outgoing and friendly. He could talk with anybody about anything … and frequently did. To this day, everybody in my family loves Russ.
*He was a big sports fan, and especially loved the Los Angeles Dodgers and UCLA Bruins. When the Giants or 49ers lost, boy, did I hear about it! (Russ took me to my first NFL game. The 49ers beat New England 21-3, so you know it was a long time ago.)
*He was totally trustworthy. Several times, I found myself in dilemmas, and after talking with Russ, I knew what to do. When the board in my last church made some drastic decisions, I consulted with Russ, who told me exactly what they were doing … and he was right.
*He was incredibly generous. When I left the church in Santa Clara in early 1998, I joined the staff of a church in Arizona, but had to raise 1/3 of my salary. I appealed to family and friends for those funds, and Russ and his wife donated the largest monthly amount.
Russ and AJ moved to Arizona soon after I moved back to California, but we still saw each other a lot. They eventually moved to Wickenburg, Arizona, living on the edge of town closest to California.
When we could, we’d go to a spring training game together, whether in Scottsdale to watch the Giants …
… or to Tempe to watch the Angels and Giants.
When I turned 60 nearly three years ago, Russ and AJ made the long drive from Wickenburg to a Fuddrucker’s in Orange County which touched me deeply.
And like me, Russ enjoyed obtaining signatures from former baseball players, like Bobby Richardson, former second baseman of the New York Yankees from the late 1950s and early 1960s:
Over the course of my ministry, I’ve discovered that many churchgoers try and befriend their pastor while they’re attending a particular church, but drop him like a hot potato when either he or they leave.
Russ wasn’t like that. The friendship that we developed transcended the typical pastor-parishioner relationship.
When we both lived in Arizona a few years ago, we frequently had breakfast together … and I didn’t want those times to end.
To me, Russ was a father figure, a mentor, and a ministry partner.
But most of all, Russ was my friend.
After a stroke and a series of illnesses, God took Russ home several weeks ago. Fortunately, I was able to see him one final time last spring when he was staying at a rehab center in Surprise, Arizona.
Even though he wasn’t as sharp or as quick as usual, he was still the same Russ … and he still loved his Lord.
I will be speaking at his memorial service this weekend in Wickenburg, and I’ve already shared with you what I’ll be saying.
Russ, thanks for being my friend. I miss you, but know that I will see you one day when we reunite around the throne of God.
And when that day comes, we won’t have to talk about politics – or straightening out the world – any more.