From his office in downtown Colorado Springs, Colo. thirty-years ago, the Reverend H.B. London could see for miles, including the summit of Pikes Peak, as well as up and down the Front Range.
But what he couldn’t see was the future success of Clergy Appreciation Month – an initiative he would launch in October of 1992 from that same Focus on the Family office, and an occasion that even Hallmark Cards would eventually acknowledge and even help popularize.
As the son of a pastor, and a longtime one himself, the Reverend London was intimately familiar with the challenges of shepherding the flock. In fact, when he resigned his role as senior pastor at Pasadena Nazarene Church, he joined the Focus staff with the sole purpose of lightening the clergy’s burden. Setting aside the month of October for people to encourage their pastor was a natural manifestation of this desire – and now three decades later, and four years since the Reverend London’s death, the tradition lives on.
“H.B.’s Salem (Oregon) congregation were the original clergy appreciators,” recalled Sue McFadden, the Reverend London’s longtime assistant at two churches and for his entire twenty-year tenure at Focus on the Family. “The encouragement and love meant so much to him, that he was eager to share it with everyone else.”
Pastors serve an oversized role in many Christians lives. Whether influenced by their teaching and preaching, or comforted by a word or visit on a difficult day, they cast long shadows for many believers. We all have a favorite – or many.
Raised in a Catholic family, my first pastor was Monsignor Joseph Lawlor, a large man straight from Central Casting. He would walk the town in a black cassock with purple buttons and black cap. He seemed to be everywhere. I actually interviewed him as an eighth-grader and portrayed him in a school play. I told him I wanted to be a writer and he told me to keep at it, that with God all things were possible. He was kind and loved to laugh.
Other favorite pastors included Len Devitt, an Irishman with a thick brogue, Frank Midura, a volunteer fireman who always had a joke punctuated by a moral lesson and Tom Catania – a Shakespearian scholar who would punctuate his final message by saying, “The Mass never ends! Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Dr. John Stevens of First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs became my pastor when I began my ministry at Focus on the Family. Growing up at Hollywood Presbyterian Church under Dr. Louise Evans and Dr. Raymond Lindquist, John was also influenced by the great Henrietta Mears, who served as the church’s Christian Education Director.
I looked forward to Dr. Stevens’ weekly sermons and series, which always reminded me of exquisite paintings. A great storyteller, his messages were full of color and biblical commentary, and which came beautifully together in an inspirational conclusion. Overseeing the congregation, he fretted over details – because those details impacted people.
John’s successor was Dr. Jim Singleton, another masterful teacher and conversational preacher. Serving on the church session, I came to appreciate Jim’s practical and pragmatic tendencies. When debate began churning over a particular issue, Jim remarked that sessions (and many Christians) tend to catastrophize issues. I loved that word. He also said wise pastors don’t pick up snakes in a sermon that they can’t slay in the same message.
Thanks to podcasting and the internet, four additional pastors continue to shepherd me, and three of them are deceased! I value the teaching and preaching of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Dr. James Boice and Dr. Adrian Rogers, three pastors who have gone onto Glory. Dr. Tim Keller, though now retired, has plenty of sermons available online.
When my father was dying, Jim DeJarnette, our music minister, would come and visit, even whispering words of assurance into my dad’s ear just hours before his death.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Reverend Jennings Hamilton, my father-in-law who raised and shepherded my wife. If not for him, I would not be happily married to Julie.
Which of your pastors have had the greatest influence or impact on you?
It’s not easy being a pastor, especially in an increasingly secular world. Encourage them. Praise them. And thank the Lord for their ministry to you and the broader world.
The Reverend H.B. London would often encourage his flock by pointing out something good they were doing and then say or write, “Keep it going!”
Pastors need to hear the same type of encouragement from us – and not just during the month of October.