Note - I originally posted this on June 26, 2004 as a tribute to my mentor, Rod Whited. He is retiring this weekend and I wanted to resurrect this post as a further tribute to a great friend, great mentor and great man of God. I've edited this a bit and some of it is a bit out of date, especially considering that I am referencing a 2004 Tiger Woods who was struggling but who has apparently gotten his swing back of late.
To a hammer everything looks like a nail and to a preacher everything looks like a sermon illustration. So it was this week, as I was perusing the new Sports Illustrated and landed upon this week's column by Rick Reilly, aka "America's Greatest Sportswriter." Rick's column is called "The New Tiger Rules," offering new rules for the press as they cover Tiger's career. As I went through the article, several times I had the compulsion to say "that'll preach."
But as I considered the sermonic value of some of Reilly's quotes my thoughts turned in a different direction. He had a few things to say about peaking early and about listening to coaches and making changes accordingly. For some reason or another my thoughts then turned to my old boss and pastor, and current friend and mentor, Rod Whited, of Pinewood Presbyterian Church in Middleburg, FL..
As I get older (I'm a whopping 40 now - "hey granny, pass me my teeth and bifocals, why dont ya!") I realize more and more just how much I owe to certain people who have poured their lives into me. Rod is one of those. He is due to retire next year and, since ol' Rick Reilly has put me in a sentimental mood, I thought I would offer an early tribute to Rod. Rod's very well known in PCA denominational circles, especially in central and north Florida, and I can imagine that, as retirement nears, tributes and words of thanksgiving will pour in, so I'm just beating everyone else to the punch. Which, if Rod reads this will come as a shock since I have always made it a habit to be the last one to do anything. Before I relate Rick's rules to Rod's leadership lessons, let me invite you on a stroll down memory lane.
When I was in seminary I was under the care of the Central Florida Presbytery of the PCA and so would go to the presbytery meetings from time to time and Rod was always a player. He was quite intimidating actually. He had a real burr under his saddle for church planting. You could pretty well set your watch for the time at each presbytery when Rod would make an impassioned appeal for church planting. I remember him saying one time "the Southern Baptists have more churches in Jacksonville than the PCA has in all of Florida." He wanted church plants and he wanted them now.
As providence would have it, toward the end of my seminary career, Steve Reese, the youth minister at Pinewood was moving on to plant Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Parker, CO. So, Rod went looking for a replacement. I got an interview with him and was appropriately intimidated. However, the interview went well. He had heard me preach at Presbytery and was impressed enough to see some potential in me. I say the interview went well, although it was by no means a textbook interview. Somehow we got around to the question of what I had to offer and I gave the answer that I would be F.A.T. - faithful, available and teachable. To me that seems to be what cinched the deal. He wasn't looking for a hotshot, he was looking for someone who would be a learner. So, I jumped through the rest of the hoops we PCA folks have to jump through and ended up going to Pinewood. One funny hoop jump I do remember was when it came time to talk salary. He asked me to tell him what I thought I needed. So, of course I shot high and was willing to negotiate down. I did all of the appropriate calculations and came up with what I was pretty sure was an outrageous figure. When it came time to talk I figured I was crazy and was actually quite sheepish when I gave him the figure, hoping he wouldn't laugh me out of his office. He said "oh, I was thinking more along the lines of $xxxxxx." "XXXXXX" was $3000 more than I had come in with. I thought it over and prayed about it for a millisecond before I said yes. I don't know if the financial people at Pinewood know that or if anyone will get on his case for that, but hey, what are they going to do, fire him? He's about to retire.
Working at Pinewood, working in youth ministry, and working for Rod was one of the most challenging and difficult experiences of my life, yet it was far and away the most joyful and rewarding experience of my life. To say I was green doesn't begin to describe it. To say I was wet behind the ears is an understatement, I was wet all over, my whole head may as well have been in a bucket. For all the posturing I did and pseudo confidence I exuded during the interview process I really didn't have a clue what I was doing. And I really didn't have a clue about what ministry was about.
This leads to the first valuable lesson I learned from Rod - seminary really doesn't prepare you for ministry. I still think seminary is an essential building block for ministry, but its one building block among many. Rod told me that it would take five years to get the seminary out of me. I didn't like it when he said that and in fact was a bit chagrined that he didn't show more appreciation for the fact that God had given him the gift of having such a theological giant as myself on his staff. However, this was the first of many times where I wouldn't see eye to eye with Rod and he would be proven right.
Over the years I truly had a love-hate relationship with Rod. I learned so much from him and was very grateful for all he taught me. Yet, being young and arrogant as I was, I often found myself butting heads with him. I wanted to quit about once a year (ok, maybe it was once every six months, except during those years when it was once every three months). But still, God in His grace somehow kept Rod from firing me, and kept me from moving on. And, in the process, I learned alot, even though it wasn't apparent at the time.
Just as kids don't really appreciate their parents until they get their own families, I didn't appreciate Rod until I became a pastor myself. I don't know how he did it, but somehow in those first few months after I left Pinewood and became a pastor myself, Rod took a quantum leap in wisdom, insight and knowledge of ministry. I often found myself thinking back to what he did in a similar situation, or imagining what he would have done in my current situation. And when I couldn't imagine it, I was on the phone with him.
And this brings me to some of those lessons learned. Rod has always had a passion for evangelism and church planting, but his passion for leadership is equal to those. When I was reading Rick Reilly's column on Tiger Woods he raised the possibility that Tiger may have peaked already. He also said that "Tiger's swing is more blocked than a new Stetson." One swing coach on the PGA tour says that he could fix Tiger's swing in 30 minutes, and apparently there are many who could do so. But apparently Tiger isn't listening.
Reading those words are what got me thinking about my old mentor Rod. He started planting Pinewood when he was in his mid forties and has been there for 24 years. Conventional wisdom says that a pastor "peaks" somewhere between years 5 and 10 and most move on after that. Also, I don't want to say that Rod is old, but let's just say he's a tad older than me, and these days, conventional wisdom says that you need young and hip pastors (ok, so Rod's pretty hip for his age actually). The thing is, he hasn't peaked yet, I don't believe. When I left the church four years ago it was a large and healthy church and it has grown tremendously since I have been gone (hmm . . . nah, there's no connection, I'm sure). He's well past the "peak" in age and tenure, yet, he hasn't peaked. My guess is he probably won't peak till the day he retires.
The reason is that he is constantly learning - he's constantly listening to his coaches. At a time in life when he is a coach to many, he still seeks out coaches for himself. He is tenacious about going to conferences and learning new things. Wherever he goes he talks to other pastors to ask them what they are doing, and sees how he can learn from them.
Also, he has made it a practice to hire and surround himself with people who are better than him. The jury's out on whether or not he did this when he hired me, but I remember him telling me on many occasions, that he always wanted to hire people who were better than him. He sought to hire the best, expect a lot out of them, and then turn them loose. One of the best examples of this is his hiring of John Findlay as his associate pastor. John has had quite the successful pastoral career himself, and it is rare these days to have two well known, high-powered men serve together on one staff. Yet, John brings strengths to the staff that compensate for Rod's weaknesses, and in knowing both men, I was able to see that neither has an ego or turf to protect.
Rod has a reputation of being difficult to work for. I can't tell you how many times a variation of the following scene has taken place in my life, maybe at a General Assembly, or maybe at a presbytery meeting.
Questioner: "So David, where have you served in ministry?"
Me: "Well, I started out in ministry at Pinewood Presbyterian Church in Middleburg, FL where I served as the youth minister for five years."
Questioner: "Pinewood, . . . say isn't that where Rod Whited is the pastor."
Questioner: "Oh . . ." (followed by look of compassion and comforting hug).
When that happens I'm always expecting them to say "Oh, hey, wow, have a seat here and relax, can I get you something to drink?" I remember one time a search committee member at a church I was interviewing with talked about me with someone who knew Rod and that person told the search committee member, "If he can survive five years with Rod, he's gotta be ok."
In many ways the legends are true - Rod expects alot out of his staff, but no more than he gives himself. One time the staff was at a conference and my good friend and fellow staff member Dave Parrish went to a seminar that had something to do with taking care of and ministering to your pastor. Dave says that the seminar speaker went on and on about how difficult it is to be a pastor and how tired and worn out pastors are. Dave thought of Rod and said "I've never seen him tired - he makes me tired, but he's never tired." We staff folks used to enjoy it when Rod went on vacation. Don't get me wrong, we loved Rod and Rod was no micro-manager. Still, he had an intensity about him that was hard for us to keep up with, so his vacations were times when we felt like we could let down a little. The trouble with his vacations though, was that they gave him time to think, so he would always come back with more for us to do.
Rod is and always has been passionate about evangelism and church planting. We can't plant churches fast enough to satisfy him and the church can't do enough to reach the lost to satisfy him. This is one of the reasons he is and was, always so busy. This is not a result of a lack of confidence in God's sovereignty, it is just a recognition that our responsibility and God's sovereignty go hand in hand. He is always thinking, always learning and always strategizing because there are always more people to reach with the gospel and more Christians needing to be discipled.
While some of us would sometimes complain about "the Pinewood pace," there was method to the madness. Rod correctly understood that a church that was busy serving the Lord and seeking the lost wouldn't have time to get ingrown and fight amongst itself. Those who know Rod can and will debate whether or not he overdoes it with the busyness, but you can't argue with the results. Because Pinewood is so highly mobilized for ministry, the people don't have much time left for nitpicking and arguing. So, though there have always been plenty of people problems to keep the staff busy, there has always been a remarkable overall unity in the body.
Having said all that, and acknowledging that Rod could push us harder than anyone else, I think those of us on staff also knew that he was our best friend. When we needed to talk and something was bothering us, he would listen. Although he was constantly chiding us playfully, he never mocked us or embarassed us. There were many times when I confided something of an embarassing personal nature with him, only to find compassion and not rebuke. Being young and inexperienced and often messing something up, I frequently found myself having a kind of "father-son" talk with Rod, where it didn't go all that well for me. Yet, once the talk was over, he offered affirmation and votes of confidence. Even when things were going badly I often heard things like "you can do this," "you're capable," and "you will succeed." And when things were going well, Rod was my best cheerleader. Day by day and week by week he pushed us hard, but he knew when to lay off. He was generous with vacation time and insisted we take it. Every year at Christmas he would encourage us to take a few extra days off to unwind, and he would never count it against our vacation time. He knew when to push and when to lay off.
As I speak of a few difficult times with Rod you may be wondering why I would bring those things up in a tribute like this. Is this some kind of backhanded way of getting back at him for the hard times? Is there an ulterior motive? Not at all. It has taken me a long time to learn this, but I have come to realize that there are a small handful men in my life who have had the greatest impact on my life, and these were men who were the hardest on me. Your best friends in life aren't the ones who constantly tell you how wonderful you are, they are the ones who are honest with you. True, there are critics who are critical for the sake of being critical. These aren't your friends. But there are those who love you enough to tell you what you don't want to hear at the time. Rod did this for me. Though I didn't always appreciate it at the time, I do now.
This is another important lesson I learned from Rod about leadership. Leadership involves making the tough call and keeping the team on course. Tom Landry said that the coach's job is "getting players to do what they don't want to do so they can be the kind of players they always wanted to be." So it is with leadership in general. If everyone naturally always did what was right and worked together as a team, we wouldn't need leaders. The fact that we don't always do the right thing and don't always work together for a common vision necessitates leaders who spend a good deal of their time correcting those they lead. This is not mean, this is not unloving, in fact this is the essence of loving those you lead.
A paragraph or two ago I mentioned Rod's playful chiding. The only thing at Pinewood that was more plentiful than hard work was humor. In this respect, Rod taught me another very important lesson. We are to take Jesus very seriously, but we shouldn't take ourselves seriously at all. Disrespect was never allowed, but humor was encouraged. In fact, someone without a sense of humor wouldn't have liked it around Pinewood or around Rod. The hard work was a reflection of our seriousness about Jesus. The fun was a reflection of our lack of seriousness about ourselves.
He often made fun of himself and we could make fun of him too and he would laugh along with us. His family has a do-do (that's pronounced "dough-dough," not "doo-doo") award and it seems to me that the whole time I worked under Rod, he was the yearly winner. He was and is a great leader, but apparently he could be a real do-do in other areas, and he wasn't ashamed to admit it. Household projects were not his forte. I remember his daughter Mindy telling me that when they lived in Pittsburgh, the neighbors would come running whenever they saw Rod trying to do something around the house. I can't remember the exact reason, but I think it had something to do with the fact that if Rod worked around the house, they would end up having to come fix whatever he did, so they might as well come at the beginning of the project. Also, we on staff used to pick on him about his handwriting. As a church we didn't practice speaking in tongues, but Rod practiced writing in tongues. Unfortunately, few of us had the gift of interpretation. We're not sure he could interpret his own handwriting. He used to give us "see-me's" a little note to come see him. It occurs to me now that he probably had to do that instead of issuing memos. If he gave us a handwritten memo we wouldn't have been able to read it and I doubt Rod's secretary could have read it to transcribe it. Rod never used a computer although the rest of us were pretty enamored with them. In fact, if Rod ever reads this I am quite sure he won't read it on a computer - if he reads it, I would be willing to bet it will be because someone printed it out for him.
Vacation Bible School was always a big deal at Pinewood. When I first got there the children's director was my beloved friend Joann Tolson (maybe I'll do a tribute like this for Joann someday, she's one of the greatest ladies I've ever known). Each year we had a theme and the theme necessitated a costume for the staff and each year Joann (and her folllowers in children's ministry) would dress up the staff in something ridiculous. I used to dread VBS knowing that I was going to have to walk around for a week in one of Joann's ridiculous costumes. Well, there was one year when we had to dress up like F-18 pilots, so I did enjoy wearing a flight suit and pretending I was Tom Cruise. But, Rod enjoyed it - Joann couldn't make him look silly enough to ruffle his feathers. It was largely from Rod that I learned to be Jolly. That's where I learned that "super-duper-serious Christians" were no fun, nor were they particularly godly.
You may be thinking, "Come on David, you are making this guy sound too good to be true. Do you have some ulterior motive or are you just deluded?" As to the ulterior motive there is none. Even if I could benefit from this tribute, I doubt I would get anything from the good folks at Pinewood - they're still waiting for me to turn in receipts from my last two ski trips. I'm just happy they gave me my last paycheck when I left. As to being deluded I'm not. I know Rod's a sinner and so does he. There are many in the PCA who have locked horns with him who would not be as, shall we say - effusive, in their praise of him as I am. I am sure there are some out there who are hoping that when he retires he'll just fade away, but I don't see that happening, and I hope it doesn't happen. I think even those who lock horns with Rod respect him for his integrity, passion and leadership.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I am more and more aware every day of how blessed I have been through the ministry of many, and Rod is one through him I have been most blessed. I am now at a place and a church where I am wonderfully happy and have a strong sense of God's hand on me and the church. However, I know that I couldn't be where I am now, doing the things I am doing now, were it not for where I was then, doing the things I did then. My time under Rod was very educational, and, even with all my faults and foibles, fairly fruitful. I'm grateful to Rod for his friendship and I'm also grateful to him and the church for giving me five years with an incredible group of kids. There are still times when I have dreams about my Pinewood kids. In my dreams I'll relive some incident, conversation or event and expect to see one of the kids or one of my terrific volunteers when I awaken. Though I have been gone for a few years now, I still hear from or about one of my kids from time to time and it gives me constant joy to hear how well so many are doing.
Rod and Pinewood have left an indellible impression on my life. The current members of my session have never met Rod but they're sick of him. Something will come up at the church, they'll ask for my take or advice on it and I'll lapse into a Rod story. There have even been occasions where my elders have just cut to the chase and said "what would Rod think of this?"
In one respect I do have an ulterior motive in writing this. Someone
once said that one of the best ways to renew your joy is simply to say
thanks to those who have done something nice for you. Truly, writing
this piece has been a labor of joy as I have reminisced and remembered
good times in the past. I fully expect that there will be only a few
who will read this whole thing, because it is so long. Yet it has been
worth it simply for the joy of remembering God's blessings on my life
through a man and a church. Saying thanks to Rod is my way of saying
thanks to God for his influence in my life.
In my youthful naivete I used to spout this spiritual sounding
phrase "we need to be into people not programs." Those who know Rod,
know that he has a million programs. I used to be a little too
spiritual to be so into programs. It was people I was into, or so I
said. As I prepared to leave Pinewood, Rod did an exit interview with
me and he asked me what I would suggest for Pinewood for the future.
This was my opportunity to get one more word in on the people
vs. programs thing. I suggested that the church needed to be more into
and less into programs. And Rod very patiently went through a little Q
& A with me that went something like this:
Rod: "OK David" (I'm sure what he really wanted to say was "Ok Punk!) "When you go out and pastor a church do you want to win anyone to Christ?"
Rod: "Once you win them to Christ do you want to disciple them?"
Rod: "When you disciple them, do you plan to gather them together for some kind of Bible study or small group or something like that?"
Rod: "When you gather them together will you gather them at a certain time and a certain location?"
Rod: "Let's suppose some of these folks are adults with small kids, will you want to have any kind of child care provided?"
Rod: "And when you do your Bible study or discipleship or whatever you do, do you think you will use some kind of curriculum?"
Rod: "So let me get this straight - you are going to lead people to Christ whom you will disciple and in that discipleship you are going to set a regular time and place, you'll be providing childcare and acquiring a curriculum, right?"
Rod: "That sure sounds like a program to me!"
Me: "Well, . . . um, . . . uh, . . . yeah but, . . . hmm, . . . huh, . . . duh . . . "
Needless to say, that argument didn't go so well for me. However, in
the years since I left it occurs to me that Rod truly has been my
greatest mentor, although we never had a formal mentoring program in
place. What I have learned from Rod I acquired mostly through
observation, conversation, and being with him in situation after
situation. Most of my learning from him has been things you couldn't
acquire in a formal program, it came simply from sharing experiences
But, I also want to let Rod and anyone else who reads this know of my gratitude to God for this dear friend and mentor, and may all who read this have such a mentor in their own lives.