A Leader for the Long Haul

The Legacy of Enduring Pastors

Legacies are multigenerational. For good or evil, your influence has the potential to span generations, even eternity, impacting individuals you may or may not meet in your lifetime.

As we’ve learned again and again, it only takes one scandal, one Judas-like betrayal, one failure or gross inconsistency to damage the legacy we leave. And it takes a lifetime of God-enabled faithfulness — a grace he loves to give — to create a beautiful legacy worthy of emulation. Oh, how I thank God for the men and women I’ve known who have lived such lives and left such legacies, which brings me to Ron Wickard.

Ron Wickard humbly pastored the same church out on the remote South Dakota prairie for 42 years, providing one beautiful model of what it means to “dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3). He led his growing congregation longer than Moses led the children of Israel in the wilderness. By grace, he preached to, taught, dedicated, married, and buried a couple of generations, diligently trained his elders in biblical doctrine, and successfully oversaw five building campaigns (funding a fleet of church vehicles for good measure).

Ron was a tenaciously patient leader, both with individual sinners and with the sometimes slow movement of church “politics.” He took the long view. That’s what wisdom does. So, what sustained Pastor Ron on his long road of faithful ministry? His love for the sovereignty and the supremacy of Jesus.

Supremacy Unleashes Love

Ron’s spiritual taste buds savored the Christ-exalting Scriptures. One night, after a meeting between Ron and me, his deep, enthusiastic belief in the God-centeredness of God kept us sitting in his car discussing and reveling in God’s glorious supremacy, considering text after text, until the sun came up the next morning. Over decades, Ron plunged his soul in the river of rich books extolling the absolute preeminence of Jesus. Beholding the character of Jesus in the Bible, he increasingly became what he beheld, and he invited his people to come and see what he saw in the Bible.

This pastor really loved the people of his church. On multiple occasions, I witnessed him drive over three hundred miles to arrive at a board meeting, only to receive a phone call that one tragedy or another had happened back at his home church (a house fire, the death of a baby, some other crisis). He would get right back in his car and drive three hundred miles home to minister to those in need. His endurance and love went hand in hand, always doing what he believed was best for his people, which was often a significant inconvenience to himself.

Over time, I saw that he did all of this for joy. He took pleasure in knowing that he was representing a big God who orchestrates all things for his own glory and that he was pursuing a profound, eternal good for the people he loved. When you do such things at a church for 42 years, you not only minister to one generation, but you minister to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Tenacious Patience

It takes time for trees to produce fruit. The same is true of any healthy church. Some trees, such as plum trees, take just three to five years to produce, while other trees, like almond trees, can take up to twelve years. Growing a healthy church in the middle of the South Dakota pheasant range is sort of like tending an almond tree. It might grow fruit slowly, but the growth does come. And the result is a crop of glad-hearted worshipers who devour the Bible and embrace a big God.

Albert Mohler notes how commonly we “overestimate what can be accomplished in a single year, but underestimate what can be accomplished in a decade” (The Conviction to Lead, 194). Or four decades. Kids I once saw as teenagers in Ron’s church are now elders teaching adult classes. Ron, of course, won’t take any credit for that, but chalks it up to God’s grace. I would add that such grace often flows through the conduit of long-term pastoral faithfulness.

Leadership includes times of leaning into the wind, trudging uphill, and going against the grain of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Hence, leadership is an endurance test. It requires tenacious patience.

Fatigue of Various Kinds

Leader or not, every day requires grace. Some days seem to require more grace than others. During some particularly intense seasons, it can seem like you’re burning through grace at a whirlwind pace. Though there is never(!) a shortage of grace to do what’s right, you can experience various kinds of fatigue.

Perhaps there’s a lengthy controversy still brewing, and you face issue fatigue. Perhaps there’s a gadfly who keeps demanding a disproportionate amount of your time and attention, leading to that-guy fatigue. Or perhaps you’re simply aging, and you feel body fatigue. Maybe you’re at the tail end of a long building campaign, and you have project fatigue. In any case, no matter the variety of fatigue, there is an enabling grace from God to endure in the strength he supplies and to do what ought to be done. Call it leadership for the long haul. And since great leadership serves the people, great leadership is servanthood, so we could also call it servanthood for the long haul.

Meanwhile, merely enduring falls short. There’s something better. Great servants don’t endure merely. They endure by “being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). Patience with joy — that’s what I’ve seen in Ron. When it came to difficulties, Ron wouldn’t merely bear it, but would grin and bear it in the strength God supplies. Because he knew that behind the dark providences was always a smiling divine face.

Steadfast Love

As Ron observed the beauty of Jesus’s fidelity to his bride, the church, Ron inhaled that beauty and reproduced it. I experienced this firsthand. When Vicki and I endured a miscarriage, Ron traveled over 150 miles one way to attend the burial of a child he never met. Sorrowful, yet rejoicing, we together worshiped the God who makes no mistakes and works all things together for the good of those who love him.

Having genuinely and steadfastly loved his people for over four decades, Ron, like Jesus, “loved them to the end” (John 13:1). When he stepped down from his senior pastor role, the wife of his successor told me, “He loves the people. He does what’s best for them.” And by loving that way, Ron was (and still is) an example to his flock (1 Peter 5:3). And to me.

Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Ron Wickard is a humble pastoral leader who factors prominently in my memory, leaving me to consider the outcome of his way of life and longing to imitate his faith — as he imitates Jesus.