Who was your source of encouragement during your early years of ministry?
Tom Steller has been a source of encouragement at my right hand for 28 years of ministry, and before that. Tom is an associate here at the church, and we have been together from the very beginning.
I came to the church and my first desire was to have Tom come with me. The church reluctantly voted on a college pastor. He got the lowest vote of any pastor who has ever been called to Bethlehem, which is hilarious for most people who hear it now. That's because Tom is so integrally a part here and so gifted and so called and so wonderful. But I could hardly persuade the church, which was about dead in downtown, that they should invest in college students. They said, "They're here today and gone tomorrow. Why would you want to invest in college students?" "Because they're here today and gone tomorrow! They might pick up something along the way and make a difference in the world." So they voted. I think it was 76% or so who said "Yes" to Tom Steller, and I have just never ceased to thank God. He is just a gift to me. Tom is there all the time.
Rollin Erickson was on the search committee when I came to Bethlehem. (When it says, "early years" I'm thinking the early years at Bethlehem, not before that. So I'm 34 years old in my thinking here.) Rollin was on the search committee. He was the statesman, and for about 10 years he stood like a king—gentle, kind—and helped me as a young green pastor know how to manage a church, because he had been here a long time and was respected by everybody, and I was new and they didn't know if they wanted to respect me or not. Would I be here today and gone tomorrow?
Rollin was one of the few who on the counsel of deacons when I came used the word "Jesus" to refer to Jesus. Nobody ever said "Jesus". Why is that a big deal? Because in the piety of that time, "Lord", "Master", "Christ" had a formality about it that seemed appropriate to a certain spirituality. And to use the word Jesus sounded too emotional, too endearing, too intimate. And that's the way he was. And I saw a kind of life demonstration, a kind of life exposure, a kind of life engagement that I desperately wanted to be true in this church. And so I was so happy.
He was so encouraging to me that anytime he was featured he modeled a piety that was authentic and intimate and precious and sweet and real. Not just kind of a "We work for God in this church, and we're faithful to God in this church, and we do what we're supposed to in this church" but instead a relational sense of "We love Christ in this church. We love Jesus in this church." It was striking to me. I would sit there and feel like, "He's different. He's different! And I want him to be the tone of the church!" And so for ten years he was. And I think it was a great help.
Dan Fuller, my most influential teacher in seminary, continued to be so helpful to me while I was in graduate school and in the early years of my ministry. He supported me and wrote to me and encouraged me. I'll give you one illustration of how helpful he was from a distance. I was in Germany and I was looking for a ministry. I had a wife and a baby and I needed a job. I've got to support my wife! I've now finished a degree and there are no open doors. What do I do to support my family? Pump gas? (People don't even know what pump gas means anymore, because you have to pump your own. But once upon a time you could make a living pumping gas.)
He wrote a letter to me in which he quoted 2 Corinthians 4:1 where it says, "As we have received mercy, we received this ministry." And he simply drew out the "as"—he was always arcing, and glories come from arcing!—and he said this in the letter: "John, God is as willing, ready, and able to give you a ministry as he was willing, ready and able to save you. It will be mercy that he saved you, and it will be mercy that you have a job. Trust him." That was huge! I remember it, now 40 years later! It just landed on me like, "Yes, I can trust him!"
So I had people in my life pointing me to the promises of the Bible, and he was one of them. Tom has always been one of them. Rollin Erickson was one of them. And, my, if I spent longer here I could give you more.