I ran into a pastor friend in a department store a few months ago on a Monday. Monday is a traditional day off for pastors. We had a good talk. Sometimes Mondays are refreshing for pastors. Sometimes they are difficult. He was up-beat and positive but I could tell he was a little discouraged with where the church was headed. He had been there eleven years and he was encountering a little opposition.
I had loaned Mark a book and we had had a few conversations and worked together in our fellowship of churches. We had talked over creative ideas about how to reach people and stimulate church growth. I suppose we both had dreams about preaching to a full church and nightmares about preaching to an empty one.
He had encouraged me to run for moderator of the fellowship of churches we both pastored in and he had given me support and ideas when I was chosen for the job. I knew of a young church looking for a pastor with some energy and progressive ideas. I asked Mark if I could recommend him. His eyes sparkled and he said yes. He assured me that he was happy in his church and that he loved his people, but he wondered if a change wouldn’t be a good idea. I explained to him that if I did recommend him and he were called that I would demand a new set of Commentaries as a head-hunters fee. He laughed and agreed to my terms. We went our separate ways and I kept his card in my pocket reminding myself to contact my friends at River Valley where they were seeking a pastor.
The next day I made the call and a few weeks later he called to thank me for doing so. My instincts were good and it was a great fit for both Mark and the church. Things were moving along well. The second week in January I was preparing to speak at a Father-Son retreat when I received a phone call from Mark’s youth pastor. Mark had been trying to clear some ice from the roof of his church when a huge chunk of ice weighing 500-1000 pounds broke free and fell on him. His leg was crushed and his shoulder injured. They amputated his leg from just below the knee.
That weekend I drove up north to speak and every time I thought of Mark I hurt. When I got to my quarters I noticed that the roster of retreat registrants included a large group from the River Valley Church where Mark was headed. That weekend I talked it over with the chairman of their Pulpit Committee and I was glad to hear that they still wanted Mark though they knew the timing would change and he would have some huge adjustments to make.
That was January 12. Sunday morning the 28th I was in my study preparing my heart for the services when the phone rang. Just two hours earlier a blood clot in his lung took his life. He was only 48 years old, a father of six, and within a month of becoming a grandfather. His last words were; “I’m slipping away. I see a door and I’m going through it.”
Last night we drove to his church to attend his funeral. His church was full to the ceiling. Huge banks of flowers surrounded his body. Every pew on the main floor was full. Every seat in the balcony was taken. The overflow filled the gym where an image of the funeral was projected on a screen. The gym floor was full, every chair occupied. The bleachers were pulled out and they were full. There were a thousand people at his funeral. The local television people were there. I looked at the place in the snow where the huge chunk of ice crushed my friend and wrestled with feelings of anger.
Ironically Mark’s funeral was on a Wednesday night at 7:00 in the evening, the Prayer Meeting Hour. Prayer meetings are rarely well attended. Mark’s church was no exception. But here we were on a Wednesday night with not a seat open anywhere on the property. We had to park at a neighboring church and ride a shuttle bus to the funeral.
Being a pastor can be a tough thing. Criticism is common and the rewards are mixed with many difficulties. I know Mark had his share of burdens and heartaches, but when he died they packed the church to say nice things about him. It doesn’t seem right. I sat there with tears streaming down my face and hurt.
Why do we wait for a friend to die before we say nice things about him? Why do people have to die before we realize how many lives they touched? Isn’t there a way we could pack out a church to celebrate our love and support for someone while they are alive to ear it?
Kenneth L. Pierpont
Pine Street Parsonage
February 1, 2001