Most of the admirable characteristics in my life are gifts from God that have been carefully cultivated by Christian mentors. When it comes to mentors, I have an embarrassment of riches. My father, who has always been and will always be the man I most want to be like, was a pastor. So growing up I had no shortage of pastors take an interest me and bless me in countless ways. When I discovered to my great surprise that I wanted to be a pastor, I began to intentionally seek out older wiser pastors who could guide me on a faithful path. This search has led me into relationship with nationally and internationally known church leaders as well as profound pastors whose churches will probably never exceed 100 folks on a Sunday.
When I came to Lebanon Memorial UMC in Lebanon, VA in 2010, I soon met Jeff Williams who was the pastor of Lebanon Community Fellowship (LCF), a vibrant growing nondenominational church just down the road. Jeff took me out to lunch, shared his story of struggles and victories in life and ministry, and assured me he was my #1 fan and praying for the ministry of my church. He did all this before he even hardly knew me. That was just Jeff.
One of the toughest phone calls of my professional life was to Jeff. Over the years, Jeff and I had come to share a mutual admiration for one another and discovered that we each shared a passion for recovery ministry. We felt our community desperately needed a recovery ministry, but we didn’t want to launch competing ministries in a small community. After several conversations, it became apparent that LCF was not ready to launch a ministry in the near future and my church decided to go for it. As the time for the launch of our recovery ministry appeared, we had everything we needed for a successful ministry except a good band. So one day after taking a few deep breaths, I picked up the phone and called Jeff whose church happened to have one of the best worship bands I had ever heard. I asked Jeff if I could just borrow one musician who could play guitar and sing. We just needed something. (Note: Asking a pastor to share one of their musicians is kind of like asking a football coach to share his quarterback. It’s a big ask.) I’ll never forget Jeff’s response: “Wil, not only will I give you a musician, I will give you my whole band, myself, and my whole church. We will serve your church in order to serve our community. Just don’t tell my band about this, because they don’t know they are going to do it yet.”
I don’t know what Jeff told his band, but it must have been good. Rarely, I have ever been a part of something as fulfilling and inspiring as serving alongside Jeff and the LCF band in the Recovery at Lebanon ministry that came to be as a result of our partnership. Jeff had as busy a schedule as anyone in town, but there he was every Thursday doing anything he could to help others find the freedom from addiction and the joy that comes with faith.
Often Jeff and I would sit around and talk for some time on those evenings about the challenges facing Christianity in our culture and the challenges facing our each of our churches. In these conversations, I learned that Jeff was one of those people who had wisely chosen to recklessly pursue God’s calling in his life.
Jeff respected the denominational traditions in which he was raised, but he would not let anything prevent him from fully living out the calling God had given him. He shepherded LCF through lean years of struggle when the future was uncertain without being tempted by greener pastures elsewhere because he knew the pasture to which he was called.
Jeff had an encouraging spirit the likes of which I have rarely encountered. He was always smiling, always encouraging, always believing that God was more than ready to work miracles. I saw this spirit in his interactions with folks locked in a life and death struggle with addiction. And I saw it in his interactions with me. I don’t know what a busy pastor at a large growing church would think he would get out of a relationship with a much younger pastor at a smaller church of a different denomination. Thankfully, I don’t think that Jeff looked at our relationship in that manner. I think he just saw us as two guys desperately trying to follow God, love our families, and lead our churches.
It wasn’t unusual in our conversations for Jeff to ask me my opinion about tough decisions facing his church. I also learned that Jeff’s encouraging spirit was accompanied by a keen intellect. Jeff read widely and thought on the deepest level about what it really takes to accept faith and then to grow and be conformed into the likeness of Christ. I was selfishly looking forward to mooching off of Jeff’s wisdom for years to come.
Instead, this morning I got an email telling me that Jeff had passed away last night. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around just what a loss Jeff’s passing is to the Church; to LCF, to the Church in Russell County, to the Church in America and, honestly, to the Church throughout the world. How do you ever replace the servant’s heart, encouraging spirit, and renewed mind that we experienced through Jeff? Though Jeff is now a vital part of the Church Triumphant in heaven, I can’t help but wonder if the Church Militant on earth isn’t weaker now with his passing?
But today is Maundy Thursday. The day we celebrate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before his crucifixion on Good Friday. Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means command. Today we remember Jesus’ command on the day before He died to “love one another just as I have loved you (Luke 13:34).”
Just a little later that night Jesus also told his disciples, “You will do greater works than I.” Now that must have been hard to believe. That would have been much more difficult to believe than believing the church in our day and age can be even stronger now that Jeff is gone than when he was here.
The Christian movement gained strength after Jesus was gone because of the way his followers imitated His love. I have no doubts we will be able to say the same for the Church in Russell County, in East TN, or in whatever part of the world we find ourselves today if we simply choose to imitate the way God loved us through Jeff’s encouraging spirit, intellectual vigor, tenacious faith, and reckless pursuit of Christ.
Jeff and I didn’t read the Bible quite the same. Our theological beliefs had some subtle, but substantial differences. And our churches came from different branches of Christianity. But that really didn’t matter that much to Jeff because somewhere along the way he became infatuated with the calling of Christ to love one another as He loved us. For this reason, I can honestly say that Jeff is the pastor I most want to be like. And on this Maundy Thursday I rededicate myself to loving as Christ has loved me and as for the past several years Christ has loved me through Jeff.
Goodbye for now, friend. Thank you.
– Wil Cantrell, 24 March 2016