I think a lot about legacy, which might be a bit surprising since I’m only 32. I realized fairly early on in ministry that eventually however many years I serve the churches God calls me to, those years will be represented by my picture on the wall or my name in a book somewhere. Some people might remember a few things about me, but I will probably be mostly forgotten in the lives of those institutions. Ultimately, my legacy will be those lives my ministry touches personally but it primarily will be how I raise my children.
With yesterday being Memorial Day, I was thinking about how our legacies can be complicated after we are gone. If you know me, you probably know that my dad passed away when I was 15 years old. It was July 6, 2000. As I was thinking about Dad yesterday, I was contemplating how his legacy has been complicated since his death by the actions of others.
Dad was a teacher. His teaching career started when he was 20 and he was 50 when he died, and over those thirty years ago, he taught at the three schools he had attended as a student: Jefferson Elementary School, Wells Junior High School, and Oak Glen High School. My dad loved Christmas trees, which is a story for another day, so shortly after he died, a new tree was bought for Oak Glen in memory of my dad. My mom also started a scholarship award in his name for a graduating student. Other than those two things, much of my dad’s legacy as a teacher has been forgotten except for the ways he impacted the lives of his students and colleagues.
Dad was also a “churchman,” if you’ll allow me the use of an old term. After Dad became a Christian, he spent most of the rest of his life in some type of church leadership. The last several years of his life were spent in part-time staff ministry. For the last twelve years of his life, he was the part-time youth pastor in the church I consider my home, New Cumberland Church of the Nazarene. (This was back before there were guidelines about not letting laypeople have the title “pastor” in their job description.)
In the twelve years that Dad served there, the church grew overall, though it did have some statistically rougher years in there as well. (I think you could say that Mom actually had a bigger impact on the church growing than Dad had based on the number of leadership roles she took on over those years, but we’ll save that for a different blog post.) When we were first there, the youth group boomed and for a while, the group had to meet other places in town because there wasn’t a room big enough available in our old church building since the adults were using the sanctuary on Wednesday nights. Many of those first students Dad had in youth group went into ministry or came back home and began to become leaders in our local church.
Even when the church was growing, it was never healthy. As I got older, I started to notice that some people just never treated the pastor very well, even with Dad serving that church through three different senior pastors. After Dad died, I found out that there were times when he wasn’t treated very well and that there had been times where he thought about leaving and finding another assignment, though he ultimately always ended up staying.
Then a few years ago, some of those students from those early years, now well-established lay leaders in that local church, ousted the pastor. If you know Nazarene polity, they called for a special review of the church-pastor relationship and in response to that, the pastor resigned. This happened because they wanted to make the youth pastor at the time the senior pastor. In situations like that, you have to have the unanimous support of the District Advisory Board for that to happen. Instead, the District Advisory Board unanimously rejected that idea. So, these former students of my dad bided their time, and when a new pastor came, they left the church and started their own church.
This is where my thoughts about my dad’s legacy get complicated. I believe the actions of these former students dishonor my dad’s memory because his example was staying even when things were difficult, even when he was being treated in ways he didn’t deserve to be treated. Yet, now, those two churches are larger together than my home church ever was on its own. My hope is that is because of conversion growth rather than transfer growth, but I don’t have any information on that. If my hope is correct, there are people that are in the Kingdom that maybe wouldn’t be in the Kingdom if these few hadn’t split my home church. I struggle to think of that as a good thing since it feels dishonoring to what Dad stood for to me.
Yet, the greatest legacy of Dad isn’t the school or the church, it’s his family. Mom is still faithfully attending that same local church, now nearly 30 years later. Minus some fairly brief hiatuses, she still is the pianist for worship services. One of Dad’s children is a wife, mother, clinical psychologist, and pastor’s wife in suburban Atlanta (and yes, I’ve listed the role of wife twice on purpose). The other is a husband, father, and pastor in rural Kentucky. Dad has three grandsons with a fourth on the way and two of them look very much like him. They’ll never know Dad but they will be impacted by his legacy because of this family that God has placed them in.
Legacy is a complicated thing. Sometimes those who are the bearers of our legacy tarnish it. When that happens, our hope must be that others will bear our legacies well. That’s a responsibility that I live with. Others have tarnished my father’s legacy. I have to admit it’s been hard for me to forgive that. In a sense, writing this blog post is mostly about me trying to disentangle some of those emotions. Yet, it’s also a reminder of the responsibility that I carry, not simply because I look like Dad but because some people will always view my actions through the man they know raised me. There’s a weight that comes with that. I like to think I carry it well. I’ve always said that Dad was the holiest, most godly man I’ve ever known. My hope and goal is that my boys will be able to say the same of me.