For the first time in my sixty+ years of ministry, I experienced something I always wanted to be part of but never had the privilege of directing.
For the past seventeen years I have, when in town, most often sat in the pew at North Avenue Church of God. I have enjoyed the richness of music that Brenda Gothberg displayed by means of the Allen Organ. I have enjoyed the friendship of numerous worshippers, both old and new, many that I have known since coming to Battle Creek midway of 1973. Although I have often endured the blended worship, led by the Youth and Worship Pastor who is now the twenty-year veteran of the pastoral staff; I have learned to appreciate some of the “new music” while missing much of the more formal liturgy and more-traditional music. No-thing and no-one, however, has kept me nailed in my pew like this pastor, James Leslie Sparks. I love the way his mind works. I found his personal life not only instructive, but redeeming and transforming.
The retirement of Jim and Susan Sparks from pastoral ministry concludes nearly four decades of pastoral ministry, and brought nearly two decades of local ministry to a stunning close. Pastor Sparks closed the worship service today by calling Jeff and Tori Eckman to the front, publically anointing them with oil, and praying for God’s anointing on them, and the congregations loving support—after personally and publically promising his fullest support in every way, financially—spiritually—mentally--emotionally.
The 2-5 p.m. Open House in Sickle Hall was well attended, complete with modest refreshments, after which the sanctuary filled to near capacity to enjoy the program emceed by Jim Sirks and master-minded by Mary Hirakis. It was full of laughter,as well as deep emotion. It was refreshing to witness the testimony of transformed lives from throughout Jim and Susan’s 40+ years in ministry. I visited with whomever I could and shared one final hug before relinquishing my pastor. Jim and I will remain colleagues in ministry, but on a different level - a new level of friendship more like that of those two old cronies in the bible, Caleb and Joshua--retirees.
The day brought memories of my own successes and failures across forty-five years of pastoral comings and goings—memories more good than bad, although not all good. I thought about others I have encountered across those years. One of the guest participants this morning was the Reverend Dewayne Repass. I think “Reep” first visited in our home in the early sixties; he was one of “Gaulke’s boys” from Gulf-Coast Bible College in Houston and we were pastors of the Ridglea Church in Fort Worth, TX. Reep will soon retire from his own illustrious career as current Chief Development Officer at Church of God Ministries, following his years with Indiana Ministries, which followed his pastoral career.
It brought to mind other retirement events, similar to Sparks’ retirement. I remember what pleasure I took in meeting Pastor Bill Konstantopoulos during his earliest weeks as new pastor of the Winchester, KY First Church. Bill and I became not only peers in ministry but personal friends as I sat in the pew many a Sunday at Winchester First, thoroughly blessed by his fourteen-years there. Thus, I felt especially blessed when privileged to share in his retirement events, which only further enriched our friendship on an even more satisfying level.To this point, I have only mentioned younger peers in ministry. Jim Sparks reveres the name of Sam Loveless, his mentor and Susan’s pastor from Indianapolis. Bill K honors the mention of Nick Zazanis who connected him to the Church of God in Athens, Greece. I have a special place for Otto F. and Julia Linn and A. F. Gray in Oregon, the Lawrence Kendalls’ and the Herman Harris’es in Arkansas, Harry and Henrietta Harp in Atlanta, L. V. Benson in Mississippi, Max Gaulke in Texas, and Fred Pinyoun and E. F. Adcock in California. That is but a scratch on the surface, but how blessed I have been by this rich tapestry of redeeming and transforming grace that we call the fellowship of ministerial colleagues in the Church of God.
Very enriching, but I started out to discuss the transition that Jim Sparks initiated with assistance from State Minister Bill Jones—from Sparks to Jeff Eckman. Few pastors are blessed by being able to work with their pastoral Search Committee and guide the transition and entrance of the new leadership. While Jim and Susan went out with a blaze of glory, it was the smoothest transition I have ever observed, and such an improvement over so many such occasions that I have observed elsewhere!
I believe even God was pleased with it. I commend chairlady Mary Hirakis and her committee for being so in tune to the winds of the Spirit. Jeff and Tori will benefit greatly from it, as will the North Avenue Church and community. It actually made me proud to be a small part of this dynamic congregation. And with today, the deed is done.
While I have grieved with anticipatory grief over this loss, I have now been able to process that grief and genuinely anticipate my new, young pastor, who may be as much as 45 years my junior. I salute you Jim (and Susan, Jim's equal in every way), and I welcome you, Jeff (and Tori, and family). May you, Jeff and Tori, be as personally blessed by the loving grace of your colleagues, peers in ministry, et al, as were Jim and Susan, and so many others of us. It is a special and priceless privilege to belong to such an enriching fellowship as the Church of God Ministry team.To utilize a book title I know, perhaps I should remind us both locally and nationally to “Get Ready: God Uses Transitions”! From Warner’s World, this is firstname.lastname@example.org.