One Church: Six Retired Ministers Look Back
“Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God.”
For generations, every candidate for ministry has stood before his or her classis and made this declaration. The vows are lasting. They apply when ministers of Word and sacrament serve in churches and specialized ministries, of course. They also carry over into everyday life, and even into retirement.
For this installment of One Church, RCA Today invited six recently retired RCA ministers to share their wisdom from years of preaching and teaching, equipping and comforting, and walking humbly with God.
One Church explores six people’s views of one shared experience or ministry.
Paul D. Wesselink
Served: First Reformed Church, Racine, Wisconsin; Thornapple Community Church (RCA), Grand Rapids, Michigan
During Paul Wesselink’s first week in Racine, Wisconsin, two women came to the front door and said, “The oldest member of your congregation has just died, and we’re her daughters.” He says, “I remember thinking, I don’t know how to do a funeral! Who do I call? What do I do now?” Through experiences like that, he learned to trust that God would “come through in a way that at one point I didn’t think he [would].” That kind of patient trust is representative of Wesselink’s ministry: he spent 11 years at First Reformed and 28 at Thornapple. He has found “great value in longevity, in being with people throughout their lives.”
Barbara P. Alexander
Ordained: 1985 (African Methodist Episcopal), 1993 (RCA)
Served: Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, Queens, New York; New Brooklyn Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York
When Barbara Alexander started at New Brooklyn, the church was on the cusp of closing, but the classis gave them a chance. “God lifted the church up,” she says. “He enabled the people to do things on the building that they didn’t think they were capable of doing. … They stopped looking at themselves as weak and saw that God was strong.” Two decades later, Alexander retired from New Brooklyn with a testimony: “Don’t give up! And don’t see things as impossible. If you believe, then you’ll know that all things are possible through Christ Jesus.”
Served: Hart Congregational United Church of Christ, Hart, Michigan; Church of the Savior, Rochester, Minnesota
Serving as a pastor shook any simplistic answers right out of Shirley Heeg. “The collision of lives, of worldviews, makes you realize how complex situations are,” she says. “You can’t laminate over skin and flesh. You can’t give a pat answer to someone’s suffering.” And she recognizes the holy responsibility pastors have in a world marked by embodiment. Some of Heeg’s most memorable moments came about because humans inhabit bodies: “eating with people, crying with people, getting up in the middle of the night, sitting in someone’s house because their brother died.”
Ordained: 1978 (Assemblies of God), 1982 (RCA)
Served: Iglesia del Redentor (Church of the Redeemer, RCA), Brooklyn, New York
Carlos Rivera is convinced that pastoral ministry is a calling. “Every person in Scripture that I see was called. Some people are sent, and some just went,” he says. “I don’t think you can study to be a pastor; I think God calls you, he puts that love inside you.” Heeding that call has allowed him to witness radical transformation in the lives of people in his community, including people addicted to drugs and alcohol. “I love to see God work his miracles,” he says. “I love to see people come to Christ.”
Served: Professor of religion and Christian education at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa
“My goal in teaching was always to help the church,” says Jackie Smallbones, explaining why, as a professor, she went to seminary and got ordained. At the heart of her teaching was a simple desire: to get her students to read the Bible. She encourages people to read it “prayerfully” and as a story, asking questions along the way, like, Who are you, God? Where am I in this story? “In the West,” she says, “our favorite question is, What must I do? Try reading Ezekiel and asking that!” Smallbones also recommends not reading alone: “Christ gifted the church with teachers—find a good teacher.”
Bruce Van Dusseldorp
Served: Coopersville Reformed Church, Coopersville, Michigan; Christ Community Church (RCA), Denver, Colorado
Having started out in the business world, Bruce Van Dusseldorp sees the similarities between pastors and their congregations. “Parishioners work long hours, have often difficult and frustrating and intense situations at work and in their lives.” Remembering that can help pastors see the church as a partner. “I believe that a pastor and a congregation are on the same team, working not in opposition to each other, but working together for the kingdom of God.” He expresses gratitude for the two churches he served, “where there was a cooperative effort to make a difference for Christ in the world.”