In Tribute to a Mentor… and Friend: Rev. Dr. Tom Walker
Recently a friend and colleague of mine retired from parish ministry. After 17 years in his last call as the Pastor and Head of Staff at Palms Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville Beach, Florida – Tom Walker turned in a microphone for a golf club, and a committee agenda for… margin! It was a healthy call – far too wise a choice if you ask me, and all too soon by the reckoning of the many people for whom he was a guide, teacher, prophet, and friend. But he heard the Spirit beckon and made the tough call to say “enough”. I respect him deeply for making that tough call mostly because I know it was far tougher than you’d imagine. We say we’d all like to retire. But this is no job you can simply set aside. Ministry is a calling. And while we all know that God isn’t done calling Tom… it takes identity work and discipline to say “I’m done” to congregational ministry. Among other things our closest community and friends are the ones we commit to leave by answering that calling. It’s hard. But it’s healthy. And Tom answered that call – and I say of that decision (though he hardly needs me to say it) what I would say of his ministry as a whole: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
But I really am not writing now to commend him on that “hard call” about his calling. I’m writing a thank you to him and retrospective of sorts… because he was more than my colleague – he was a mentor to me (and still is) for ministry. I have had several “bosses” over the years. I have done internships in mission and ministry, summer jobs in college, a server at Outback Steakhouse, youth group leader and Sunday liturgist, and a hospital chaplain. I have always had a “boss” in those situations… sometimes even a BOSS. But in many ways Tom was really the only person I think of as having been my boss, because he was my supervisor in what felt like my first “real” job. My first call. I spent eight years as the Associate Pastor of Palms, and I reported to Tom through it all – which is saying a lot because Tom sure likes to move staff around!! I jest… it happened to him as much as because of him. But I stayed in that position longer than I expected because Tom was more than a boss… he was a mentor… and a friend. I’m not a good mentee. I don’t want to talk about me but I’m stubborn, opinionated, not good at holding my opinion in or masking my displeasure, don’t tend to “stay in my lane” with what is or isn’t my job, and quite willing to challenge authority. I know that because it all appeared on my annual reviews! I was never an easy employee… nor the most willing mentee, but Tom was more than equal to the task. I think I only have three people in my life I would put at mentor-status, but Tom is clearly there. And as I look back on the eight years I worked with, and for, Tom, and the 15 years of ordained ministry which was largely informed by him, I wish to share some of the tidbits he taught me, willing or begrudgingly, as something of a tribute to him upon his retirement.
“Tithes and Offerings”
I must start here… because this was what inspired this tribute. Yesterday I was leading worship and with some introduction said… “let us give to God, God’s tithes, and our offerings”. I always say that – every Sunday. And I get mad at myself when it doesn’t come out right. And I say it because Tom told me to. I’m sure somewhere someone told Tom he had to as well. We pass on these little things in ministry… our own apostolic succession if you will. And I always thought it was awkward… but hey, “Tom is awkward and he’s the boss – so I’ll just say this until I leave someday and I can say whatever I want!” Only… now I say it. Anyway. And it bugs me when I don’t. And I’ve come to appreciate it. There is what we give God because it is what God is due… but over and above that there is what we offer. OVER AND ABOVE. What an idea. Most of the time we are looking to see what little we can give… but Tom taught me to aim for the over and above. And that matters to me now… even though no-one else knows that this is what I mean when I say it. It’s ok that I know. And that’s what Tom taught me to care about worship in general. Hymns should match the sermon… the Prayer of Confession should flow right out of my focus and function statement…. Worship is a crafted experience each and every week. And while I struggle to maintain that now (I have to type and print my own bulletins… Tom didn’t teach me that one.) I still try. Because Tom instilled that level of care and precision into me… which is hard because I’m not a very precise person.
“let us pray together, praying…”
I will go quicker and not belabor the point (though belaboring is my spiritual gift) every week, like Tithes and Offerings, I make sure to say, “all the while we pray together the words Jesus taught us, praying, Our Father…” Most often, if you listen close, people say “saying, Our Father…” In my first direct report meeting, Tom corrected me… we don’t say the prayer, we pray it. And I have never forgotten that. Words matter.
“Uninterpreted Numbers are Dangerous” and “Hospitality Begins with Rules”
Let us change the pace. I can recall Tom saying the first saying all the time, and I quote him all the time, and the second makes me break out laughing (at Tom more than with him… I told you I’m not a very good mentee) and yet, I quote that one too. I believe strongly in transparency… I’m an open book. Tom is a transparent leader also. And I believe in radical hospitality… a phrase I incorporated into my being working at Palms. But I always remember the wisdom that transparency doesn’t mean leaving financial statements lying around, and it doesn’t mean having pastoral interactions in the hallway and doesn’t mean leaving the door open for anyone to hear when having hard conversations. Boundaries are important. They create safer space. They create manageable expectations. They create informed conversations. They limit rumors and gossip. They limit hurt feelings. They limit sharing and increasing our anxiety. Tom taught me to be a nuanced and balanced leader who understand the both boundaries and agility, transparency and confidentiality, rules and freedom. I didn’t always appreciate it then… but I sure do now.
From Good To Great
Ugh. Tom MADE me read this book. Jim Collins book about what kind of CEO and leadership style makes good companies become great companies and then sustain that greatness. Tom liked to talk about excellence. I liked to talk about authenticity. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but they often feel that way and I often rolled my eyes about excellence. So a book about being great??? He made me read this book and I wasn’t going to like it! “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem???” …so…here is the thing… dammit! I love the book. I quote it all the time. Sometimes I call it the Gospel According to Jim Collins. It kills me inside to admit it. But now you know. It’s a great book and I have only Tom to blame for knowing anything about it. Dammit.
There is a scene in a great movie called The Replacements. Gene Hackman plays a football coach and he is working with his quarterback, Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), and he tells Shane to be a like a duck on a pond. Under the water ducks’ legs are going a mile a minute to keep them in place on the pond… but only under the surface – to the outside observer they are calm and serene. And a leader needs to be like a duck on a pond. Tom was my Gene Hackman… not sure if I manage it – but he taught me to do so and whether or not I replicate it isn’t on him. He called it a “non-anxious presence” and I fail at it a lot. But he set the bar.
“You all know this story”
Ugh. I still make this mistake. I get up in worship and say, “oh this is a biblical story we all know well…” and then I hear Tom’s voice telling me, “when you say that you are telling every person who doesn’t know the story that they don’t belong here because they don’t know our insider stories.” And then I clench my teeth and endeavor not to say it again. I still will. But every time Tom’s calm non-anxious voice will call me to a better way.
Okay Okay… I’m belaboring
Tom once told me to simply answer the question and don’t open any other doors…. But I love opening doors. And I love to belabor a point. In deference to Tom, I will stop trying to remember everything he taught me. These are mostly just the ones that hit me regularly. But he taught me far more than the simple accumulation of these ideas. He taught me to be strategic. He taught me about having an open door and being people first – and he was always open for a stimulating conversation about some idea or quote from something I was reading. He taught me that you can train passionate people, but you can’t inject passion into well-trained people (and boy, ain’t that the truth!) – look for passion. (Its basically a churchy version of you can’t teach speed.) He taught me to open your heart and your home to your colleagues because it is all that will get you through the rough times. And he taught me to share responsibility – as hard as that is for him and for me – even when you think you could do a better job yourself because that’s what it means to be a team and a community.
I told you I would stop trying to tell it all, but I need to share another one:
Two stories for this one. One year into my call I went to Tom and told him the part of my job that was about getting a single’s ministry going didn’t make sense. We have lots of young families and we need to put our energy there and let the other churches who are already doing great singles ministry do that better than we ever will (frankly I just said that in a way that Tom would have said it not me… but that’s how I recall me saying it… I was already learning from Tom. Tom used to say, “if there is Coke next door don’t make Pepsi… make Sprite). And all Tom said in that meeting about me changing my job expectations was, “ok”. I mean here I was in my late twenties with all of one year of experience in ordained ministry and I looked at my boss and said I wanted to change the job description he had written because it was wrong. And he said… ok. That simply. That easily. I think I knew – but didn’t really know – at the time how awesome and trusting that was for him to do for me. But its that type of wind beneath my wings that made me fly. (How freakin’ sappy is that????) Second story? Ok, you already got the point, but again after running a year of a Wednesday night bible study that a task force designed, I told him I wanted to end it because it wasn’t really working… and again? You guessed it. “Ok.” Tom trusted. And that trust inspired trust-worthy work. Thanks Tom.
Wrapping Up – really, I promise
I don’t mean to say it was all roses. We had our hard times. I think in the end I would say I left my call when I felt I wanted to move beyond Tom’s leadership. And I say that in great love and respect knowing he will know exactly what I mean. It wasn’t that I thought I could do better… but that I was ready to do different. And Tom was preparing me for just that, had been doing so since the beginning (it is what good leaders do but good leaders are rare). Good leaders prepare us to go beyond them in ways they don’t anticipate. And good leaders don’t demand the credit… and often don’t even get acknowledgement. Tom sent people all over the country in ministry to do just that… its what makes him a great disciple of Jesus. He too is a teacher, who passed on what he learned to others who would, in turn, do the same… Tom stands tall – literally – in the way of Jesus, and the way of Jim Collins, and the way of generations yet unborn… to do Church. Not just talk about it. He is preaching the Gospel, at all times, using words only when necessary. (Thanks Francis.) And in ways big and small I’m indebted to his ministry and all he taught me to do… I’m not sure I’m living up to the example – but with God’s help, I will surely try my hardest… and that will be “good enough”.
Tom. We come to an ending. Not THE ending. Those are not up to us. But we come to a significant moment for your ministry – which by relationship – is a significant moment for me as well. A marker-moment. And like good practitioners of the faith of our forebearers I think we should build an alter to such a moment and I think its fitting that this marker be a story… you see, there is a little village in France called Le Chambon…. Hahaha. Ok. Hahaha.. I can’t stop laughing. Seriously… I. CAN’T. STOP. LAUGHING. Sorry, that’s an inside joke. But it HAD to be said.
Tom. Thank you.
Jan – for sharing your husband, often to a degree that I’m sure weren’t happy about, thank you.
Chris and Worth – well you didn’t really have any choice. But thank you all the same.
Legacy is an important thing. I’m but a small tendril of the legacy of your ministry – but a grateful tendril. I am very glad our journeys of following in the way of Jesus coincided for a time… mine will never be the same because of you. And in Spirit, we shall walk this journey together… forever.