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July 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 3 · pp. 29–35 

The Growth of a Preacher/Pastor: I. W. Redekopp (1910-1974)

John Regehr

Growth is change, certainly, but not change only. Change can happen by cutting oneself loose from one’s moorings and values. Growth respects the moorings, the rootage. True growth is change which carries with it, into the new, the essentials and values of that which it supercedes.

When a child grows beyond infancy, it carries into subsequent stages the basic trust learned during its first year. An adolescent carries into adulthood and intimate relationships the sense of identity which emerged in the move toward independence.

So, too, in the growth of the pastor/preacher, I.W. Redekopp. His growth, both personal and professional, was a maturing which carried with it the values of earlier work and experience. He did not seek to grow away from the essential good of the work or the life he was growing beyond.

GROWTH TOWARD ONE’S HIGHEST GIFTEDNESS

There is a danger for those who become involved in work which can be readily slotted: an evangelist, a “peace” person, a Christian education man/woman. It is one thing to be given opportunity to serve with the gifts God gives. It is quite another to be labeled with this slotted function and put into a box. Nor is it unusual in Christian ministry to be stereotyped early. If that occurs, growth will require a breaking free from the stereotype and allowing the Holy Spirit to develop our gifts in relation to the needs of people and the situation. When I.W. Redekopp returned to Winnipeg from his studies in Kansas, he quickly became the “Christian education man.” And after a few years of teaching at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College and pastoring, he became involved in Conference committees. {30}

It is amazingly easy for a servant of the church to become restricted by such structures. It is just as easy for that servant to discover a gift and by that discovery to become restricted to that gift. In the process of growth to our highest giftedness, we do not discard the earlier gift and its values, but we incorporate its essence into the higher gift we now pursue. Nevertheless, growth in such situations means that one has to be able to say no in the face of affirmation and apparent need. I.W. Redekopp found this no less difficult than many. But at least on one occasion he declined to attend the Canadian Conference session since, he reasoned, the real work of the church is done locally and, anyway, it seemed right for the shepherd to be where the flock is.

Of late we have heard much about mid-life crisis—the time in the life of a man or woman when the last great vocational turn is made. For many that turn becomes a new freedom, a being born again into a newness of living and serving. I.W. Redekopp began his pastoral ministry in the Elmwood Mennonite Brethren Church when he was 44. This turn put him into that work which answered to his highest calling and profoundest identity. In that respect he may well be a model for others whom God is calling to break free from vocational security in order to begin a new phase of service to God and his cause.

If in his coming to the pastorate I.W. Redekopp in some significant way came into his own, then it must be added that when he moved more fully into the counseling ministry in the church, he had entered into the holy place of his calling. After a six-week clinical training course at the School of Pastoral Care in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in January and February of 1961, he requested the assistance of a fulltime secretary at the church so that he could give himself more fully to the work of counseling and so that people would feel free to make appointments. The records indicate that in 1956 forty persons came to see him at his office for counseling. In 1963 there were 520 such visits.

When I.W. Redekopp first began his work as pastor of the Elmwood Mennonite Brethren Church, he did so with a strong administrative thrust. He dreamed of restructuring the organization of the congregation. And though some wished that he could have learned it more quickly and more thoroughly, he did learn that administration was not his forte. Yet he never lost his urge to be administratively active. However, in his later years he used what administrative ability he possessed in a pastoral way. His heart was a shepherd’s heart, and when he sought to shape structures, he did so to care more adequately for the flock. Thus in growing beyond his administrative function, he retained the essence of that function: caring for persons.

There is no doubt that Redekop was an effective teacher. Not that he was a skilled lecturer or an eloquent rhetorician. His lectures were studded with questions (not rhetorical ones) with which he engaged his {31} students vigorously. He counted heavily on the existential process, and his originality and astuteness surfaced more in the dynamic interaction of the moment than in the privacy of his study. His pedagogical dexterity lay in his ability to intersect another’s mental process. He could capitalize on the dynamic of the moment and respond nimbly to the immediate situation. In doing so he could entice and confront at one and the same time. Thus his intervention became an invitation to re-orientation, re-direction, and growth. This teaching skill he later incorporated into his counseling. In the interpersonal dynamic of the helping relationship, he employed this ability to read the existential reality and discern the “teachable moment.”

As his efforts concentrated on counseling, his preaching increased in personal intensity, and the priestly/prophetic harmony of his sermons became closer. He could support and warn simultaneously. The teaching element was not absent, to be sure, but it seemed during his later years to be more incidental to the central purpose. His intent was a shepherding intent. It seems that at times he came to the preaching task with a clearer awareness of the people who would hear him than of the details of what it was they would hear. He had, at times, little more than a general sense of the large truth he wanted to deal with, and he shaped the details of his message in the dynamic of the moment, interacting with what he knew about the people before him.

This move toward the grasping of large truths and relating these to persons showed also in the kind of texts he chose. In his later years he selected texts which were too large to treat exegetically in any detail. He saw the text not so much as a piece of literature to be investigated, but as the record of some human experience in which God was redeemingly active. Thus, in moving beyond declarative preaching, he retained the art of preaching and used it to serve his shepherding intent.

Not that his growth in respect to preaching was for him a minimizing of scholarly spade-work. Rather it was a growth toward his personal giftedness, his shepherd’s sensitivity. Where an early sermon on the resurrection of Christ is heavy with academic freight about historical evidences and the like, a later sermon on the same subject takes the persons in the text seriously as people. The text takes on a vibrant immediacy as the hearer is put into the place of a person in the text, or the person in the text takes the hearer’s place in life.

In his shepherding task in individual counseling, however, he never ceased to be the preacher. Always the authority of the Scriptures was present, even though he could be matter-of-fact about human reality. His grandmotherly common sense was not out of step with the spirit of the Scriptures. Always the Christ of the Scriptures remained the absolute authority. Thus, the essence of his being a preacher remained with him in his growth towards his own unique giftedness. {32}

Perhaps one measure of the degree to which we have grown into our highest calling is to see how the calling fits our integral personal qualities. Surely these two must fit if the yoke is to be easy and the burden light. Certainly a pastor’s effectiveness is as intimately related to who he is as a person as it is to what he has learned in academic pursuits or in clinical training. I.W. Redekopp was so transparent and genuine as a person that one hardly experienced him differently in his study, on the phone, in the pulpit, or in a counseling session. This transparency allowed a wide range of responses, the engaging of the whole of his personality. He could be sentimental and not smother the prophetic within himself. He could confront without withdrawing his supportive arm.

Growth into his special giftedness, then, was for I.W. Redekopp a process that moved him forward but allowed him to carry with him values and skills which he had acquired in his exercise of other gifts. As a counselor he remained the educator who could engage the mind; he remained the administrator who provided for the real needs of people; he remained the preacher who supported and confronted people with the Word of God. And through all of these changes he remained transparent and thereby vulnerable, both qualities crucial to an effective counselor.

GROWTH AMID THE HAZARDS OF THE CALLING

If growth is more than planned change, then it must be a movement into and through terrain that is unknown. Thus, growth entails risk and exposure to hazards. And therefore the very process of growth may make us fearful and cause us to put our ego armor on as we proceed. Strange irony! That we through fear should restrict ourselves to the very thing we seek!

A minister who keeps growing is one who can live vulnerably even while occupying a place of considerable authority. Jesus is the supreme example of such meekness. His words say it clearly too: “Do not lord it over them!” The hazard on the one side is that the preacher will use his authority for ego armor. Ordination is certainly a significant happening, but it can be misread to provide an inflated personal significance. I.W. Redekopp saw his ordination as having put him in a position of service, not a place of prestige. Therefore he could be non-defensive with respect to himself while he exercised the authority of his calling. He did not seek a following, nor demand a hearing, nor insist that if needs were to be met he must meet them. The defensive preacher is the one who fashions his role into a fortress from which he directs the affairs of the congregation. Such a fortress precludes his personal growth. Redekopp possessed that spirit of humility which enabled him to exercise the authority of his calling without seeking from it either prominence or protection. He was able to do so without tumbling into the trap of being so {33} vulnerable among the people that he could not be an authority for them. Yet he was vulnerable, and in that openness to people he was open to personal growth mediated by those same people.

A preacher who wishes to keep growing must be able to walk the tight rope between meeting the needs of others and having his own needs met. Even one who in humility evades the hazard of self importance may still get caught in the web of expectations that gets attached to his position. The expectations may be deliberate or unspoken. The minutes of the Church Council in which Redekopp served in leadership early in his ministry reveal a subtle shift in tone at the point where it is agreed that the leaders, pastor and assistant, are to receive a small stipend. From that point on the minutes speak more directly of what the Council now expects of the leading ministers. Needs of people, both real and felt, both spoken and unspoken, can exercise the same kind of pressure.

I. W. Redekopp knew both of these pressures only too well and wished later he had been able to handle the hazard better. He had considerable difficulty saying no. In part he took care of his own needs by doing what many of us do, namely transferring some of the pressure onto the family and thereby reducing the expectations of the family on us. Some of this is done by being away from the family much of the time in the unending response to the needs of people, and some by putting inappropriate expectations on the family either to serve the church or be examples of behavior.

For I. W. Redekopp the hazard extended to the personal hesitancy to ask to have his own needs met. The church responded with some reluctance to his initial wish to continue teaching at the College even when he had assumed full leadership of the congregation. Perhaps this early reluctance heightened his hesitancy to make other requests for himself. Even the six weeks of clinical training in 1961 seemed a major issue and a large concession from the church.

When we add to all of that his very deep affection for the people of the congregation, we can understand his inability to escape this hazard of the minister, the error of ignoring his own needs or dismissing them as inappropriate. Perhaps if those of us who worked alongside him had helped him to recognize the hazard, and avoid it, he might have served us effectively longer than he did. Yet in exposing himself to the hazard, he grew in love.

There is probably not a clear distinction between what we might call the hazard of self-damage and what Jesus describes as taking up our cross and following after him. If I.W. Redekopp in fact over-extended himself in service beyond the limits which Christ himself set for him, it was certainly much more because of his love for people than his inability {34} to pace himself and care for himself. And, in the end, it is better to err on the side of loving than on the side of self-care.

There is another hazard which is not foreign to Christian ministries: the hazard of becoming cynical. As the pastor moves toward people and among them, and as he seeks to work alongside and with them, he experiences repeatedly intimate association with imperfect people. Redekopp was no stranger to this pain, but he refused to protect himself by crusting himself over with cynicism. Indeed, he insisted on seeing good in people even when they had difficulty assessing themselves positively. He had a shepherd’s way of sensing the feeling in people and finding the deeper and positive meanings behind even the hurtful words they spoke. He treasured persons, and could sympathize with their weaknesses. In moments when it became necessary to take some disciplinary action, he was concerned that the person’s dignity be preserved. Toward the intolerant and stubborn he could be patient without relinquishing either his role or the truth for which he stood. Toward the young up-start he could be patient without being condescending.

Redekopp was honest, though not indifferent, about his own shortcomings; and perhaps that is why he was able to avoid resorting to the ego armor of cynicism. When he dealt with persons who had faults, he saw himself as being more like them than different from them. That understanding, of course, makes possible an even profounder cynicism, a despair about oneself and all humanity. Such an attitude would preclude personal growth.

Redekopp did not despair about himself regarding his shortcomings, nor did he pine about every stumbling. He had a way of recognizing a slip or a failing, of confessing it without putting himself down (sometimes with a broad smile), and getting on to the larger issues, like love and faith and hope. The ease with which he moved past his own stumbling he offered others as well. And when one person had gotten stuck at the place where he had slipped, Redekopp would leave the ninety and nine in order to get the one unstuck.

In all his intense and intimate shepherding of people who were struggling with their bondage and imperfections, he never lost his own personal graciousness. Perhaps it was this association with those who thus struggled that enhanced his graciousness. He could be straightforward, even blunt, and not cripple the other’s self-respect. He remained approachable even to those who disagreed with him. He could stand with the underdog and not grovel. He could give dignity to those who felt remorse because of their failings.

Redekopp did not allow cynicism to overcome him and prompt him to shut the door on anyone. Always he saw hope, the potential for {35} growth. Since he allowed others this freedom to grow towards what they had not yet been able to become, he himself was able to keep growing in graciousness.

John Regehr is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and was formerly a member of the congregation pastored by I. W. Redekopp.

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