Pastor Russell Fink, Remembered

by Bishop Bill Gohl

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. –Romans 8:37-39

I preached this sermon for the funeral of Pastor Russell Edward Fink
on Saturday, March 16, 2019 at Our Shepherd Lutheran Church (Severna Park)

Won’t you pray with me?

♫ Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so!
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong!
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so!

I welcome you to this place of grace, here at Our Shepherd, where Russ and Barbara have found and made a home in this season which Pastor Fink referred to as the “third season” of his ministry; the first being his baptismal ministry which began over 90 years ago; the second was his 42 years of active ordained ministry; and the third was these last 24 years of retirement and rediscovering God’s call as pastor, spouse, parent, and grandparent apart from a regular call to a congregation.

I’ve only known Pastor Fink in this “third season” – and for all of it. When Pastor Fink retired from his last regular call to St. John (Hagerstown), the associate and then-interim Pastor Ellie Doub, hired me as the Director for Christian Education and Youth. I literally moved into his office. When my time at St. John was completed, the women of the church sent me back to seminary with a copy of Barbara’s book, Daily Readings with Martin Luther. After St. John, I knew Pastor Fink through his work as the developer of the South Anne Arundel Mission, Redeemer in Deale; as a popular and well-appreciated guest preacher in many congregations within a two and a half hour radius of his then-Gemini Road address; and as a friendly, yet fierce tennis player – competitive with his friend Pastor Gilroy, whom he once referred to in my ear-shot as having been “still a youth!” At St. Martin’s and here at Our Shepherd, he has been a faithful Bible Study leader and a strong and supportive colleague for both Pastor Janssen and Pastor Oravec. Before I go any further, I want to publicly thank Pastor Earl for his ministry to Russ, Barbara and the family these last hard weeks. He has been so faithful to our friend and colleague.

Apart from the time that Pastor Fink gave an impromptu sermon to the Synod Assembly on his 65th Ordination Anniversary, I’ve only heard him preach one time! It was Reformation Sunday, about fifteen years ago, and we were having an Anne Arundel Conference Service where he connected Jesus Loves Me, this I Know to the three great Sola slogans of the Reformation.

That sermon has stuck with me for lo these many years. Reformation Sunday doesn’t come or go without me remembering, borrowing or thinking about Pastor Fink’s thoughtful insights. To honor his commitment that today wouldn’t be a string of eulogies extolling his long and outstanding ministry, and that Law and Gospel should be preached, let me share with you a bit of classic Russ Fink, as I remember it:

Jesus Loves Me embodies Luther’s words, Sola Gratia, Grace. Grace alone. Russell knew grace in life and faced it, with faith, in death. His own life and witness is the story of a humble servant of God who was continually overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace which saw him through many struggles. His pastor’s reports over the course of 60+ years spoke of his own sense of grief and loss tempered by hope. He reflected deeply on his struggles as a spouse and father and could point to his own sense of being a workaholic as culpability in the strain of those precious relationships. I don’t know the conversations he might have had with district presidents and bishops past, but his reports are really clear: this situation is not helpful for my family, perhaps I need to step away and find something less taxing on my time and energy. Later reports spoke of the grace of reconciliation, and how he was working harder at being intentional about being a better father and grandfather. But, even in these last days, he counseled me and others to do what we needed to do, now, to make sure we didn’t have some of those regrets. He loved his family, this whole family; and your love and support were not lost on Russell, he knew grace in you and through you, too.

Jesus loves me, This I Know Sola Fide, Faith Alone! Despite the struggles of life and relationship, of discernment and dreams that didn’t come to pass, Russell knew Jesus loves you, and Jesus loves him, too. Russell knew it in life and faced it, with faith, even in death. Cancer, he told me, would not ever have the last word. And, as recently as last Friday, he told me it hadn’t. While ready to fight like hell to be open to new treatments and courses of therapy; he knew that his life and strength was in the hands of God. His own life and witness is the story of a humble servant of God who was continually overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace which saw him through many struggles.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so! – Sola Scriptura, Word alone! Even in this “third season” of ministry and call in retirement, Russell shared that Our Shepherd was a home and family for him and Barbara, too. He was no Sunday Christian – or pew sitter; he gave himself, time, talent and treasure to the work of the church, throughout the years, in any way that he was able. Even at Ginger Cove, he jumped right in – Bible Study, worship and thoughtful witness at the table, the mailbox and in the lobby. Today, as we gather in beauty and dignity of this place and service, we do so surrounded by the scriptures and hymns that Russell himself selected for this day. We find bold and blessed assurance in Russell’s strong sense of faith, hope and love. Though we come in the presence of these earthly remains, we take courage in his sure knowledge that he would visit us today from this urn, but with his Lord, alive again in God’s kingdom; with us again and again as we gather at Christ’s table of grace.

Yes, Jesus loves me; Yes, Jesus Loves me; Yes, Jesus Loves me! Sola Christe, Christ Alone! But I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth, if I also didn’t confess that while I know that Pastor Fink delighted in his family, and so many of us whom he and they count as family, have gathered, Pastor did have a soft spot for being the center of a celebration – and that is rightly what we are here to do today, to celebrate a life well lived and God’s promise well kept. Russell Fink was God-loving, grace-filled, a fed and forgiven servant of Christ.

So many of you knew Russell better than I ever did. You knew his more “vital and active” years, which I can’t even imagine, where my own memory is confined to this “third season.” But I am here to celebrate with you, nevertheless, because no matter how we knew Pastor Fink, God knew him best. I am here to remind you, that because Jesus lives, Russell lives – because Jesus lives, we live, also.

For you see, Russell Edward Fink was not simply a colleague these last 25 years, he was a friend; a trusted, wise elder; a man whose strength, even in trial and struggle, continued to be a source of strength and hope for us, too. It was a privilege to know and to love him, it was an honor to be one of his pastors. Emerson, whom I’ve quoted over other such giants’ funerals, said it well: You taught us well, dear friend, you showed the way and we shall not forget you.

Will you pray with me?

♫ Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so!
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong!
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so!

Friends, do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  For indeed, I am convinced as Russell was too, that neither death nor life, not things present nor things to come, not anything, not anything, can separate us from a love so great that was, is and will be ours in Christ Jesus our Lord, forever. Amen.

So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us. Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. –Romans 8:31-35, 37-39

Do better

by Bishop Bill Gohl

If we claim, “We don’t have any sin,” we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. –1 John 1:8-9

1. ingrained prejudice against women.

I find myself in a strange position.

After behaving poorly as a leader, colleague, and friend – publicly, no less – at least three times over; I did what I was taught to do by my parents, mentors, and what my spouse and I have attempted to teach our children: I took responsibility.

Because my gaffes were made in public, and publicly diminished my colleagues and friends, I sought their consent to apologize publicly. It gave me the opportunity to “right my wrong,” correct myself “on the record,” and the space to reflect on and accept responsibility for my own misogyny. The intent behind that blog post was to take responsibility, apologize, and then publicly point folks to the pastors and ministries I failed to lift up when I had the opportunity to do so earlier. The ensuing conversations astonished me.

Women in ministry publicly shared stories of institutional misogyny, experienced sexism and daily microaggressions that caused me to weep. These stories, they assured me, had been told and diminished by others more than once, many times dismissed as their being “too sensitive,” or “unable to take a joke.” These colleagues were not complaining or asking for any particular response; they were simply reporting a common and all-but-universally shared experience for women who exercise public ministry in this church. I’ve been fairly disgusted with myself for not recognizing this hidden-in-plain-sight experience of these colleagues, which includes my own spouse. (Simultaneously, I heard from exactly six male colleagues, all but one off-line, all of whom admitted to having committed the same systemic sin of which I am guilty. Six. I was surprised by that, too.)

Still, with a collegial largesse greater than my own, these women colleagues were quick to offer forgiveness, accompaniment, and here’s the sticky wicket, accolades for my “honesty and vulnerability” in apologizing.

It’s humiliating; being affirmed for apologizing, when I was obviously and admittedly in the wrong, it feels as if my apology was at the repeated expense of those to whom I was apologizing in the first place!

A Facebook comment from on a friend’s post sharing the blog summed-up my intent: “This is so helpful to hear from a person in power for many reasons, and yet my main takeaway was to be inspired by the awesome ministry these three pastors are leading! (Pastor Courtney Erzkus, emphasis mine)

And then, just when I thought we had moved on, and I had learned something more of my women in ministry colleagues’ experience; unbeknownst to me, the editors of The Christian Century lifted me a little further out of my middle-judicatory anonymity and weighed in on my blog by reporting it to the larger mainline-Christian community which snowballed a bit into a new referendum on how “brave and vulnerable” a misogynist I am. I would have liked to crawl under a pew and hide!

Pastor Lura Groen, with whom I belong to a weekly pericope Bible study group and who I know to be a (hard) truth-teller, gave voice to my discomfort in another Facebook comment: “I know our Bishop thinks he deserves no praise for this apology, and that it ought to be routine. And he’s right, on one level. But it isn’t routine. And so we need to lift it up as a model. Also, it is so far from routine that men acknowledge the harm caused by these sorts of comments. So unusual, and so needed. That again, we need to hold it up as an example…” And, despite the humiliating discomfort it causes me for this moment, I know that she’s right.

Some of the deepest pastoral relationships were forged in relationships where I made mistakes, took responsibility for them, and apologized. I cannot count the number of times someone has told me they’ve “never heard a priest/pastor/minister/bishop apologize before.” “How sad,” I always think, knowing how many times I get it wrong.

To my female colleagues: I see you. I hear you. I’ve been honored by your testimony, witness, vulnerability and trust. I receive your offer of accompaniment as a graceful gift; hold me accountable to my commitment to do better.

To my male colleagues: we can do better, and we are rightly expected to.

One might say I’m the “sorriest” bishop in this Church; but what I’m aiming for is to be one who screwed up big and, usefully chastened, changed his ways.

We announce to you what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have seen and our hands handled, about the word of life. The life was revealed, and we have seen, and we testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy can be complete. The message: God is light. This is the message that we have heard from him and announce to you: “God is light and there is no darkness in him at all.”  If we claim, “We have fellowship with him,” and live in the darkness, we are lying and do not act truthfully. But if we live in the light in the same way as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin. If we claim, “We don’t have any sin,” we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. If we claim, “We have never sinned,” we make of God a liar and the Word is not in us. –1 John 1:1-10

My Lenten discipline

by Bishop Bill Gohl

…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ… –Ephesians 4:12

Arwyn and I have different approaches to parenting. She is patient and thoughtful about how she teaches our children how to do things, and then when they don’t do it right, she teaches them to do it again. On the other hand, I teach them something, and when they don’t do it the way I want it done, I go behind them and fix it; and I think they have figured out that if they continue to do a poor job, I’ll just do it myself.

Doing it myself because it’s easier than getting my kids to do it well themselves. It’s a position that I find myself defaulting to – not just at home, but more so at work – particularly when I am tired or feeling under pressure to get something done. It’s such a crippling mindset, and only hurts me, and us in the end. It’s like the time equivalent of pennywise and pound foolish – minute-wise, and hour-foolish.

Doing it myself because it’s easier than getting them to do it themselves. It is what creates resistance to instructing and delegating to other people to do what I usually do. It slows me down from creating systems to manage things better in the future. It’s the fear that keeps me from trying new products and new technology and keep on stumbling along using what “works” instead of leveraging what might work better.

And here’s the problem: When urgent gets in the way of important.

I find myself reminding colleagues, and myself, that expediency and convenience are the greatest enemies of the gospel; that when we cut corners, slide-by, “do it ourselves,” we are disenfranchising the people of God from the ministry that belongs to the whole Body of Christ.

It’s not about doing more, it’s about prioritizing discipleship over pragmatism, equipping the saints over getting the job done. It’s not easy, but it’s not to be burdensome, either. The ultimate goal is ministry shared, even if it means ministry that looks different or iterates in ways that leaders that cannot necessarily see from our vantage point – or even imagine in the moment.

I don’t expect this to happen overnight. In fact, I can’t expect this to happen overnight. Equipping one another for this ministry we share is a process, and if it’s done correctly, it takes time, commitment and intentionality.

This is going to be my Lenten discipline: do it myself less, equip more intentionally; do it the way I want it done less, and delegate more faithfully; holding it close less, and discipling more effectively – even if it would seem “faster” to do it myself.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. –Ephesians 4:11-13

Connectedness: Building Puentes!

by Bishop Bill Gohl

“Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good. –Nehemiah 2:18b

A portion of a note from Pastor Mark Parker (Breath of God, Highlandtown) to the Building Puentes mission teams headed to Puerto Rico this summer: “Thank you so much for your desire and commitment to serve alongside our neighbors in Puerto Rico this summer! The response from individuals and congregational groups has been amazing, and we’re excited to continue working together as a team in the months leading up to our time together in Puerto Rico. Our current registration list has 106 volunteers from 24 different congregations, ranging in age across seven decades, and coming from at least six states. It’s an amazing group of people with a variety of experiences, stories, gifts, and abilities–I can’t wait for you all to begin to get to know each other and serve together.”

When people, from time to time, ask what value there is to being Church – and Synod – together, this is a powerful example of how we are tied to one another by the call of the Holy Spirit, in service to God and neighbor. The Building Puentes Initiative is an innovative collaboration among the Caribbean Synod, the Metropolitan Washington, DC Synod, and our Delaware-Maryland Synod, helping us to build cultural bridges and opportunities for serving alongside one another. Some of those opportunities are around issues of leadership and learning; others are about sharing material aid, time and talent for the physical rebuilding of the communities across Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands; each a sign of God’s gracious love given to all and shared for all.

As creation – world, church, and humanity – yearns for ways to cross divides, our church celebrates our connectedness both to one another and to the shared work of Christ in our communities and across the world. Come, friends, let us attend!

Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good. –Nehemiah 2:17-18

Forward in Faith Campaign a success!

We are overjoyed that our synod’s Forward in Faith capital campaign has concluded, and we have exceeded our “stretch” goal of $3.5 million!

“So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” –Hebrews 10:35-36

Our four-year campaign started with an initial goal of $2.5 million. However, with such positive strides, a year and a half ago we raised our goal to $3.5 million. As of the close of the campaign on January 31, 2019, we have met that goal.

God has certainly blessed our efforts and the outstanding and wide-spread support of many of you in our synod has made this campaign a success. This money is being put to work in impactful and tangible ways to fund the significant ministries of our Vision Teams – Discipleship, Connectedness, Communication, and Leadership – in ways that are making disciples in Jesus’ name.

The campaign accomplished the following:

  • $3.53 million raised
  • 132 total Congregations gave to the campaign via the Synod
  • 100 congregations gave to local synod needs
  • 11 congregations gave more than $10,000 to local needs
  • 120 congregations gave to ELCA through our synod and we know more gave directly to the ELCA
  • 181 total Individuals gave to the campaign via the synod
  • 162 people gave to local synod needs
  • $75,000 came from one generous individual to support local leadership
  • 51 people gave to ELCA through our synod, but again we know more gave directly to the ELCA, especially Malaria and World Hunger

We are transforming lives with these Forward in Faith funds:

  • Seminarians are being supported as they become our future rostered ministers.
  • Congregations have received Catalyst Grants to jump start experiments in discipling.
  • Eighteen congregations are “Living Everyday as Disciples,” seeking new mission and ministry.
  • Our eight New Start congregations are exploring how to do church differently.
  • Twelve of our partner ministries have received Connectedness Grants allowing them to reach out to more people, more congregations, more communities to impact hunger, opioid addiction, homelessness, creation care, faith formation – especially for kids and college students.
  • Congregations are receiving funds to improve technology and communication.
  • Young Adult Ministry is being supported to reach out and practice discipleship in community.
  • Leaders are exploring best practices to grow generosity among our congregations and members.
  • A wide array of leadership tools and retreat models have been created to grow leaders in every congregation across our synod.

We are grateful for the generosity of so many. Your ongoing, faithful support of our synod ministry truly is making a significant difference here and beyond. What a joy to know our faith and perseverance allows us to accomplish God’s work today and into the future. We do hope you will continue to support our synod ministry. Feel free to give by clicking here.

Three colleagues whom I deeply admire – and casually wronged

by Bishop Bill Gohl

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  –Ephesians 4:11-13

Photo by Jiroe on Unsplash

From the time of her ordination 35 years ago, the Rev. Connie Miller, has served this church well in many diverse and various ministries. From a first call at one of our synod’s smallest congregations (St. Peter, Alesia); to a staff position at one of our largest congregations (Grace, Westminster); to her current role as Lead Pastor of one of our most ethnically diverse congregations (Holy Trinity, Laurel) – and on a number of stops in between, Pastor Connie has served this church well. With a heart for mission, she has tirelessly and sacrificially called this church to “walk the walk” when it comes to diversity and inclusivity; a consummate teacher, she has accompanied many seminarians in their discernment processes, including being a field education supervisor.  She has sacrificially shared her time in the congregation, for our synod, and within the churchwide organization, and does so with an inspiring joy despite the challenging circumstances of life and ministry.

At the luncheon I give each year at Synod Assembly to honor Rostered Ministers celebrating significant anniversaries of ordination and consecration, as I presented Pastor Connie’s certificate, I blathered on about how she inspired me as an adoptive parent – hijacking her moment of recognition as a person in ministry and appropriating it as a moment to lift up her giftedness as a mother and spouse. My words were not untrue but they missed the mark of the moment, and when it was pointed out to me, more kindly than I likely deserved, she was forgiving and encouraging.

And then, I did it again, twice at the same service.

The Rev. Paige Evers, a pastor of Reformation (Milford), after having previously serving Lord of Life (Edgewood) and First English (Baltimore), has always been an innovator. From coming alongside the folks at First English to reimagine their ministries with families and students to gently helping the people of Lord of Life introduce contemporary worship in partnership with Praise Express, Pastor Paige has the heart of a pastor and teacher. She is a published writer, she develops deep relationships with the communities around her, and she has distinguished herself as a forward thinker when it comes to creating a discipling culture in families. Her work in creating Re-Creation at Reformation has not only paid off in strengthening families as the primary place and vehicle for catechesis, it has synergistically recharged a number of ministries within the congregation and strengthened Reformation’s witness in the community.

The Rev. Christine Myers Parker, Lead Pastor at Epiphany (Baltimore) after having served her first call at Lord of Life (Edgewood), is a third-generation Lutheran pastor with a love of Christ and all generations of God’s people. Growing up at Hope (Middleborough) and then Grace English (Lutherville), Pastor Christine was an active participant in our synod’s Lutheran Youth Organization and our outdoor ministry, Mar-Lu-Ridge; ministries that she continues to bless as both mentor and supporter for those who have come after her. When faced with leaving her first call when there was significant financial distress in the congregation, she sacrificially began a second, part-time ministry with the Protestant Faith Community at Oak Crest Village. Subsequent to her call to serve at Epiphany, she was elected Dean of the Baltimore City Conference, a sign of the respect her colleagues have for her and their deep appreciation of her ministry and partnership. At Epiphany, she has distinguished herself as a preacher and teacher, and is leading the congregation through an important time of discernment through the LEAD process.

At the closing service of Lord of Life (Edgewood) a few weeks ago, I was introducing the many pastors who came to support the congregation. While extolling the work of the long-time founding pastor and giving thanks for the student pastor who had been serving them this last year, I had the opportunity to introduce Pastors Paige and Christine, two faithful former pastors of the congregation. In my introductions, while affirming their ministries and our mutual friendships, I reminisced about remembering Pastor Paige at her installation being of such a stature that when she stood behind the communion trays stacked on either side of the altar, that she could hardly be seen. To compound my gaffe, later I suggested that Pastor Christine, as reflected in a picture displayed as part of the congregation’s history, “looked as if she were 12 years old when she was called to Lord of Life.”

Another kind and respected colleague rightly called me out a few days later via a thoughtful note. With a kindness that was wholly undeserved, that colleague was affirming that she did not perceive my mistakes to be intentional, and she invited me to do better.

This is hard for me to name and claim, but I am a misogynist. It’s a disease that I recognize in myself iterating in many, often unintended, but nevertheless real ways – and something I am constantly reckoning with. And I live in the duality of simultaneously being a misogynist, while also being a committed feminist, part of which is deconstructing the misogyny that is invariably part of me. I make no explanations: the ways that I spoke of these colleagues was wrong and I have been usefully chastened by those who said so.

Observing, Benjamin Franklin’s maxim, never ruin an apology with an excuse, I want to publicly apologize for my thrice-repeated public mistake. I have deep respect for these three colleagues, and I did not honor their fine ministries with my loose words. I will do better.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. –Ephesians 4:1-16