As I stated in my last post, my mentor and good friend, Rev. Joseph Roberson, was killed last Saturday in a car accident. This is a tragic loss for his family, the community of Columbus, GA, the South GA Conference, the United Methodist Church, and countless friends he had all over the world.
I met Joe 12 years ago when I worked at the first VBS his church had in over 30 years. Joe kept up with me over the years and when I was in need of a candidacy mentor for ordination he volunteered himself to the DS to be my mentor. Over the next year or so I learned a lot from Joe-directly and indirectly, spoken and unspoken. At the end of our meetings he would always remind me, “Ben, my friend, you know I’m just a phone call away if you need anything!” Below I would like to share in short bullet points some of those lessons for ministry he shared with me:
- Never read your own press clippings– This was Joe’s way of saying that one should not spend too much time measuring their public success in ministry. He took a church of 40 members and turned it into a 700+ member church. the largest African-American church in South GA, in 15 years. He did this located directly across the street from government housing projects. He established day-care for working parents and provided many other services of noteworthy value to that community-one many in Columbus would consider the “ghetto.” But through it all he never spent too much time talking about his success. If he did, it was always in the context of the success of the community. A good lesson to learn for many of us in a society driven off celebrity status and a need to garner attention.
- The Church’s problems are not unique; after all, the Church is nothing but a microcosm for the world– I would complain to Joe about how nasty people in the church could be. I always said the problems seemed to run much deeper in the church-maybe because of the passion of the conviction? He would give me trademark smirk and quickly inform me the church is not unique in its problems. It is a microcosm for the world. The problems of the world infiltrate the church every time the community meets. Maybe he knew this as an African-American pastor of people who life seemed to always kick when they were already down? Maybe he was right, after all, what is the Gospel if it does not address the very problems of the world around us?
- I am here to be your cheerleader-Joe told me early on that the process of ordination was a painful one where many would see it their job to critique me to no end in the hopes that I become an effective pastor-at least to their standards. Joe, as my mentor, told me that was not his job. He felt he would better serve me by building me up instead of tearing me down. Now many might say that he was leaving out an important role of a mentor but during this process I needed it. On the one hand, I did have many who felt it necessary to critique me-often bordering on over-critiquing. I was already unsure of my call in that I didn’t feel worthy of such a task as the vocation of pastor. So when I went to see Joe and had him always tell me how gifted I was and how he just knew God had big plans for me and that God was going to take me far in ministry it meant the world. His edification held me up when I wouldn’t hold myself up sometimes.
I must admit that his funeral was an amazing experience. 4 hours of gospel singing, reflections, and a eulogy from Bishop James Swanson that lit a fire in St. Luke UMC that I have never witnessed in a worship experience was a tremendous experience. But I came back home, and my mentor and friend Joe is no longer a phone call away. I have learned the truly difficult lesson that it is often when life intersects ministry that being a pastor becomes tough. I thank God for Joe. And, in my honest moments, I am still deciding how I feel about all of this. This is not easy and, frankly, it’s not fair. Though I can now, in a new and fresh way, speak to how God will show up in the whirlwinds of our lives-even when we don’t really want God there.