My father recently retired after 36 years as pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle. Most readers of this column will have never heard of him: he wrote no books or articles, he had no television ministry, he offered no seminars on effective church leadership, and he rarely spoke in other congregations.

What John McCullough did was faithfully care for those entrusted to him. His shepherding evolved through the years as the flock steadily grew from a small cluster of Norwegian fishing families into a moderately large congregation. He went from being a “one-man show” (his duties included being custodian, bus driver, and secretary) to being responsible for a staff of associate pastors and assorted professionals. An extraordinary outreach to college and university students gave the church a youthful, energetic spirit.

What remained constant through the years were Dad’s strong preaching and sensitive pastoring. He loved the pulpit, surrendering himself to its agonies and ecstasies, faithfully speaking God’s Word into the messy business of everyday life. Even more, he loved the people, praying and laughing and crying with them; my adolescence was embarrassed by his frequent public tears, but my middle age now sees them as watery witnesses to a compassionate heart.

He had his detractors, as any pastor does. Every “evangelical” wind blew in criticism and blew out the discontented: there were those who wanted him to be more charismatic, or more prophetic about the end times, or more oriented toward “Body Life,” or more of a possibility thinker, or more aggressive against demons, or more seeker-sensitive. This sometimes hurt his feelings; and he was a little confused when those who had left would call, years later, in need of a pastor to help them through a crisis. But he kept his head down and his pace steady, staying true to his gifts and sphere of responsibility.

After nearly 20 years of my own ministry, this faithfulness impresses me. A pastor’s work happens in the routines. Sunday comes around with relentless regularity, whether the preacher feels inspired or not. Board meetings, counseling sessions, hospital visits, weddings, and funerals—there’s a predictability to it all. Even crises are rarely unique: problems people create for themselves are generally variations on themes of money, sex, or power; those that happen to them, some form of loss. Human suffering tends toward the generic. So a pastor, like a farmer, does it again and again. When you are contending with drought or knee-deep in manure, it’s not glamorous; but someone needs to do it. Anyone who stays at it with faithfulness—not to mention creativity and joy—wins my respect.

Evangelicals love their stars, lifting high on pedestals bestselling authors, conference speakers, television evangelists, and mega-church CEOs. But we would do well to remember that the church, for the most part, is nourished by unknown pastors who stay at it, day by day, in ordinary congregations of sinners who, by grace and prodding, are being slowly cajoled into sainthood.

The work calls for a stout heart to keep caring and a strong stomach to keep cleaning up after those who are still far from Christlike. This is why my father and those like him should be celebrated. At the heavenly awards banquet, some who have enjoyed public recognition will no doubt be seated at the edges of the party, while the unheralded servants—the Army of the Anonymous, as Dad calls them—will be invited to places of honor.

As we stood together on the Acropolis in Athens, my father pointed to the Erechtheion, a beautiful structure near the Parthenon. The roof of the south portico rests on six statues. He said, “Look, Don, the whole thing is held up by some nameless, unknown figures. A lot like the church, isn’t it?” Indeed.

A personal word: Dad, you remember how Frederick Buechner says his conversion began when he heard George Buttrick preach about Jesus Christ, who refused the crown Satan offered him in the wilderness but who is king nonetheless because he is crowned in the hearts of people who believe in him. That inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, “among confession, and tears, and great laughter.”

Dad, you have not been crowned with power and worldly fame, but you have already been crowned in the hearts of many who, through your gospel labors, have made the good confession and with whom you have shared tears and great laughter.

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