My Father’s Greatest Lesson

My dad died just a few days before Father’s Day this year. My sister and I — his only children — were with him at the end. He was struggling to breathe after a stroke a week earlier. We watched as his breathing got labored and then simply stopped. He was 88.

One thinks a lot about a parent, when that continual presence is gone. My dad loved, honored, and supported his family. He had a heart of gold and died with a tiny estate because he constantly helped out his family when they needed it. The family he left behind — children, grandchildren, great grandchildren — are close because he taught us that family matters more than anything in the world.

But there is one incredibly powerful lesson that my dad taught us by example — a lesson than would transform the world if we all took it seriously. I want to tell that story.

Dad was a country pastor for most of his life, providing spiritual guidance and moral leadership to small congregations throughout rural New Brunswick, Canada. He chose challenging pastoral work. Dad would find a church with boards on the window that hadn’t seen a service for decades. He would take the shutters from the windows, get the wood furnace working, clean up decades of mouse droppings and set traps for the current residents, clean the pews and wash the windows, get the lights working, repair the front steps. He would drop by local homes inviting them to become a part of a new congregation. And he would prepare simple homey sermons that he would deliver to a tiny handful of parishioners, many of whom never graduated from high school.

When I was a child our family’s income was entirely what showed up in the offering plate, which was usually very small, made smaller by the need to cover the expenses of the church, like the electric bill. On wintry days when there were no services there was no offering. At one point Dad pastored 5 such churches, preaching 4 times on Sunday and once on Monday.

Many times we would return home to find a bag of potatoes or a box of garden vegetables on our doorstep, left by a farmer who wished he had some money to put in the offering plate when it was passed around.

The Holmesville Church was one of Dad’s pastorates, a singular building amidst acres of potato fields, more than twenty miles from the nearest traffic light. He pastored that church for many years and I still think of it as the church that I grew up in — my church. I played the guitar in a group that sang there often and even preached at least once.

The Holmesville church was an unusually warm and friendly community. The congregation began to grow, constantly welcoming new members, most living on roads that were not paved, some in houses without running water, none with substantial incomes. Dad used the growth of the Holmesville congregation to give his other churches to younger pastors starting out. He went from 5 parishes to 4 to 3 to 2 until finally Holmesville was his only pastorate. The church kept growing until the congregation exceeded 100, making it the largest church in the area. The building was expanded. I remember the summer after my freshman year in college, when I worked on the extension to the sanctuary, shoulder to shoulder with the kindest people I have ever known. The church purchased a bus to accommodate the growing enrollment in Sunday school, picking up children that could not otherwise get to church, who often arrived in overalls. A beautiful parsonage was built just down the road. Dad was put on the first regular salary of his career — a consistent weekly check that was never docked to pay for the electricity or repairs to the woodstove. Holmesville was a great success story and Dad was thrilled.

One day Dad came home after the annual church board meeting. He gathered us together as a family and told us that the church had given him an unprecedented “lifetime call.” They asked him to be their pastor for as long as he was willing and said they would no longer vote annually on extending his tenure. They also gave him a large raise.

He told us he was humbled and gratified to accept the lifetime call but that he had turned down the increase in his salary.

“Why would you do that?” I asked, imagining wonderful things that were not going to happen.

Dad’s response has stuck with me ever since that evening almost a half century ago: “I don’t think a pastor should make more money than the people he serves. A pastor needs to understand his people’s challenges by experiencing them as they do. Beside, we have everything we need.”

I have often thought about how much healthier society would be if everyone embraced some version of that philosophy. Imagine if mega-church pastors and television evangelists did not live in mansions and fly about in private jets paid for by people struggling financially. Or if politicians kept their salaries and benefits at the level of the voters they claim to be serving. Imagine that CEOs believed there was something wrong with making more money every month than their workers make in a lifetime. Imagine that paying workers so little they were eligible for food stamps was considered wrong, rather than prudent. Imagine if Wall Street gave millions to the less fortunate at Christmas, instead of to employees, already making millions. Imagine if we all thought about compensation in terms of what we need, rather that what we can get.

Rest in peace, Dad. You made one part of this troubled and unjust world a better, kinder, fairer place.

(Phillip Giberson, 1929–2017)

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