Friday, January 30, 2015

Bill Croy - Three Personal Memories

It's growing late, but I can't sleep. A good friend of mine, Bill Croy, died today after a long, hard 4 1/2 year battle with ALS. So, if you don't mind, as a means of simultaneously paying tribute and clearing my head, I'd like to share some memories (actually, three) with the world. Hopefully they'll make you smile, and maybe understand what a great guy Bill Croy was.

First, a little background. I met Bill as a kid who moved to Lima, Ohio at the age of 10. My parents attended Trinity largely because 1) my mom could sing for her high school choir director (Ron Richards), 2) my Dad's boss (Henry Hollinger) invited us to come check the church out, and 3) at the time they had the reputation of having best children and youth program in the city. That last one was all thanks to Bill's leadership as he was the Associate Pastor of Christian Education.

Bill left either at the end of my eighth or ninth grade year (I really don't remember), but as a United Methodist Elder ordained in 1995, I was able to stay in touch with him. I got the gift of not only having him as a pastor, but then a mentor, and ultimately a great friend.

In any event, here are three (of many) memories I have of Bill.

Memory One: Death By Green Bus

Bill taught my confirmation class, and let me tell you it was a doozy. I can't recall every single classmate, but I remember the class was somewhat large (17 or 18 of us I believe), and we were a handful. I just remember Bill always looked much older after spending an event with us than he did before. We really made him appreciate High School ministry.

This was never more true than on our confirmation class trip to Dayton. Bill was a proud alum of United Theological Seminary and he liked to take the confirmation classes there to see where the United Methodist church minted fresh pastors. As a part of the day we also visited a UM-related mission and an urban UM congregation. We wrapped up the day swimming at a YMCA and returned home.

This was the early eighties - or as I like to think of it, the era of the "boom box". Just so happened that Jeff Gluck and I owned identical Panasonic boom boxes, and we could be link them in tandem using stereo jack cords. We called our paired tandem the "Wall of Sound", and it was loud, man.

I mean really, really loud.

So we spent that day on an old school bus painted dark, forest green (hence the nickname, "The Green Pickle") with Bill at the front driving and seventeen of us listening to the Wall of Sound pound out songs from the J Geils Band as far in the back as we could sit. I don't know how many times Bill had to listen to Freeze Frame, Centerfold, or Piss On The Wall that day, but they had to be many. It was his own personal Highway to Hell (which probably got played once or twice also).

So we go all the places we're supposed to go, including the Y where a bunch of clueless 13 year old boys were ogling the 13 year old girls. I'm sure inappropriate things were said and done all day (as is generally the case regarding 13 year old boys) and after getting yelled at by Bill many, many times, we finally headed back to Lima.

Along about Troy, Ohio was the point the bus quit. Centerfold pounding out of the Wall of Sound above the din of a bunch of teenagers cackling at one another, and the bus just dies. And all I can remember, was Bill, looking in that big mirror above the windshield so he could see us, and hearing him shout,

"Turn that damn radio off!" Only time I ever heard him cuss.

And I remember, distinctly, thinking that maybe (just maybe) his job, which meant he got to hang out with the likes of us all day, was not exactly always "rewarding". It even, occasionally, might have - in the vernacular of that day - "sucked".

I thought about that moment on the side of I-75 in Troy often over the years. I thought about it while stuck in a van with a bunch of teenagers on a 15 hour drive to the deep south. I thought about it while I was in an office with a parishioner who was chewing me a new orifice for something I said in a sermon. I thought about it the night I arranged for police to bust a pot dealer working the parking lot outside our youth meeting (true story... happened in Goshen). I thought about it again and again and again.

I've thought about that moment a lot, and all I can say is that I can't ever claim I didn't know what I was getting into when I chose to do this ministry gig. Horny teenagers blasting terrible pop music on unreliable ancient school buses, or even worse. Much worse. That's probably why when I told Bill I was thinking about the ministry, he encouraged me to think twice, or maybe go to law school first.

Ministry isn't for sissies. Bill Croy was as tough as they came.

Memory Two: Thinking Differently

I wasn't happy when I left Shawnee for Epworth in 1997. It wasn't that I didn't need a change of scenery. As my wife reminds me now, I was pretty restless my last year at Shawnee, and most likely was itching for a new challenge. It's just they moved me over my own objection. I mean after I told my DS, L. Cean Wilson, "no" to a move, she took my wife out for dinner and based on that conversation decided we need to go elsewhere.

Has that happened to any of you Elders out there? I'm guessing not.

So I went to Epworth feeling very torn about the itinerate system and whether or not I belonged in it. As a result, my 18 months in Toledo were an unsettling time. I chafed at being in a "high steeple" church. My wife was a high school band director who worked 90 hours a week, so since we never saw each other, our marriage was strained. We bought this house that should have been condemned in the Old West End, with neither the money, time, nor expertise to restore it, so it looked like the British had bombed the inside of it until the day we sold it (to a guy who advertised "I Buy Houses" on the back of a city bus). It was a tough time, and I was in a poor frame of mind to handle it.

But one good thing about my Epworth experience was that my approach to ministry began changing for the better. After replicating at Shawnee the youth ministry I remember Bill Croy leading at Trinity - which was kind of a "one man show" - I found myself at a church with a slew of adults willing to help with pretty much anything that had to be done. At first, to be honest, I just didn't know what to do with them. I was so used to pulling things together with not much more than spit, a ball of twine, and a Rubik's Cube, that I remember the leader of those volunteer adults - Bob Knowles (who is now the youth director at Epworth) - getting rather angry at me for not sharing more responsibility. I mean, here they finally had a lot of kids (which I guess, hadn't been the case right before I arrived) but the goofy youth director was still just kinda winging it, week to week. I just didn't know any other  way.

So, I called Bill, and that's when he explained to me that at Worthington as an associate he had led ministry with a far different philosophy than at Trinity. He talked about the need for fostering relationships between adult leaders and students, and crafting an environment where those relationships could succeed. He gave me a sketch of what empowering servant leaders looked like, and to everyone's relief I started implement this strategy at Epworth.

I didn't realize the full scope and effectiveness of empowering adult leaders in youth ministry until my five year stretch at Goshen First. That's when I was able to witness what good ministry work could happen when 22 adult volunteers and a couple of underpaid college interns could focus on discipling hundreds of teenagers. Admittedly, I'd love to figure out how to do this more effectively with adults discipling adults. It's really the only way to do ministry well by centering it on Jesus, and not your own personality and talent.

All that to say that Bill was a great pastor, but inside of that he was one of the best strategic thinkers I ever came in contact with. Can't tell you how many times over the years I gave Bill a call to pick his brain, and how more often than not, the guidance he gave was spot on.

He was really good at what he did, and he loved sharing that experience with the rest of us.

Memory 3: Living Down Your Past Life

For those who don't know, in 2004 I returned to Shawnee as an associate, with the chance (not a promise, but a chance) of becoming the next Senior Pastor. It's kind of a long story as to how this came to pass, but the short version is this: Churches with long-term pastors (15 years or longer) tend not to do so well after they leave. I actually did the numbers on this historically in a few UM conferences, and they were just downright scary. Statistically, most successors to a long term pastor don't last more than two years. If they aren't named as interims, they become de-facto interims.

Given that my predecessor was an exceptionally charismatic leader but not as strong systems creator, the powers-that-be in the West Ohio Conference were greatly concerned about what was going to happen to Shawnee after he left. That's where I came in. The cabinet and the senior pastor liked that I had a history at this church, but had also served as an associate at two other churches that were much larger than Shawnee. I had seen how that sausage was made so the hope was I'd get Shawnee off the plateau it had been on (around 400 in worship) for years and years. Even though I'd never been "the big kahuna" I'd seen a couple of them in action.

Having a past history at a church, I discovered though, is a mixed bag. When you're younger you make a lot of mistakes, some of which are pretty memorable, or worse, legendary. Legends take on lives of their own, and after eight years gone, a few of mine had taken on Paul Bunyan-esqe proportions. By the time I left Shawnee I was neither as reckless, nor disorganized as the legends recalled me to be, but that didn't matter. In the minds of many, I was still just a kid out of a college finding my way, as opposed to a married-father-of-two-sons who had just had a distinguished stint at what was one of only a couple of UM teaching churches in the midwest.

In any event, among staff and laity both, I found this was a significant barrier I had to get over both before, and after the transition. But, like most everything else I'd encountered in ministry up to that point, Bill had already gone through this professionally. In 1993, he'd been re-appointed to Trinity as the Senior Pastor, about eight years after leaving there as an associate. So I leaned on him pretty heavy to find out what he had learned in his experience. There's been more than one phone call, email, text, or PM that was made between Bill and I as I looked for advice as to how get out from under the shadow of not just my predecessor, but also myself.

Even after he got sick, I kept looking to Bill for guidance. And Bill kept looking out for me. Not too long ago he saw something I posted on Facebook, and PM'ed me to find out if I was OK. He's dying of ALS, and he wants to know if I'm OK.

Bill was a rock. He was solid. Pastor, mentor, teacher, and friend.... he was great.

And so, with a good many other stories left untold (not the least of which involved Croy sticking me in a cabin as the counselor to this son, Jeremy... he did that with a twinkle in his eye), a number of epic battles on the basketball court left to recount (on days we had off from school I'd always call him about using the gym at Trinity to run a game or two, and I learned he always said yes if I let it drop that I was bringing an odd number of guys and we'd need him to run as our 8th guy for 4-on-4), and much, much respect, I gotta wrap this up.

Grace, peace, and love to his lovely wife, Dort, his kids, Jeremy and Megan, and all his family who I know he loved with all his heart. My heart breaks for you all.

Godspeed, my friend. I'm gonna miss you. See you on the other side of the river, in the place where there is no darkness. May you rejoice this day as you find the place prepared for you at our Father's House.