Interview with John Caldwell
Now in his 36th year at Kingsway Christian Church (Avon, Indiana), John Caldwell has baptized hundreds, married couples and then later married their children, buried more than his fair share of faithful church members, and preached hundreds of sermons strategically designed to manage the growth of the Christians who make up Kingsway. John was president of the 1996 North American Christian Convention and will serve as president of the 2012 National Missionary Convention after his retirement from Kingsway. John and his wife, Jan, have been married 44 years and have two children and two grandchildren.
Has it seemed like 35 years?
No. it really hasn’t. The years have gone by very quickly.
Were you the preacher when Kingsway started?
I’m the only senior pastor Kingsway has ever had. I was not here when the church began, however. The area evangelistic association filled the pulpit for the first few months until they could find and hire a preacher.
Was it your first pulpit ministry?
I had a student ministry and then, when I graduated from Ozark, I traveled in full-time crusade evangelism for six or seven years before I came to Kingsway.
What’s the key to a long ministry?
I planned to have a long-term ministry. I was very intentional about it. I prayed that God would give me the opportunity to go someplace and spend a lifetime there, and he was kind enough to grant that request.
It’s a two-way street; the folks at the church have to want you to stick around.
I remember hearing a tape by Marvin Phillips (from down in Tulsa). He talked about the idea that many churches are ineffective because there are problem people in the church, and the problem always stays and the preacher always leaves. I made the determination I would stay and the problem people would leave! I would occasionally say that, jokingly, from the pulpit, but people knew it was my intention to be there for the long haul. That has served us well.
How does a church, or a preacher, stand up to problem people?
We had people in the early days who would come to Kingsway with their own agendas. When they saw Kingsway’s agenda was set, and that we would not be deterred from it, they would head on down the road and not cause us any problems.
You must have had opportunities to go elsewhere.
I made a deal with God early on that as long as he was blessing our ministry here at Kingsway, and things were moving in a positive direction, that I wouldn’t consider other opportunities. In the early days, as our ministry was growing rapidly, I probably got a phone call or letter a week asking me to go to another church. It was a relief to say, ”No, this is where I’m supposed to be.”
How would you describe yourself as a minister?
I’ve always considered myself a blue-collar minister. I know there are far more gifted preachers than me, but God has given me all sorts of incredible opportunities over these years, and I think the key has simply been faithfulness and hard work.
What advice would you give to a young guy who is just getting started?
I always tell young ministers not to take a ministry as a stepping stone, not to take a ministry unless they could see themselves spending the rest of their lives there.
Were there times you wanted to quit?
<laughs> Only a few. There was one particular period when the church was growing very fast, we were understaffed, I was feeling taken for granted, and I was probably close to burnout. I was just about ready to throw in the towel on ministry in general.
What kept you from leaving?
God brought several things into my life at that time. I remember Ken Idleman and I were rooming together at a North American Christian Convention meeting in St. Louis. He was having some difficult times, too, and we kind of cried on each other’s shoulders. The old saying “misery loves company” made that therapeutic for both of us. Then I was preaching a revival meeting in Illinois and I was driving home on Friday night. So I asked the local preacher if he had any tapes I could take with me to listen to on the way home. One of the tapes was by Ben Merold, called, “I Think I’ll Go on Anyway.” It’s like that tape was just for me. I must have listened to that tape three or four times on the way home that night. And then Christian Standard published an article by Russ Blowers called, “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Long Ministry.” I remember reading that article and, again, it was like it was written just for me. All those factors really impacted my life and my attitude. I prepared a special message for the congregation in which I admitted what I had gone through, the way I had felt, but in which I also recommitted myself to long-term ministry at Kingsway. That was a major turning point.
What would be a reasonable cause for a minister to not stick it out?
Certainly I think that sometimes we take a church as far as we can take it. Other times, for reasons not of a preacher’s making, his leadership might be compromised and it might be better for him to move on. Certainly there are just reasons for a congregation to ask a preacher to leave as well.
Is there a primary spiritual component for longevity?
Early in my ministry we were very short-staffed. I was serving as the administrator at our school, we went through several building programs in a row, and I was physically and spiritually exhausted. It has been said, “One can only give that which one has.” I realized I was always giving out and not taking in. When the book Celebration of Discipline (by Richard Foster) came out, I was thoroughly convicted by that book that my spiritual life needed attention and I was challenged to begin practicing the Christian disciplines much more faithfully. I really believe that in itself saved my ministry. So the practice of Christian disciplines has continued to be a very important part of my life over these past years.
To last 35 years, I guess you need to maintain a good relationship with your elders.
Every current elder in the church has come into the church under my ministry, and some have come to Christ under my ministry. That, in itself, provides a very special relationship. One of the strengths of Kingsway has been a strong eldership. We have a very involved process for choosing elders, and the result has been some wonderful lay leaders over the years.
How do you connect with the elders beyond regular elders meetings?
I meet regularly with the chairman of the elders—we have breakfast together on a regular basis. We talk together and pray together. The elders as a group socialize from time to time. There is a sense of camaraderie among the elders here. Since I have always served as an elder, we’ve never had the “us versus them” mentality seen in some situations.
How have you prepared the congregation for new leadership?
A year ago last February we made an announcement to the congregation that we were putting together a “pursuit team” to find the right person to come and work alongside me for a period of time and to transition into the role of senior pastor. That’s been anticipated by the congregation for some time. We’re just about to get there and the congregation is excited about that. Obviously we are all excited about what the next chapter in Kingsway’s life will be from a leadership standpoint.
Are there any other specific things you’re doing?
Over recent years I have delegated more and more responsibility to different staff people. Things in the past that I would have taken care of, others now take care of in anticipation of that transition.
Do you have a vision of what retirement will mean for you?
I will be retiring in the traditional sense of the word but plan to be involved in ministry as long as I have the health to do so. I’ll take a short break and then do a lot of work on the mission field. I plan to do some seminar work, and some of the colleges have asked me to teach as well.
Are there parts of ministry you’ll be glad to retire from?
All the administrative detail that comes with a larger church and carrying the weight of the myriad of problems in the lives of our people that I’m exposed to on a day-by-day basis.
What will you miss when you retire?
I will most miss preparing sermons as a part of a strategy for helping our people grow. I’m sure I’ll continue preaching most weekends, but it will be a different sort of ministry. I’ll miss the personal relationships that I enjoy with people who have been longtime friends.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, ministry development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.