By Matt Merold
Some of the greatest lessons in life are caught, not taught. They’re learned by what is observed in us, not what is heard from us. Sometimes the teacher isn’t even aware that school is in session. I’m not entirely sure if my instructor—my grandfather, Ben Merold—is fully aware of all the ways he’s taught me, in both simple and sophisticated ways. His lessons have gone beyond anything I could ever learn in a classroom.
You’re Never Too Important to Take Out the Trash.
It was hot . . . Missouri hot! Anyone who had been outside was loath to leave the air-conditioned office. I was one of several interns serving at my grandfather’s church, Harvester Christian in St. Charles, in 1998.
As the hours passed, the trash started to pile up. Every intern knew that sooner or later one of us would be summoned to haul several loads of garbage to the Dumpster on the other end of the parking lot. None of us was looking forward to that, and we all secretly hoped someone else would do it.
That’s when my grandfather gathered the bags without fanfare, stripped off his suit coat, and started across the lot, a bag in each hand. Leftover coffee and soda dripped from the corners of the sacks. My grandfather wasn’t out to prove a point or shame us. He was just being himself—a person who doesn’t see himself as more important than anyone else.
We all watched from our cubicles until it dawned on us: We just let Ben Merold take out the office trash. We quickly collected the rest of the trash, caught up with him, and made sure he didn’t have to make another trip.
That small action became a monumental lesson: Good leaders are great servants.
Make Time for Those Whom Others See as Interruptions.
My grandfather received a phone call as we watched a murder mystery on PBS. My grandmother and I could tell he was a bit perplexed. “Tell me your name once more,” he said.
The caller said he gave his life to Christ at a revival that my grandfather had preached; he was passing through town and needed some help. My grandfather seemed a bit dubious.
After the call ended, my worried grandmother said, “Ben, you don’t need to go out this late and meet someone you don’t know.” I volunteered to go along, as security, but my grandfather assured us he’d be all right. He grabbed his wallet and left.
My grandmother reached out to me and said, “We’re going to pray that he’s kept safe.”
The hours went by, a new day started, and my grandmother and I waited. By the time my grandfather finally returned, we were a bit agitated: “What took you so long? You had us worried sick!”
He calmed us down and told us the man was just passing through town, found my grandfather’s name on the church sign, and looked up his number in the phonebook. The caller had made up the entire story just to ask for a few bucks.
“What did you do?” we asked.
“I gave him what he asked, had a burger with him, and talked to him about the gospel.”
I’m sure my grandfather made greater gains for God’s kingdom that night by going to talk to the man than had he remained home watching TV. That simple act was significant: Make time for those whom others see as interruptions.
There Are No Little Places.
Most people know that Ben Merold is a friend to the small church. He knows a church’s average attendance isn’t indicative of its impact.
My grandfather has served at five churches—a student ministry at Assumption, Illinois; a five-year ministry at Villa Grove, Illinois; a 13-year ministry at Sullivan, Indiana; a 22-year ministry with Eastside Christian Church in Fullerton, California; and a 17-year senior ministry with Harvester Christian Church, St. Charles, Missouri (which he continues to serve as minister-at-large).
Each of those congregations had humble beginnings. Assumption and Villa Grove are both located in rural farming communities, Sullivan is a small town.
If you were to judge success strictly by the numbers, those first three ministries might show up as a blip on his resume. But when he talks about those first three, you can tell they molded his heart. Some of his best ministry stories come from those early years.
He speaks with joy and adoration about Sullivan and the characters and the eccentrics at that congregation. If you’ve ever heard him speak at a church-growth conference and heard a Sullivan story, you’ve heard the fondness in his voice. Those little places undoubtedly shaped his heart for congregations that are small in number but strong in spirit.
When we’re together, I always ask him where he’s taught and preached. He typically mentions conventions, conferences, and colleges, but then he tells me about a handful of churches where he’s spoken that most people have forgotten about. A small church in Arkansas, for instance, that needed a guiding hand as they navigated change. A church in Illinois that has nearly all the right ingredients but isn’t experiencing growth because of a lack of vision. A church in Oklahoma that asked him to meet with the leadership because a building program is plagued with problems.
He goes to these small churches—willfully and with a joyous heart—because he understands the challenges small congregations face. He goes, because he has no bias for bigness. He knows, better than most, that 10 small churches of 100 can accomplish more than one church of 1,000. He has taught me and countless others: There are no little places.
I’m sure my grandfather has preached at about every church in our brotherhood along a stretch of U.S. 36 east of Decatur, Illinois.
While I was in Bible college, I was a pulpit supply preacher, and one Sunday in 1998 I was sent to one of those churches just off the highway. A couple of church elders greeted me at the door and asked, “Are you related to Ben Merold?”
I told them, “I’m his grandson!”
And so the introduction before my sermon that Sunday went something like this: “We have a real treat for you today! Welcome, Ben Merold’s grandson.” (I’ll take those accolades any day!)
As I made my way to the pulpit, an elderly lady—fragile, shaky, and old as the hills—stood and said, “I gave my life to Jesus when your granddad preached a revival here. He preached on John 15: ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches.’” She didn’t stop there, but repeated the three points from his sermon. Heads nodded in agreement as she spoke.
“When did he preach here last?” I asked.
“Spring . . . of ’58,” a man in the back yelled.
I was in real trouble that day. I had prepared a clever inductive message on the topic of happiness, and before I could even present it, it was eclipsed by a four-decade-old sermon redelivered by a precious woman in the faith. My message that day probably bled into the walls, but his sermon was still reverberating around the room 40 years later.
Lesson learned: Preach Jesus!
Attitude Makes All the Difference.
If you’ve ever sat through a meeting, you know a simple problem can be made worse if too many people discuss it.
It was one of those kinds of meetings, filled with people forced to be there who didn’t think they should be, spitballing ideas that were completely off topic. It was like the Wild West of meetings, and I guess my grandfather had enough of it, so he embraced the spirit of Wyatt Earp and brought in some law and order.
Now, before you think he had a let-loose moment of anger; he didn’t. He didn’t snap. He didn’t come across as angry; his words weren’t out of line or un-Christlike. I’m sure he didn’t lose credibility with anyone in the room that day, but still he was remorseful afterward. He simply was disappointed in himself.
He wrote a note to me apologizing for his behavior, and I couldn’t remember anything he’d said to the group that was worthy of an apology. The letter was on the dresser in my room, propped up for me to open and read before I left for the office. The details are much too personal to reveal in a magazine article, but the tenor of the note was, “I was a bad example.”
He knew I was watching and listening at that meeting, so he apologized for souring the conversation; he apologized for not steering the group toward a positive discussion; he apologized for not displaying greater character to his grandson. But foremost, he apologized for his poor attitude that day.
The lesson was clear (in fact, it was underlined twice and written in capital letters): “Attitude makes all the difference!”
Store Up for Yourselves Treasures in Heaven.
I once heard him say in a stewardship sermon, “You cannot out-give God.” He then challenged the congregation to try it. And he personalized his message.
With a humble spirit, he discussed how he and my grandmother handle their finances. I’ll be honest, I was a little shocked. I thought, If they give that much, how do they have enough to live on? I hope they’ve saved for retirement. Sounds like I won’t be getting as big of an inheritance as I once thought!
My grandparents have always been generous with God’s money. Here’s a quick backstory as to why.
My grandfather grew up in the small town of Moweaqua, Illinois. His Uncle Leroy, a key influencer in his life, is a family legend. Leroy found financial success in just about all of his ventures. He gave away his money as fast as he could make it. The recipients were mainly local churches, Christian colleges, and Bible college students.
Leroy’s motto was, “If God is your partner, make your plans big.” He’d say things like, “God shovels it in, I shovel it out; only difference is, God uses a bigger shovel.”
Leroy was a remarkable man and a major influence on my grandfather, who saw firsthand that you cannot out-give God. And that principle spilled over into all areas of his and my grandmother’s lives; generosity is their lifestyle.
They open their home to the homeless, the single parent, the fatherless, and the hurting and abandoned. They have an eternal perspective in a temporal world. And in turn, they have become the key influencers of our family to think beyond ourselves, to use money more wisely to build up God’s kingdom, and to use our resources to welcome in those who are in need. They have taught me and others in our family to store up treasures in Heaven.
Keep Teaching Important Life Lessons.
My grandfather has taught me so many more lessons, like how to love your mate and how to lead your household well. He taught that you never get over the loss of the people you love, but must learn to live wounded, embraced with the strength of God.
He taught lessons about remembering your past so it can be retold to the present and that the character of the man begins with the character of Christ.
He has taught lessons in integrity (you’re the same in private as you are in public) and finishing well. The list goes on and on.
But the most important lesson my grandfather ever taught me is this: God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. That teaching has made all the difference in him and in me.
Matt Merold serves as senior minister at Bethany Christian Church, Washington, Indiana.