13 September, 2021

He Made Us Better: The Life and Ministry of Sam E. Stone

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by | 1 September, 2021 | 0 comments

I waited outside the dean’s office on a steamy summer afternoon in 1976. I was 22 years old—eager but nervous about enrolling in graduate school—and I brought my wife with me to meet the seminary dean. A friend once advised, “If you have butterflies in your stomach, get them to fly in formation,” but Candy and I couldn’t disguise our apprehension as we took our seats on the other side of the dean’s desk.

Our anxiety quickly changed to relief when he smiled, his eyes sparkling behind dark-rimmed glasses. The dean shook our hands and said warmly, “I’m glad you’re here!” He answered our questions and encouraged us to trust the Lord as we prepared for a lifetime of ministry.

That first meeting with Sam Stone wasn’t much different than my other encounters with him over the next 45 years, except I learned not to be nervous around him. Sam was interested in other people and earnest about serving the Lord—the kind of leader who makes others better.

It’s a daunting task to write about the man who edited this magazine for a quarter of a century and published my first article (in 1978). My goal is not merely to eulogize him and certainly not to idolize him, but it’s good to ask, What can we learn from his life and ministry?

Sam’s family recalls how in difficult situations he would try to discern God’s will and then humbly say, “All we can do is our best.” So, in this limited space I will do my best to highlight three points about Sam Stone: (1) He loved his family well; (2) he served the Lord with excellence; and (3) he led with faith and godliness.

SAM STONE AT HIS DESK SHORTLY BEFORE HE BECAME EDITOR OF CHRISTIAN STANDARD.

HE LOVED HIS FAMILY WELL

Samuel Edwin Stone was born in Clovis, New Mexico, on October 12, 1936, and he was baptized on October 13, 1946, at Central Church of Christ in Clovis. His only sibling, a younger sister, died at birth. His dad worked at a grain elevator and a hardware store, and later managed a 1,200-acre cattle ranch.

Sam got involved with Boy Scouts, student government, and sports. He worked for a radio station and scooped ice cream at a soda shop. (He never lost his love for ice cream.) As the 16-year-old editor of his high school newspaper, he interviewed Billy Graham before the evangelist’s Albuquerque Crusade.

After high school, Sam and several of his friends enrolled at Ozark Christian College and he began preaching during his freshman year, serving part-time with a church in Summersville, Missouri. While at Ozark he lived with the Edwin Hayden family, not realizing that, in God’s providence, two decades later he would succeed Mr. Hayden as editor of Christian Standard.

Sam met Gwen Gardner in college, and shortly after both of them graduated from Ozark they wed on June 6, 1958, the start of 57 years of marriage until Gwen’s death in 2015. Their sons, Dave and Jeff, followed their parents’ footsteps in ministry and inherited their sense of humor. Years later, Sam told his sons that he and Gwen stayed in a motel on their honeymoon, and the next morning discovered that he had left the room key in the door on the outside the entire night.

Sam often took one of his boys along when he ran errands or engaged in ministry. If people asked, “Who do you have with you, Sam?” he would answer, “This is my bodyguard!”

His sons accompanied him to visit shut-ins, new members, and prospective members. Dave says, “As impatient kids we became bored if those meetings went too long, so Dad came up with a system. When Jeff or I could sit still no longer, we would brush imaginary dust off our knees. This signaled, ‘Can we please go?’ To signify that he saw our nonverbal message, Dad would take his glasses off and then put them back on to let us know he was wrapping up.”

“Dad was our favorite preacher,” Dave remembers. “Sometimes after a sermon he would ask us to repeat his three points and each joke he had told.” 

Mark Taylor and Sam were colleagues at Standard Publishing. Mark says, “I’ll always remember the small stack of index cards Sam kept in his shirt pocket or on his desk, each of them filled with a list of reminders. Tasks. Errands. Goals. I’m guessing prayer requests. Any time I saw one of the cards, it always contained several items crossed off, even as he added another.”

I remember those note cards, too. Sam told me that when he got home from work each evening, he shared the day’s events with Gwen. Many things happen each day in a leader’s life—phone calls, people stopping by, hearing a bit of good or bad news. By writing notes, Sam could remember what to tell Gwen so she could stay in touch with his daily life. It was a practical lesson about communication in marriage from a man who loved his family well.

HE SERVED THE LORD WITH EXCELLENCE

From 1958 to 1960, Sam edited Standard Publishing’s youth quarterlies and a teen magazine called Straight. He simultaneously served as Dr. Lewis Foster’s associate minister at Western Hills Church of Christ in Cincinnati while teaching part-time at Cincinnati Bible Seminary, where Sam had earned his Master of Divinity degree. When Lewis became dean of the seminary, Sam became the senior minister at Western Hills, serving from 1962 to 1971. (Mark Taylor was one of his associate ministers.) In 1974 Sam succeeded Dr. Foster as the seminary dean.

Sam became the editor of Christian Standard on January 1, 1978, when his journalism mentor Edwin Hayden retired, and he served in this role until January 1, 2003—the longest editorship in the magazine’s history. During those 25 years, he continued to teach classes in practical ministry, creative writing, and journalism.

When I became editor of The Lookout in 1996, I noticed that Sam usually arrived for work early in the morning. He didn’t have a fancy office—just a cubicle in the corner where he talked on the phone, read stacks of manuscripts, and wrote editorials on an IBM Selectric typewriter.

Sam served on the boards of several mission organizations, including Christian Arabic Services, the CBA Foundation for the Aging, Jerusalem Christian Mission, and Good News Productions, International.

His brother-in-law (Gwen’s youngest brother, Greg) had cerebral palsy, and Sam decided more should be done to assist people with disabilities. He visited churches, raised funds, and wrote articles about this need. The January 29, 1984, issue of Christian Standard carried a front-page announcement about the start of a new ministry led by Jim Pierson as executive director and Sam as board chair. Nearly 40 years later, Ability Ministries (originally called the Christian Church Foundation for the Handicapped) continues to partner with individuals, churches, and organizations to serve people with disabilities. Jeff Stone calls this God-sized vision “our dad’s greatest and least-known contribution to the kingdom.”

Sam’s passion for Christian unity led him to partner with others to create unity meetings where people could discuss doctrinal opinions without creating uncharitable divisions in the body of Christ. He served as president of the 1997 North American Christian Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, using the theme “God’s Family . . . Growing Together.” He was the first NACC president to have a son serve as president of the NACC and the only one to have two sons serve as presidents (Jeff in 2009 and Dave in 2016).

Orrin Root wrote a weekly Bible lesson for The Lookout magazine for 54 consecutive years. After Mr. Root died in 2003 at age 98, choosing his successor was a challenging decision and Sam Stone was the obvious choice. The Lookout’s editor at the time, Shawn McMullen, compared it to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Recently retired from editing Christian Standard, Sam preached the funeral message for Mr. Root’s memorial service, then stepped in and wrote the weekly Bible commentary for 12 years, from 2003 to 2015.

Altogether Sam wrote half a dozen books and preached in 35 states, at 32 Bible colleges, and in 27 countries. He served the Lord with excellence.

HE LED WITH FAITH AND GODLINESS

One rainy afternoon when their family was young, Sam and Gwen were returning from a vacation with their boys. An oncoming car hydroplaned on the wet pavement, hitting the Stones’ car head-on. Dave remembers what happened immediately after the sickening crash of shattering glass and crumpling steel.

“Everything grew quiet,” he says, “except for Dad’s quivering voice: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . .’ My father’s face had struck the steering wheel. He had shards of glass in his eyes. Behind him in the back seat, Mom was bleeding from a life-threatening skull fracture. In the distance we heard the howl of sirens approaching through the rain. But above the wail of the ambulances, the words kept coming: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’”

“This was no foxhole prayer, no panicked appeal in a time of crisis,” Dave says. “It was Dad’s default setting. Quoting Scripture was natural and normal for him, whether in the valley or on the mountaintop. My father knew that the Bible offered words that help and heal, words that deepen joy and lessen sorrow. When the sirens of life sounded, he found strength and connection with God in the Scriptures. Even in that moment of shock and pain, even when he thought Mom was dying, he instinctively turned to the Bible.”

Gene Wigginton was Sam’s boss for several years. Gene remembers, “Sam was always a Christian gentleman and was always fair and honest. One time he received a letter from a reader that simply stated, ‘To the Christian Standard—which is neither.’ He published the letter! I believe that gave credibility not only to Sam but also to Standard Publishing.”

Donna Fehl worked with Sam as office editor for 18 years.

“During that time Sam never spoke a harsh or critical word to me,” she says. “He gave me responsibility, trusted me, and did not micromanage the process. Once Sam had edited the copy, he gave me free rein and did not see the copy again until the paper printed. I appreciated Sam’s trust.”

Donna’s husband, Jim, served as editor of The Standard Lesson Commentary. He remembers how, before publishing his own weekly editorials, Sam would take them to other editors and ask them to suggest any clarifications or improvements. Sam graciously accepted the suggestions of others because he wanted to give the Lord his best.

From his retirement home at Mason Christian Village, Sam spoke frequently with his sons on the phone. On the night before he died, his last words to Dave were, “I love you and I’m praying for you.” Despite COVID-19 restrictions, providentially Jeff was able to be in the hospital room when his dad passed into glory.

“I am so grateful that I was able to be by his side to the end of the road,” Jeff says. “His journey is completed. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”

The Bible tells about good kings and bad kings, faithful leaders and unfaithful ones. Occasionally we get to know godly leaders like Barnabas, who encouraged others. Or Paul and John, who ministered by writing and preaching. Or Hananiah, “who was a man of integrity and feared God more than most people do” (Nehemiah 7:2).

Mark Taylor saw qualities like those in Sam Stone.

“Sam was pleasant, smiling, polite,” Mark remembers. “Beneath that easygoing persona was a man driven to use every moment for God, to remember and handle every obligation on time and with excellence. When someone made a request of Sam or gave him an assignment, with a smile he’d answer, ‘I’ll do my best!’ Now we’re smiling, too, as we remember how his best blessed us again and again.”

Perhaps the best summary of Sam’s life comes from the cover of a book he wrote about the Restoration Movement. The title expresses what Sam aspired to be and what he wanted all of us to be: Simply Christians.

Dave Faust serves as associate minister at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and writes the Application for Christian Standard’s weekly Lookout Bible studies.


Remembering Sam Stone

“Known for ’speaking the truth in love,’ Sam Stone deeply impacted my life. His writing and speaking were powerful. I was inspired by his compassion and tenderness whenever accompanying him to visit his parents, stricken with Alzheimer’s, and his brother-in-law, Greg, [who had] severe cerebral palsy. Integrity and humility were obvious during our college days, while serving together on mission boards, and doing projects together in India, Africa, Australia, and the United States. His passion for unity and our Restoration heritage were challenging. He was a ’true yokefellow’ who rejoiced, wept, and prayed together with me on many occasions.”

Ziden Nutt, Retired Executive Director, Good News Productions, International

“Sam Stone was a gentle and humble servant of our Lord. He ministered to Joyce and me at a particularly critical time when he came to the hospital where we had just suffered the sudden death of our firstborn son. His words, prayer, and Scripture were of immense comfort. Sam also introduced me to the Christian HolyLand Foundation, asking me to serve as a board member and introducing me to Christians throughout Israel. My son and I are still involved in that growing ministry more than 30 years later. Thank you, Sam, for your many kingdom contributions around the world.”

—John C. Samples, Minister Emeritus at East 91st Street Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana

“Many happy memories come to mind when I think of Sam Stone! When my husband, Barry, became president of Cincinnati Christian University in the summer of 1988, I had planned to be a stay-at-home mom. Six months after we moved, Sam gave me a call to see if I would work for him as news editor of Christian Standard. I said yes and worked with Sam for five wonderful years. He was the most compassionate and caring boss I’ve had in my almost 50 years as an administrative assistant. He always encouraged me in whatever I did, and I learned what it meant to assist someone and feel appreciated. He will always be remembered as a kind boss and dear friend!”

—Pat McCarty, Marketing Department Production Coordinator, Guidestone Financial Resources, Dallas, Texas

“What a privilege it was to have Sam Stone join us at The Christian Village at Mason. We often passed in the hall, and he always took advantage of an opportunity to encourage me. As [his] dementia progressed, those interactions became less about words, usually replaced by a smile and a simple thumbs up. His gentle way of dealing with staff touched them in unforgettable ways. We will dedicate the new 400-seat Stone Worship Center and Auditorium later this year, where the legacy of Sam and Gwen Stone will live on as future lives are touched in Jesus’ name.”

—Larry Monroe, President and CEO, Christian Village Communities, Mason and Cincinnati, Ohio
<a href="https://christianstandard.com/author/davidfaust/" target="_self">David Faust</a>

David Faust

David Faust serves as the Associate Minister at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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