Longtime Christian church minister Ben Merold, who twice took over as minister of churches averaging about 200 and grew them to 3,000 or so—the second time when he was of retirement age—died this morning, Nov. 16, 2022.
We are preparing an article about Ben, but until that’s ready, we thought we would share this appreciation of Ben written by Bob Russell, retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky. We first posted this column in June 2021, but it originally appeared at Russell’s website, www.bobrussell.org. (We posted it here with his permission.)
_ _ _
Ben Merold: ‘A Model Worth Emulating’
By Bob Russell
It has been said, “All Christians need a mentor like Paul to instruct them, a friend like Barnabas to encourage them, and a student like Timothy to incentivize them.”
Even though I’m 77 years old, Ben Merold still serves as an apostle Paul in my life. I have tremendous respect for him and often think, If I live to be 95, I want to be like Ben Merold.
I’ve been blessed with good health; however, I’m realistic enough to know my chances of living to age 95 are not great.
The Bible teaches the typical life expectancy is around 80 years and the last decade usually contains more pain than peace. Second Corinthians 4:16 affirms, “outwardly we are wasting away. . . .” God uses the struggles of aging as a reminder that this world is not our home, and it’s time to “set our hearts on the things above . . . not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).
A World War II veteran, Ben Merold has shown me how to age with grace and how to finish strong. Not many do. The Bible is full of examples of people who started well and finished poorly. Contemporary history is replete with examples of Christian leaders who didn’t finish with a victory lap. But Ben is a model worth emulating.
In his prime, Ben helped grow a large, healthy church in California. He retired from Eastside Christian Church in Fullerton at age 65 because he’d seen many sad examples of guys in their older years dragging down what they had taken years to build up. He stepped aside because he wanted to avoid being more of a hindrance than a help.
However, Ben didn’t exchange his Bible for a fishing pole. He stayed active in the Lord’s work. He decided he’d spend his next chapter preaching in a small church while also traveling, speaking, and leading church-growth seminars. He accepted a call to serve at Harvester Christian, a church of around 140 people in St. Charles, Mo. The average age of that church was 29. Ben was like a spiritual grandfather to most of his congregation.
Over the next 18 years, Harvester Christian grew to more than 3,000 people. Amazing! Ben often remarks that one of the most satisfying experiences of his life was helping to grow a megachurch in his retirement years. Ben was 83 when he stepped aside from Harvester Christian. To this day, he still leads church-growth seminars and speaks at conferences.
Ten years ago, Ben accepted my request to help lead my monthly retreats for ministers. We call these three-day gatherings “A Time of Refreshing.” We discuss the challenges of ministry and provide a much-needed spiritual R & R for eight different preachers. Ben was a guest lecturer each morning. When he got up to speak, he was concise, practical, understandable, and relevant. I’d often think of the biblical description of Moses: “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone” (Deuteronomy 34:7).
I’d sometimes say, “Ben, when the guys visit the bat factory this afternoon, I’m going home to take a nap. You’re welcome to our guest bedroom for an hour.” He’d respond, “Nah, I think I’ll go with the guys.” I came to learn that, unlike most of us who are older, Ben slept soundly seven or eight hours through the night. That’s why he still had energy in the afternoons. I wish I could imitate that!
Ben has remained humble all his life. Most leaders who experience his kind of success become prideful and aloof. During his years of ministry in California, Ben served in the shadows of famous preachers like Charles Swindoll and Robert Schuller. However, he never complained about being overlooked or not receiving equal status. He just quietly focused on leading people to Christ and helping them grow to maturity.
He began his ministry in St. Charles by bringing his elders to the Southeast Christian leadership conference in Louisville. Ben could have led the sessions more effectively than any of us, but he sat in the audience with his leaders and took notes. After all these years, I’ve seen him at numerous conferences still taking notes, still trying to learn.
Ben loves the Lord and has remained faithful to him all his life. At a time when so many high-profile leaders embarrass the kingdom of God with immorality, passivity, or extravagance, Ben has stood firm on God’s Word and continued loving people. He is finishing strong.
A keen sense of humor has characterized Ben’s life. There’s a frequent grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye. I attended his 90th birthday party thrown by members of Harvester Christian. A huge cake with 90 lit candles was carted onto the platform, followed by a fireman in full gear! No one laughed harder than Ben.
Ben’s wife, Pat, is just a couple of years younger than he. The two have been married for over 70 years. A.B. McReynolds once introduced Ben to 8,000 men at the Kiamichi Mountain Clinic in Oklahoma by saying, “Men, I’ve always said, Pat Merold is the prettiest and smartest preacher’s wife I’ve ever known. This here is her husband!” Ben has never lived that down.
Many younger ministers, myself included, have remarked that one of the highlights of attending the North American Christian Convention every year was seeing Ben and Pat Merold leaving after the nightly worship service holding hands. We would nod toward them, smile, and think to ourselves, That’s what I want for my marriage when my wife and I reach that age.
Ben informed me six months ago that our May retreat would be his last. He had usually driven himself from St. Louis to Louisville each month, and the trip was becoming tedious. He sensed his legs getting weaker and his wife needing more care.
At his final retreat with us, the staff, volunteers, and attendees paid tribute to Ben at a dinner at our home. Ben simply smiled and expressed thanks for our gifts. As always, he shunned the limelight and quietly headed for home the next day.
If I live to be 95 years old, I want to be as gracious, engaged, and selfless as Ben Merold. If I die at 95, I want Ben Merold to preach my funeral.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).