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From his column A Minute with Donminute-with-don-01-15-1

With the passing of longtime Pensions and Benefits director, Dean Wessels, I’ve been thinking about the past. Dean was my predecessor as director of P&B, where he served the Church of the Nazarene from the 1950s into the 1990s. He also was my boss, friend, and mentor for ten years before his retirement. As I’ve thought about Dean’s service, I’ve also reflected on the nature of the Church of the Nazarene during his years of leadership. As it was then, so it is today—there are many differences and many similarities.

During Dean’s tenure, there were many changes in society, changes which also affected the Church of the Nazarene. Personal memories of growing up in a Nazarene church in Iowa during the 1950s and 1960s taught me that adaptation to change isn’t always easy. In the second decade of this new century it is still difficult, but there remains a powerful thread, woven and stretched over these years—one of the signature strengths of our church—that of “connection.”

From my childhood, I have sensed a strong connection to other Nazarenes. There are probably a number of reasons for this, but it was strong in both the church and the home where I was raised. We didn’t have the Internet, social media, and instantaneous communications like today. But we were connected.

We had the Herald of Holiness. It was delivered to our house twice a month, and about the time we’d finish reading it from cover to cover (starting at the back), we’d get a copy of The Other Sheep. Every family in the church received a newsletter from our district church, and our district superintendent had a weekly radio broadcast (we’d try to tune in on Sunday afternoons, right between dinner and our Nazarene nap). Camps, zone rallies, and retreats punctuated the annual calendar, and all of that happened without a website, Facebook page, or Twitter account.

That connectedness was part of who we were, and we worked to preserve it with more than time and event planning. We paid real dollars for it. I recall as a small boy sitting with my mother and father on a wooden bench on an August afternoon in a non-air-conditioned tabernacle listening to pastors’ reports at district assembly. There were other things I would have preferred to be doing, but that wasn’t my prerogative. I don’t recall all the details of those days, but I will never forget learning about something called “budgets.” And I recall with great clarity that failure to pay “budgets” would bring tears to the eyes of grown men. There probably are child psychologists who’d claim that was the beginning of many of my problems, but I think it was teaching me that to be part of a faith community requires significant, tangible commitment. It could be expensive—even stressful, but it taught me that there is something bigger than myself to which I belonged.

It was during this period that we saw the beginning of a number of programs and plans for the support of our ministers. The Church of the Nazarene was growing, and we’d seen an increase in the number of clergy. Many of them had entered the ministry later in life, following military service, and all of them were headed for retirement. The impending need for some kind of retirement income for this growing corps of aging clergy, and the strong connectional ties of the Church of the Nazarene, made it possible to start the Basic Pension Plan, funded by our church’s “budget system.” We believed we could meet the coming challenge better by working together than we could as individuals. This was how we’d tackled the challenges of supporting our growing missionary enterprise, our regional colleges, and our district organizations. It seemed right that we should use this same system of connectional funding to address the needs of those who already were raising “budgets” for all of the other undertakings. It was one of the most socially progressive enterprises our conservative denomination would likely ever attempt. But the thousands of men and women who have received monthly checks over the decades would tell you, “It worked.”

Today, as I look at the list of those receiving Basic Pension payments, I still see familiar names from my early years, though now most of the recipients are the widows of those I remember. The check amounts aren’t all we’d like them to be, but they represent what can be done when many join together to make sure everybody has something at retirement, regardless of the size of church they served or the amount of money they raised.

And I have one more memory of those widows. Many of them inherited the role of “missionary president” in the local congregations they served. They oversaw the campaign for The Other Sheep subscriptions, organized “box work” gatherings and “bandage rolling” events, and led “missionary meetings,” usually on the first Wednesday night of the month. They were the General Budget champions, the district missionary dues collectors, and the missionary society membership promoters. They raised money for Distinguished Service Awards to fund the missionary medical plan. They made sure we all read the missionary books. And, to top it all off, when visiting missionary came to show slides with the ubiquitous snakes, sunrises, and “witchdoctors,” they opened their homes to provide food and lodging.

I don’t believe anyone ever heard the gospel message for the first time from their own lips. Many of us were privileged to hear it from our parents, in our own language, in our own homes. Others heard it from faithful pastors and Sunday school teachers, but all of us can point to someone else who was faithful in telling us the Good News of salvation and sanctification through Jesus Christ.

As Moses prepared to pass on the faith to a new generation, he reminded them, “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, 11 houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, 12 be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deut. 6:10-12) A paraphrase of that passage reminds us, “We have all warmed ourselves by fires we did not build, and drawn water from wells we did not dig.”

No generation is immune to this kind of forgetfulness.

Had it not been for the faithfulness of these ministers and their spouses at a critical time of growth during the last half of the 20th century, most of what we enjoy today as an “international church” would not have happened. We owe much to the vision, hard work, and dedication of men and women like them, and like Dean Wessels, who championed programs on their behalf.

We are not the same as we used to be, but what we used to be made it possible for us to be what we are today. When you contribute to the Pensions and Benefits Fund, your dollars honor the men and women who laid the foundations and built the support systems we have today. Your P&B Fund giving is as important to the ongoing mission of the church as any other “budget” your church pays—enabling the Church of the Nazarene to continue to Honor the Trust that these men and women placed in God to remain true to them “even down to their old age.”

Don Walter is director of Pensions and Benefits USA for the Church of the Nazarene.

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