I vividly recall waking early that Sabbath morning. Beaming with excitement, I slowly read through my message in front of the mirror in preparation to preach my first sermon. The nominating committee had voted for me some months before to become an elder in my church, the New Winthorpes Seventh-day Adventist Church. I was only sixteen years old; I knew nothing about sermon preparation. I figured a sermon was just a lengthy essay with a few shouts here and there, and I’d do well enough to be asked again. I was wrong!
My sermon title, “Jesus Is Coming,” was self-explanatory. I spoke about the signs of Jesus’ soon return and the need to be ready. The members’ excitement and support were evident in their loud shouts of “Amen” and “Hallelujah!” Excited for the opportunity to preach God’s Word, I had no idea about the theological intricacies of preparing such hermeneutics, delivering the spoken Word, and its transformative effects on human beings, but I preached. As I met the congregants of the sixty-fivemember church at the door, they expressed their appreciation for such a timely reminder of Jesus’ imminent return. Returning to collect some personal items from one of the benches, Elder Newton Daniel, the founder of our church, stopped me and politely asked if he could talk with me very briefly. In my two years of being in that church, I never heard anyone say no to Elder Daniel’s request to speak to them, so I obliged.
A stately, impeccably dressed man, Elder Newton Daniel never came to church without his briefcase. In it were three things: a large, well-worn Bible, the current Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, and a gift for a church member. No individual was assigned that gift without reason, and God always told him who should be the recipient each week. Elder Daniel cared for each member of that church in a unique, personal way. He owned a bakery and always sought to bless each one of us based on our needs. I was a teenager; I never owned a suit until I met Elder Daniel. All my friends in the church probably thought I spent vast sums of money on that suit, but he brought it to church and gave it to me discreetly, providing my first lesson in leadership integrity and confidentiality. As I sat down, he invited me to join him, and he prayed, “Our Father, thank you for calling this young man to preach the Gospel. As we talk, please allow him to retain the ideas I share with him today. I pray that you will bless him and bless us as we work together to advance your work in this part of your vineyard. Amen.”
My second leadership lesson came on the Sabbath after I preached that sermon. Elder Daniel was a servant leader, and he discerned my call to ministry. He spoke with respect and affirmed my preaching. That Sabbath, he said something to me that forever transformed my philosophy of preaching. He said, “Elder Browne” (he called me “Elder,” and I was not even ordained), “God called you to preach His gospel. This may be your first speaking appointment, but it will not be your last. I will guide you, and I will be praying for you. You are a good writer, but preaching the gospel goes much deeper than casual writing. When you preach the gospel, you represent an omnipotent God who is reaching out and calling a dying world through you. Preaching God’s Word demands a decision from the hearer that determines eternal life or eternal damnation. Many people will hear your messages for the last time, and that makes preaching the gospel a matter of urgency.”
Since that day, unless Elder Daniel was traveling, I sat with him after each sermon, receiving lifetransforming feedback. I delighted in his presence, enjoying every minute of it.
My third lesson taught me that preachers of the gospel must be readers. Although Elder Daniel had not attended university, he was well read. As I grew, he told me to listen to his sermons and observe that all he shares comes from multiple sources and vast reading. Every month he brought me a book and asked me to quote meaningful aspects from the theme in my sermons. At first, adaptation proved difficult, but he nurtured me. He offered constructive criticism, while presenting alternate ways of expressing the Word.
My fourth lesson stressed the importance of time, and that being a good elder is intrinsically tied to being a faithful steward. Elder Daniel modeled this lesson, arriving forty-five minutes or more before our scheduled meetings. I tried innumerable times to arrive before him, but he was always waiting patiently for me. Moreover, he never told me that giving was an essential part of leadership; he just freely gave. He gave his time, money, skills, knowledge, and full self-surrender to the Lord. Every evangelistic outreach I led, he was in attendance, offering feedback and teaching me about intonation in preaching, breaking down the narrative, and how to make a practical appeal. I remember he told me that my request must call everyone in attendance. He said some individuals would not respond unless they heard their specific call. One Sabbath, in an evangelistic meeting, due to the activities that preceded the sermon, I felt rushed to conclude the message. “Do not rush your appeal, Elder,” he said. “At that stage in your sermon, when the Holy Spirit moves from the collective to the individual, speak to the ready and the uncertain.”
My fifth lesson focused on mentorship and nurturing. This man of God encouraged me at every step of my ministerial growth: from a young man preaching essays to sitting and talking to youths and adults across the globe about God’s love for His people, through the maze of homiletic discourses in college, seminary, university classrooms, churches, communities, and the bedside of the terminally ill. In my encounters, I continually reflected on Elder Daniel’s instructions to me: “Always share the gospel as one who comes from an omnipotent God to a dying world.” I have experienced the transformative power firsthand. I owe my appreciation to an old elder on a tiny Caribbean island, in a small country church who taught me my God is omnipotent. There’s nothing you cannot accomplish by trusting in Him.
One day Elder Daniel invited me to meet with him. He told me he had just learned he was terminally ill but wanted me to know that he was “going to be alright.” I thought he meant he would be well again, but he continued, “I have done my part for the Master. Our church is ready for your leadership.” Seeing how tough it was to lead, I knew I was not ready. He emphasized that the church was growing and that I was the one whom God had placed on his heart to ask to lead. “If God’s people ask you to lead, promise me that you will not say no to them. You will not stay there; God wants you to become a minister. When the time is right, go to university and study theology.” He prayed with me. I cried as I left his home. I did not want the man of God to see how attached I had become to him. His words, etched deep in my mind, supplied the peace I now enjoy because God spoke powerfully through an elder.
Garfield Browne, DHSc, MPH, MDiv, is a chaplain at Loma Linda University Medical Center, Loma Linda, CA, USA.