Listen To Article
I watch through the large window as he slowly passes by the front of the coffee shop, cane in hand, head bobbing up and down with a slight limp. He turns the corner to make his way to the entrance and I open the door to greet him. Once inside, we embrace and he tilts his head and offers a generous smile. Just like I remember him.
I’m only in town for a few days for General Synod, the annual assembly of the denomination I’m a part of. Most of my time will be filled up, so I didn’t tell many people I’m visiting. But I called him on the long drive out and wondered if we could grab a cup of coffee. Like old times.
He was my mentor when I took my second call to a church where he’d been the transitional pastor. It was a large church, multi-staff, and the consistory had the good sense to arrange for me to meet weekly with a wise, seasoned pastor who could come alongside me.
So we’d meet every Wednesday in a coffee shop on the north side. I penciled it into my calendar as “Wednesdays with Wes.” I’m not overstating it when I say that meeting with Wes Kiel every Wednesday kept me from quitting ministry during those turbulent early years at this new church. He provided a safe space for me to give voice to my grief after leaving a congregation for the first time to come to another–a loss I wasn’t prepared for. He practiced curiosity with probing questions, honored the moments of silence between us, resisted unloading all of his advice and wisdom (of which he had plenty). In just the right moments and just the right ways, he shared his wisdom and counsel.
I have a folder bursting with napkins and scraps of paper marked up with scribbles as I tried to capture his pithy sayings and sage advice. One of these days I intend put it all into a document. These notes are not only a treasure trove of wise counsel to young pastors, but they are field notes that tell a story—the story of a friendship, the story of a young pastor wrestling and learning to find his way, the story of how, to borrow from novelist Georges Bernanos, grace really is everywhere.
Wes was contracted by the church to meet with me for a year. We kept it going for seven years. After that it became more sporadic, and Wes shifted his role from a mentor to something more like a steady companion, a shrewd guide who knew so much of the territory but still found joy in learning with me as we traveled along. I often expressed gratitude to Wes for his kindness and insight. He would tilt his head, smile and tell me that he was getting just as much out of our conversations as I was. I’m not so sure about that. But this humility and desire to keep learning is one of my favorite things about him.
We often reflected on how what we shared together was a rare gift. Wes would talk with other retired pastors about our friendship and, with a tinge of envy, they’d express a longing for something like it. I’d get the same response from my younger colleagues. There is something beautiful about a veteran pastor coming alongside a younger pastor, a friendship where hard-fought wisdom meets youthful vigor, the two walking together and delighting in each other’s company. Wes and I often wondered, “Why don’t more veteran and young pastors seek this sort of thing out?” We even mused about writing a book together.
I’m now in my eighteenth year of pastoral ministry, serving my third church. I’m no longer the young pastor. Truth be told, the older I get the less I feel like I really know. Now I have the privilege to meet with a young pastor every Thursday. He’s a year out of seminary, serving his first church, and we meet in the local coffee shop. I try my best to be to him what Wes Kiel has been to me. I want to make it safe. Ask probing questions. Listen well. Honor the silence. Offer counsel at the right time, in the right way. Many times I find myself wondering, “What would Wes say?” I don’t feel like I have near the wisdom of this dear man who means so much to me.
Let me end this post where I started.
So here we are, in the coffee shop, Wes and I, together once more. I’m present to how much he has aged, and how much I love him. His beloved wife passed away last fall, and he carries in his tired bones a quiet sorrow, yet also a deep gratitude. We sip our coffee and talk for a while about life and ministry and the future of our denomination. Then I help him up to leave. We get the barista to take our picture. I hand him his cane, we embrace, and I open the door and he limps out. I just stand there in the coffee shop, staring out the window. I watch him walk away, cane in hand, head bobbing slightly. And I notice a tear on my cheek, and a profound alleluia in my heart.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, IA.