Kurt Kimball public servant

From time to time I am asked, “What gives you the most joy as a pastor?”  Invariably, I respond, “Seeing people grow and mature in their relationship with Christ as they live out their faith daily and make a positive difference in the world.”

Let me tell you about one such person.  His name is Kurt Kimball, and he leads from the heart.  Kurt retired last month as the longest serving city manager in the history of Grand Rapids.  Kurt, his wife, Randy and one of his daughters and family are active members of First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids. 

In Grand Rapids, the city manager rather than the mayor, is the chief executive officer of the city and is not elected, but appointed.  Because of the responsibility and stress associated with city government, the average tenure for a city manager in the United States when Kurt was hired was 3 years.  Kurt served 22 years! 

Think of the positive growth that has taken place in Grand Rapids over Kimball’s tenure: Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place Convention Center, a new downtown YMCA, Cooley Law School, revitalization of downtown shopping and restaurants, rebuilding the sewage collection system, The Institute for Healing Racism, the first new construction LEED certified art museum in the country, and the development of Grand Rapids into a regional medical center.  It’s simply amazing.

Kurt Kimball’s quiet, visionary leadership laid the groundwork for virtually every new initiative in this city.  How did he do it? 

  • Kurt is a good listener, seeking to understand all viewpoints and treating everyone with respect.
  • Kurt is a critical thinker, with the foresight to see the big picture, envision what could be, then formulate a plan to get there.
  • Kurt is a master at collaboration, bringing people together from the governmental, business, social service and religious sectors to partner in making the entire West Michigan region a better place in which to live, work and serve.
  • Kurt has the temperament of a great leader: he is steady, consistent, trustworthy, self-defined and continually deflects credit away from himself to honor others.
  • Kurt is a perfect example of grace under fire.  As the chief executive of a major city, Kurt had to make tough decisions every day that were second-guessed and criticized by others.  Kurt was able to speak truth at the same time as he listened patiently and honored all viewpoints.

A year ago, Kurt Kimball spoke to a group of United Methodist pastors from the Grand Rapids area in a gathering sponsored by our UM Metro Ministry.  When asked how his faith informs his work, Kurt said, “A person who goes to church and has been fed is much better equipped for leadership in the public sector.”  Kurt cited the book of James as providing inspiration for his life, especially 3:13-14, “Who is wise and understanding among you?  Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”

Kurt always attempted to offer grace but knew that, ultimately, he had to consider what was best for the organization.  He did not hesitate to seek guidance from others, especially religious leaders, when faced with difficult decisions.  As a man who has devoted his professional life to public service, Kurt praised our United Methodist Social Principles, convinced that we can’t keep our faith inside the church but must take it with us into our schools, businesses, government and everyday life. 

In short, Kurt Kimball is the epitome of a servant leader and disciple of Jesus Christ.  Ten days ago, the city of Grand Rapids held a retirement celebration for Kurt.  When Gary and I had an opportunity to chat with Kurt and Randy, I was struck by Kurt’s humility.  Clearly overwhelmed at the outpouring of love for him, Kurt said to us, “I just wanted to be a servant.”  Randy replied, “He’s just my dear Kurt.” 

In his remarks to this gathering of 700 people, Kurt credited the movement of God in his life for his longevity, saying that his only purpose has been to serve the citizens of Grand Rapids well and humbly.  Reminding us that public service is noble at the same time as it ennobles us, Kurt emphasized how important it is to have the right mental attitude and give only positive encouragement.  Along with his many other outstanding qualities, Kurt is also an evangelist!! 

We all know people like Kurt Kimball, for they are in our pews every SundayThey are people who are hungry to be fed, nurtured, discipled, equipped and empowered to make a difference in the world.  They are teachers and professors entrusted with the education of our children, unemployed factory workers and white collar professionals facing foreclosure, single parents struggling to keep it all together, teenagers searching to find their voice, people grieving the loss of a loved one, gays and lesbians seeking a spiritual home where they will be accepted, and physicians who make life and death decisions every day.

We are charged with sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in the midst of the everyday challenges that our parishioners face.  I am convinced that members and visitors alike who come to our worship services do not expect easy answers or have unrealistic expectations of Christianity.  Rather, they come seeking authentic community, a safe place where they can grow in their faith and wrestle with difficult issues, and opportunities to be encouraged, challenged and sent out in service. 

Kurt Kimball is my hero, but I have many other heroes as well.  Everyone who allows God to use him/her to make our world a more just and compassionate planet is my hero.  The ministry of our congregations multiplies exponentially when we provide tools for our church members to lead from the heart.

  • How is your congregation forming spiritually mature disciples who are servant leaders? 
  • How are you communicating the power of one person to make a difference in the world?
  • How are you identifying the potential and calling out the gifts of each person in your congregation, no matter what the age?
  • How are you offering congregation members the biblical and theological tools to make difficult yet faithful decisions in the workplace?

In a thank you note Gary and I received a few days ago from Kurt and Randy, Kurt commented on how uncomfortable he was with all the fuss over his retirement.  Then he wrote, “We, like all of us, are simply trying to live the life God intends for us.” 

May you, too, live the life God intends for you.

Blessings, Laurie

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