One Who Never Turned His Back

There are Four Types of Suffering: A Sermon Series for the Sundays of January 1945

January 7:        Pain
January 14:      Fear
January 21:      Guilt Feelings
January 28:      Loneliness

“These sermons are a sympathetic attempt to assist individuals to probe deeply into the intimate problems of personality.  We believe that the relevancy of Christ for this stressed age lies in his ability to release spiritual forces for mental health within the individual.  We further believe that these healing forces are as dependable and as inexorable as the laws that govern growth and health within the human body.  Your pastor hopes that this series of sermons will make possible opportunities for pastoral counsel.”

So wrote Dr. Arnold F. Runkel, pastor of First Methodist Church in Birmingham, Michigan, in the January 1945 church newsletter.  Having read several books about World War II last year on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I was fascinated by the entire newsletter, recently discovered in our church archives.

IMG_0294Consider the context.  It was more than three years since the United States declared war on Japan and Germany.  The death toll was staggering.  Every village, town, city, church and  family in our country was affected in some way.  Of course, no one knew in January of 1945 that the war would be over by September.

What Dr. Runkel did know was that he could not turn his back on the spiritual needs of his congregation and made them his first priority.  Runkel’s sermons for January no doubt touched the hearts and minds of his parishioners and reminded them that the church would always be there as a source of consolation, encouragement, courage and inspiration.

On the second page of the newsletter is a section titled, “Service News.”  Updates on fourteen young men serving in World War 2 were given.

  • “Pfc. Bryar A. Bemister has been transferred from the M.P. to the Medical Unit. He spent Christmas with his parents on Yorkshire.”
  • “Sgt. James Todd, while on furlough in Calcutta, remembered to do his Christmas shopping early, and his parents received his gifts in time for Christmas.”
  • “Carl Spencer Peck recently received his silver wings and was commissioned a flight officer in the Army Air Corps.”
  • “Frank Wangberg was home on leave last week and was in church with his family.”
  • “Jack B. Kuhlman wears two campaign stars for major engagements, one being the Normandy invasion.”

ML-00029-C-Buy-More-War-Bonds-Posters-775184On the last page of the newsletter, in the section titled “About People,” we read, “Much credit is due to the nine women of our church who assisted in the sixth war bond drive.  The total amount raised was $8,325.00.  If and when the seventh bond drive comes, won’t you plan to buy through our church?”

The most fascinating part of the newsletter, however, is Dr. Runkel’s pastor’s article on the bottom of the first page.  It’s called, “On Doing the Work of a Pastor.”  If not for the language, it could have been published in 2016.

Runkel writes, “In his new book entitled, Pastoral Work and Personal Counseling, Dr. Russel Dicks makes this sobering statement, ‘Our clergy have run hither and yon, promoting this and that but have come increasingly to overlook the spiritual needs of the individual parishioner.  Overhead committees, boards and programs have occupied so much of the minister’s time and energy that it has become practically impossible for him to carry on pastoral work.’

“Here, we feel, is a condition to be faced and reckoned with.  We have come to find that the remedy is not as simple as it may seem.  Every congregation desires (and rightly so) that their pastor ought to be an active and contributing member of the community.  Along with that, one must remember the necessary duties brought on by the stress needs of the community as well as the constantly enlarging responsibility of parish administration.  One must not forget either that planning and study for a progressive church program means hours of painstaking effort and prayer.  Small wonder, then, that the average pastor finds little time for even the parental privileges of his own home, to say nothing of the individual homes of his parish.

“We believe that these conditions mean an adjustment in pastoral work and wish to suggest a definite means of meeting the situation.  May we remind you that our time is dedicated to help each of you as best we can.  Our experience as a pastor and as a Director of College Youth and Youth Fellowship programs has in many respects fitted us for the field of pastoral counseling.  When you are in need or distress, please be free to come or to call and we will make every effort to be of service.  We pledge that your confidence will never be violated.

“It is our hope that the sermon series during the Sundays of January will assist many in the redirection of their lives.”  Your pastor, Arnold F. Runkel

Pastoral ministry in 1945 and 2016 is strangely similar.  What I hear in Dr. Runkel’s words is the struggle all clergy have with setting priorities for ministry.  The job description of a pastor is so expansive that no one can ever get the work done.  The newsletter begins with the announcement of a new sermon series and Dr. Runkel’s availability to offer pastoral care and counseling to anyone who needs it in the midst of World War II.  Then, in his pastor’s article, Runkel helps the congregation understand that adjustments will have to be made in the use of his time.

Runkel cites Russel Dick’s description of the harried pastor, which could apply to many clergy today.  Running from one thing to another, seeing that committees are functioning smoothly, overseeing staff, putting out fires, listening to complaints, attending every church event, being visible in the community and finding time to prepare sermons, teach classes and make sure the bills are paid.  Not to mention identifying, training, equipping and empowering the laity to extend the love of Christ out in the community.

There is no sugarcoating here.  Dr. Runkel reminds his readers of the complexity of pastoral ministry and how obedience to God’s call can result in neglect of family, the needs of the congregation and one’s own health.  Runkel is also announcing a change in priorities for his ministry, at least for that moment in history.  He is going to focus on caring for the pain, grief, uncertainty and hope of his flock, which was desperately needed in January 1945.

Runkel’s struggle mirrors that of many clergy today.  We often feel like failures because we cannot possibly do all that is expected of us.  Yet our call runs so deep that we keep on keeping on until we end up sick, resentful or burned out.  Certainly, a large part of the solution is empowering the laity for ministry by identifying, training, equipping and sending out disciples of Jesus Christ for evangelism, mission, outreach and pastoral care.  After all, laity are called to the work of ministry as well as clergy.

By 1946 First Methodist Episcopal Church had grown to 634 members.  “Now we shall build again” became the congregation’s slogan.  In the midst of a growing community and church, Dr. Runkel took off his pastoral care hat and put on his church builder’s hat.  In January 1951, after the first building campaign was realized, the church property was sold and a five-acre site at the edge of the city was purchased.  Ground was broken, and the congregation moved into the new structure on September 7, 1952.

What ultimately made Arnold Runkel a hero, though, was his ability to help congregation members pay attention to the movement of God in their lives.  Right underneath the sermon series on page one of the newsletter, Dr. Runkel included the third stanza of the poet Robert Browning’s Epilogue to “Asolando” with this heading, Browning’s Hero:

One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.

Thank you for never turning your back, Dr. Runkel.  May we go and do likewise.





2 thoughts on “One Who Never Turned His Back

  1. Dear Laurie, Our congregation has been perpetually blessed with great pastors. My husband used to speak so glowingly of Dr. Runkel and Dr. Thomas. And through the years, that blessing has continued. We are still so privileged to have the kind of pastors we have in you and your husband. It is one of the very greatest assets we have. Thank you both. Carol Petersen

  2. Laurie,
    Thank you for pointing out that the care of the pastor is not a recent development caused by our busy life style. We look to our clergy for guidance in our spiritual growth, but sometimes forget that clergy need time for their own spiritual enrichment. It is difficult to lead others when we do not have time to prepare ourselves. Our experience at FUMC has greatly deepened our faith search. We have enjoyed our interactions with all of our pastors. There are times though that I wonder what the cost was for them.
    Peace to all of you.

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