Ron Wrightson has served as a small groups pastor in southeastern Michigan for decades. He’s watched trends come and go, served churches formal and informal, intensely denominational and less concerned about denominational matters, and traditional and contemporary. He’s demonstrated flexibility and faithfulness. When most move toward retirement, Ron still rolls up his sleeves and does the work of ministry. We hear all sorts of advice on longevity in ministry and Ron has lived it. With more than four decades in ministry, Ron offers helpful wisdom from a life and ministry well lived.
Ron, let’s start toward the beginning. You came out of a professional, private-sector job. How did you know God was calling you to vocational ministry?
To start, I had a great job working for a large insurance holding company in New York City. I enjoyed my work, co-workers, boss, etc. I was in a good place. So why leave it?
My family and I attended church every week and were involved in ministry. I just kept feeling there had to be more to faith than I was experiencing. It was in January 1976 I surrendered my life to Christ and came to know Him in a very personal way and not simply to know about Him. I just kept sensing that I was being pulled into ministry but didn’t know where or how.
Years earlier when we lived in California, we became good friends with a pastor at the church we attended. Even though we moved back home to the east coast and his family moved to Michigan to serve a church, we stayed connected. When I shared my feelings about going into ministry, he shared with me the possibility of a position in the Lutheran Church in Michigan as a business manager working in the district headquarters—not exactly what I was thinking about going into ministry would look like. I followed up, interviewed, and was offered the position. Through much prayer and Scripture searching, I fully had a peace that this was God’s plan to bring me into ministry using my education, gifts, and skills to serve. After five years in that position, I was then offered a discipleship and small groups position with a church. This is what I knew I was prepared for.
I always love hearing the stories of how God calls people into vocational ministry! Thanks for sharing that. Let me ask a more specific question. How did you know the role of small group point person was right for you and not another, like executive or senior pastor?
While we lived in New Jersey and attended our church, my wife attended a small group and was after me for some time to go with her. I was very reluctant. I felt I didn’t know the Bible well and would be embarrassed to be called on and have no clue where it was or what it was about. Finally, I gave in and started going.
We attended for a couple of years. Being around people that really seemed to know whom Jesus was is what I believe created that sense inside of me of wanting to know Him personally. I experienced firsthand what it meant to be in Christian community. I believed God was taking me through this experience to create in me a desire to help others experience the same type of community I was experiencing. We really became good friends and even though they were way ahead of me spiritually, I felt totally accepted and loved by them. As I look back on the years in that group, I believe this was my training camp for ministry God was preparing me for.
It’s funny how many small group pastors started out as reluctant attendees of a small group! You’ve been a champion of small groups since it was a new trend in the church. What excited you then and still excites you now about small groups?
As stated in the previous question, that first small group I was part of in New Jersey let me experience what community means. Since then, I’ve been so moved by many other personal experiences in groups Lynn and I have been in for the past 44 years. When we left New Jersey and moved to Ann Arbor, MI, and started working for the Lutheran Church, we joined a small group immediately in the church we decided to worship in. This group was incredible. We moved to Michigan in July 1976. I had taken a large cut in salary and our house in New Jersey did not sell for a year. Needless to say, we were eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly. In December 1976, my mother passed away in Wilmington, Delaware, our hometown. I did not have the money to attend her funeral. Friends in our small group knew we were hurting for money, but did not know about my mother’s passing. They called the morning after I heard from my brother that she had passed. They had been praying and wanted to give us some money. The amount they gave us allowed me to attend her funeral. Twenty years ago, Lynn had skin cancer. The group we were leading totally surrounded us with love and care.
Those are just two examples of many that we have experienced. I’ve seen hundreds of times how groups rally around someone in their group in time of need. I currently coach 12 groups at Lifechurch. I am passionate about them and know how critical community is for people to grow to be more like Christ. During this COVID-19 season, I see how groups care well for each other and stay connected even if not in person. I can’t imagine living without being a part of community.
I never get tired of hearing about how small group members truly love one another in tangible ways! Alright, let me ask a different question. Routines can tire out most of us. How do you stay fresh and current?
As you know, needs in ministry can be unlimited and overwhelming. It is important to know the signs of getting tired and simply going through the motions. When I find myself feeling a sense of overload and just plain tired, I pause and focus on a few things that get me refocused on why I do what I feel called to do. I have several verses I turn to that help me focus on Jesus and how tired he was as he got near the time of being beaten and crucified. I also take some time off and do the things that help refresh me, like: Lynn and I getting away for a couple of days and doing the things we enjoy together, going away by myself for a quick retreat, golfing (no matter how bad the score is), or putzing around my yard and flowers.
Fortunately, I seem to be able to reset my mind and body to reengage myself in the ministry I believe I’m called to. It’s also amazing to see how God’s timing is so timely. Quite often when I hit a wall, a ministry opportunity opens up where I’m able to experience someone’s life being impacted by the ministry the Holy Spirit performs through me that reassures me I’m in alignment with the purpose God created me for.
Knowing what refreshes your spirit is key! However, I’m sure there have been days you were ready to throw in the towel–we have all had days like that! What do you do when you get that feeling?
Actually, I think my response to this question is pretty well covered above. One additional thing I do that I did not already mention is I get lots of cards and notes from people I’ve ministered to over the years thanking me for how my ministry impacted their lives. I keep a list of what I call special moments in ministry where I fully sensed the Holy Spirit using me to bless someone.
Here’s an example of a recent opportunity just two weeks ago. We received a prayer request from one of our members for her brother-in-law who has throat cancer and only a short time to live. He had no church background and believed in Jesus but wasn’t certain he’d been forgiven or was saved. She asked if a pastor could visit him. I contacted his wife since he could not talk and made arrangements for me to visit. Since we are in this awkward COVID-19 season, we arranged to sit outside on his porch. She said he’d never been baptized and would like to be. I visited Rick. He weighed 94 pounds and was hoping to live to his 65th birthday just a few months later. I shared Scripture with him and had him recite after me his confession in Christ as Savior. His voice was very weak. I then sprinkled water on his head and he started crying like a baby. I asked him if they were tears of joy and he said he felt such a peace come over him and he felt certain of his salvation. I left there energized and so thankful to God he allowed me to be a part of Rick’s salvation assurance. I also reread the cards and notes I’ve received to help me realize just how important my ministry has been to people.
Now that is a powerful story! I wonder how many reading this have a drawer with special cards and notes in it. I know I do! So, while we’re on that subject of throwing in the towel, you’ve worked in more than one church. How do you know when it’s time to stay and how do you know when it’s time to go?
From 1976 to 1981, I served in an administrative position in the Michigan District of the Lutheran Church—my entry into full-time ministry. In 1981, I was offered the opportunity to join the staff at a large Lutheran church in the Downriver area of Detroit. The position involved assimilation and small groups. This was exactly my heart’s desire, so it was a very easy decision to make even though it meant another salary reduction.
I served in that ministry for 11 years. The congregation was a rapidly growing one initially, but started plateauing around the 10th year I was there. The staff and leadership team had been the same for most of that time. It seemed to me like everyone was becoming very comfortable and not as passionate for ministry as we had been.
During the final two I was there, I had several offers to join staffs from other churches located in California, Pennsylvania, and other states. I sensed God was nudging me to move on because I was becoming too comfortable, as well, and not as passionate as I had once been.
In 1992, I was offered a position in assimilation and small groups at a Lutheran church in Ann Arbor, which I accepted. I was on the staff there for 16 years. Things were going super well with small groups. I had established a team of coaches and our ministry had increased significantly through groups.
In 2006 a very significant issue occurred in the church, which caused major issues. Several members left, which caused finances to become challenging. It became a difficult, tense place to serve. I was approaching my 65th birthday and considering if I should retire even though I really didn’t want to. I still loved ministry and serving people, but it just became very difficult in the environment the church was going through.
Through a close friend, I heard about the church I currently am serving at and have been here for 12+ years. It was a church plant and was looking for someone to oversee connections and small groups. It was a very easy decision to make. I just knew it was God answering my prayer that I did not want to retire from ministry but believed He was calling me to serve as long as my health permitted me to. I’m still here and still love it and get very excited about serving others. I would say for me, much sincere prayer and genuinely seeking God’s will has made my decisions to change staff positions from one church to another fairly clear and I’ve had a real sense of peace. Proverbs 3:5-6 has been my go-to verse. I should note, each time I’ve made a change, it has started out as a decrease in income but time and time again, the income has been restored.
Your last comment is so encouraging! Many times, we see sacrifice but God has planned a blessing. That is the perspective of age and experience! If you had an hour with the 30-year-old you, what would you tell to him to do the same and what would you tell him to do differently?
When I was 30 years old, I was still working in NYC and living in New Jersey. I hadn’t yet surrendered my life to Christ. I would tell myself to do that immediately and not wait until I was 33 before inviting Jesus into my heart.
Then some practical things I would say are:
Relax more. Don’t get so uptight when things don’t turn out the way you’d like them to.
Laugh at yourself when you do or say something dumb. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Work hard, but realize it’s God that produces the results. He wants us to work as though everything depends upon us, but trust as though everything depends upon Him—which it does.
Keep your priorities straight: God, family, ministry. Getting out of balance is not healthy.
Develop a healthy life rhythm. Enjoy life, family, and friends while getting adequate rest, self-development, and a balanced work life.
Some things I would say to do the same:
Keep trusting God daily for his provisions of health, family, work, etc.
Stay close to Jesus through his work and prayer
Keep compassionate for others who are hurting.
Honor God with your tithes and offerings
Be trusting and forgiving of others when you get hurt.
Don’t lose that adventurist spirit to try new things.
Keep your mind young by associating with younger people as you get older.
Attending church is one experience, but serving on a church staff can be something else entirely. How do you keep from souring your spouse to the church when times might be more challenging on staff?
That is a very challenging question. I have handled it differently over the years and have reached a point that is working for us. Initially, I would try my best to shelter Lynn from any conflicts I was dealing with at church or situations I know would upset her. She loves me and never wants to see me hurt or unappreciated. The problem was, when she would find out, which she always did, she would ask me why I didn’t share those times with her. I discovered she realized I was trying to protect her, but she also felt I didn’t trust her to handle them well.
Over the years, I discovered she has very realistic expectations of the church not being perfect and that staff are all sinners and need forgiveness like all of us. She accepted the fact that neither the church members nor staff are perfect people. I have learned to share my hurts and disappointments with her and trust she handles them in a spiritually mature way. It is helpful for me to use her as a sounding board when things are not going as well as I’d hope or someone says something hurtful. She helps me process them. She’s my partner in ministry and wants to be my best fan. I love her for that.
We both know business people who hit midlife and feel a tug to enter church ministry. That’s a little bit of your story, though you felt it earlier. However, some in ministry hit midlife and consider work outside of the church. Ron, what would you say to all these folks in the middle years of their ministry who are wondering if they have 20 more years in them?
That’s not an easy one to answer. For me, at age 77, I feel such a sense of purpose serving others and caring for people. Ministry energizes me. Of course, I get tired since I don’t have as much stamina as I did 20 years ago, but seeing people come to Christ and seeing their lives being transformed is what keeps me going. I have the expected pains and aches of someone my age. Fortunately, I have been blessed with overall good health.
I think it’s important to keep challenging yourself to discover new things. I serve a congregation filled with younger people. The staff I serve with is mostly 20’s, 30’s, and early 40’s. I’ve been forced into learning how to use technology in ways I never did even just 10 years ago. Don’t let new things scare you or be afraid of failing when you try something new. Also, keep an active schedule, but one in alignment with your values and balanced with times of rest and, surround yourself with positive, energy giving people who love you, encourage you and support you. But most of all, knowing God has created you to serve. One of my favorite verses in Scripture that I turn to a lot is Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”. I am convinced by the Holy Spirit that I am doing the ministry which God created me for and thus I get my fulfillment from serving Him and others. Just keep on, keeping on.
How do you stay mentally engaged? It’s natural for all of us to rest on what we have learned and live off of early intellectual and professional experiences. How have you challenged yourself to stay fresh and relevant?
I think it’s really important that no matter how long I’ve been in ministry, to not let my ministry grow old or stale. I need to keep growing and challenging myself to learn new ways and new ideas that challenge me to see ministry opportunities with new eyes.
Here’s an example. The church I was serving in November 2006 chose to go through the Purpose Driven Life series by Rick Warren. I was the one leading the charge for planting many new small groups. As I prepared myself and read the book several times, Ephesians 2:10 kept jumping out at me. I felt convinced God was confirming to me that developing small group ministry is what he had created in advance for me to do. I decided if that was my life’s calling, I wanted to be the best I could be to fulfill that calling. Through a connection with Dr. Bill Donahue, who was on staff at Willow Creek at that time, he referred me to Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA, which was offering a master’s certificate in small group leadership. I applied and was accepted. Over two years, I attended five different one-week modules, read 28 books, and wrote 42 papers relating to group life. Then in May 2009, at the age of 65, I graduated and walked with the graduating class, almost all of whom were much younger than I was. It was an exciting and high growth time in ministry for me.
Currently, the staff and membership of the church I’m serving are much younger than I am, which has stretched me in many ways—particularly technologically. I have grown in many ways with technology because of them. They are so supportive of me and helpful when I say I don’t know how to do that, will you teach me? They are so willing to help.
Several years ago our staff spent time studying a book entitled Growing Young by Kara Powell, which again was helpful for me to better understand how to develop small groups that attracted millennials.
At LifeChurch in Canton, MI, we have developed six codes that direct our ministries. One code is Settle for Better. Each year each staff member sets goals under this code of how we will better ourselves for ministry.
I love ministry and love when I have opportunities to learn and experience how to serve more effectively and help people Encounter Jesus, another one of our six codes.
Ron, you continue to inspire me since that day we met nearly twenty years ago! Thanks for serving as a shining example of faithful service to the cause of Christ in the local church. I imagine your example and wisdom might help many go the distance!