Mentors, Part 4: Motorcycles, Guitars and Gospel Music

The Ministry Life Choices Initiative (MLCI) will assist those in years 1-5 of ministry with developing habits and practices for sustainable ministry. The relationship will span the first few years of theological education and the introductory years as a congregational minister. The MLCI is a ministry of the Pension Fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in partnership with Lexington Theological Seminary.

The MLCI blog series, launched January 15, 2014, is designed to promote conversation surrounding issues related to clergy health and well-being. The blog seeks to include and incorporate writers from a wide variety of ministerial contexts, seminaries and demographics.

This fourth installment of the blog series, begun April 9th, reflects on the practice of mentoring as a means to overall health and well-being.



Clergy Health and Well-being: Mentors, Part 4: Motorcycles, Guitars and Gospel Music
by Rev. Bill McDonald, M. Div., Lexington Theological Seminary, 1970

His 750cc Triumph was usually parked in the church basement. He wore turtlenecks three seasons of the year. And at about 11:00 PM many nights he would knock on my apartment door with guitar in hand, “Wanna play for a while?”

His rough complexion and unruly hair went unnoticed as soon as his smile slid from cheek to dimpled cheek, which then turned on the lights in his eyes. He ran off the worship bulletins on an ancient mimeograph in the parsonage basement and made the college-age class think it was fun to fold them while faith discussions rambled and roamed. He was a frequent and quick visitor. “That man can say more in five minutes than most people can say in an hour,” was the way one octogenarian described him to me.

He preached, directed the choir, sang with the Men’s Quartet, and was the Pied Piper of the youth program. One year he organized a fifth-grade ukelele band, tuning the ukes like guitar strings so the knowledge would be useful later on. He was the Campus Minister at Midway College and founded a Folksingers group to sing the songs of peace and love, much needed in the mid-1960’s. Everything he did was new and touched the times in which we lived, helping everyone interpret their place and see God’s face. His name was Rev. Roy Roberson and he was proud of the Rev. part. I was his Student Youth Associate and more importantly his protégé. And I soaked him up like a sponge.

When he stepped into the pulpit, he wasn’t afraid to smile and laugh and carried with him an air of confidence and strength. He preached by outline, laying the pages of type on the pulpit prior to the service. One Sunday he turned page three of a five-page outline only to discover that the last two were missing. For the rest of his life he accused me with a chuckle of swiping those pages. From Roy I learned to preach assertively, applying a heavy coating of humor and goodwill. I learned that the current culture, whatever else it may be, is not the enemy but is instead a resource, a channel through which faith can flow out and in. Following his example, I was never resentful about the heavy lifting of the ministry – the setting up of tables, the shoveling of snow off the steps, the unstopping of toilets, the whatever needed to be done. After all, God’s house belongs to all of us and all efforts in the church are holy moments of ministry and fellowship if we dive into them with energy and laughter. Though he loved being called Reverend Roy, he taught me to disdain the “ministerial image.” Just be yourself and be God’s servant and the image would take care of itself. People don’t want to see your best sport coat; they want to see that you care about them personally.

Though everybody ranked equally in Roy’s sphere of love and attention, the youth were a little more equal than anyone else. He showed me firsthand how traveling together as a youth group can broaden horizons while at the same time strengthening bonds and deepening faith. I spent thirty-five years of my ministry taking youth all over the US. When I connect with them now as adults on Facebook, it is those trips that dominate the discussions. Like Roy, I spent my ministry serving the towns in which my churches were located. “Your church pays your salary,” Roy would remind me, “but you are called to minister to your community.”

Everywhere I have lived, I have gathered musicians and singers around me, forming bands and quartets, folksinger groups and rock-n-rollers, loving the old gospel songs interpreted for a new age, using popular songs to bring out the joy in folks and help them glory in the One who is the Lord of Song. Taking on Roy’s nerve that allowed him to dive into any leadership position no matter how unprepared, I even directed the church choir for ten years – without being able to read music! It is as if my life unfolded from his. To this day, I never place my sermon notes on the pulpit before the service begins!

Sometimes I go by his grave in the Versailles Cemetery and place a toy motorcycle or a guitar pick on the headstone, still trying to give back for all that he gave to me. Maybe that was what my years of ministry were, an offering to God in gratitude for sending me a mentor, a guide, a living path.