Reflections on Ministry and the Church with Ben Lindstrom
By Aaron Willett, SeaPres Communications
On Sunday, March 18th, Rev. Ben Lindstrom preached his last sermon as the pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church. Of course, there is nothing particularly unique about a pastor retiring and moving on. No, what sets Ben’s story apart is just how long he’s been at Southminster—33 years to be precise. The face of ministry has changed a great deal over the span of his career, from the hay-days of Christendom, through denominational decline, and to our present season of missional creativity.
“I got to grow up in this synod.”
Growing up in Spokane, Ben’s parents regularly dropped him off at church on Sunday mornings, and he felt right at home. He participated in the Youth Synod and other Presbyterian ministries for youth and young adults. A good aspiring Presbyterian, Ben graduated first from Whitworth College and then Princeton Seminary—both adding shine to his impeccable Presbyterian credentials.
Ben’s first work in the Seattle Presbytery was a two-year internship at Overlake Park, from ’64 to ’66. It was a time when “everybody was going back to church.” These were “the days when evangelism was opening your doors, back in the day when Ron Rice was doing youth work at First Pres. Bellevue, Mercer Island was a missionary church, and Lake Burien had 1500 members. Things were great for Presbyterians back in those days.”
Called to Authenticity
When Ben was called to Southminster in 1978, the church had dwindled from its glory days in the ‘60s and had roughly fifty members. “By the time I got to Southminster, it was just a very small contingent, and it was kind of a dying congregation.”
Ben’s previous call had been to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Portland, a place full of upwardly mobile members. Governors and politicians would all come by from time to time. The church was at the center of civic life, even getting involved in local elections. “We ran people from the congregation for treasurer,” Ben recalled. It was everything a good, civil, Christendom church should be, and it was everything that Ben had expected for his life in ministry. His lifelong aspiration had been to pastor a “tall-steeple” church like so many of his peers from Princeton. God, however, seemed to have other plans.
It was about that time that Ben felt called to minister instead at a small church. “Coming out of that culture of over achievers to Southminster was a real call.”
Ben remembered asking the nominating committee if they could afford to pay him what he had been told. They flatly said no, choosing to trust in God that with the renewed energy of a young pastor things would work out.
Ben was eager to see what church could be like without all the trappings of Christendom. “I was ready, though it took some time, to work on an idea that God had given me about what a church should be. All the things I didn’t like about churches I’d been in—everything having to go through the pastor, attending worship just to schmooze. I didn’t like people getting recognition for special gifts… Somebody shows up and gives a gift of $10,000 and everybody bows and scrapes and says, “wow.” I didn’t think that was the way Jesus would do it.”
Ben instead tried his best to make authenticity his hallmark. “I think we love people into the kingdom of God. We don’t argue them in.” Ben went on, “I remember someone saying to me, ‘You’re the first pastor that’s really loved us.’” He wanted to move the congregation to a place where there was real spiritual growth and biblical commitment. “It took time and it took energy to love them into this process.”
The “Wonderful Gift” of the Highs and Lows
“God has brought wonderful gifts and great surprises out of all the moments of my ministry, both the low and the high. It was a really difficult time when we were struggling with Brett’s anorexia, and we were so overwhelmed with our son literally wanting to commit suicide through not eating. [We were] struggling with that and yet trying to minister to other people. The wonderful thing was I that always felt like that was one of the strongest parts of my ministry, because I let other people minister to me. I think that probably grew them more than if I had tried to be strong and not revealed my vulnerability and weakness.”
“I think right now that I’m at one of the highest points of my ministry, because I think the church really gets it, they really are the church and they are strong in-and-of-themselves, and they know who they are and they have a sense of identity. I feel that they really understand that they are the church, the pastors, the essence of the church. I’m glad I lived long enough to see that.”
The Secret to Diversity is Loving the Individual
One thing that is readily apparent at Southminster is the broad political diversity of the congregation. “Conservatives” and “liberals” join together in a community that puts such labels aside. I asked Ben how he has tried to foster this kind of diversity.
“One of my strong ideas has always been that each of us are partly right. I don’t care where you stand or what position you come from, I think you probably have part of the answer, and in order to find a more complete answer, each of us needs each other’s differences. The secret to holding it together, as far as I know, is loving each individual. And, honestly, doing as Jesus says, “judge not lest ye be judged.”
“If you take it too seriously, it seems to me you’re sunk.”
On “Teaching Elders”
“I think we as Presbyterians love to play with words and with definitions. We think as soon as we have labeled something, or identified it, that it is going to happen. [If we think we’ve actually done something by changing the name], I don’t think we’ve actually done anything. Why don’t we say this: We are called to do Jesus’ work in Jesus’ way. What does Teaching Elder have to do with that? Word and Sacrament never meant anything to anybody. [These names] don’t connect with anyone except those people who like to play that game. ‘Doing Jesus’ work in Jesus’ way,’ I think says something.”
“I think it’s an exciting time in the life of the church.”
“The future of the church is going to be in the hands of those who have initiative, imagination, creativity, and heart for really wanting authentically to be God’s real person. I think there is enormous opportunity out there, but I think that you need to ask yourself, “If I am called to be a pastor, what are people wanting?”
“They want community. Even large churches recognize this, and people there find small communities within the larger community.”
“They want authenticity. I truly believe that people want to hear from someone who is speaking from the heart and not just from the head.”
“They want to be connected to God on the one hand and the world on the other. Rather than getting into a little spiritual conclave, they actually want to do something.”
“I believe that there’s an excitement out there, there’s a real, true spiritual excitement, which is much better than it was when I first started in ministry, to be honest with you. People back then were going to church because it was the thing to do.”
One of a Kind
In the middle of our interview, Ben, always willing to be a little silly to get a point across, raised a sign to his forehead. Holding it there he recited its message, “My goal in ministry is to change people who will change people.” As one who had the privilege of working with Ben for many years at Southminster, I count myself as one of the people he has helped to change, and I know that there are many, many more.
A few weeks ago, after having cleaned out 33 years worth of sermon files, Ben shared a realization. Nearly every sermon he’s preached revolves around three messages: Love God, let God love you, and love others. If you’re going to have a theme, seems like love is a pretty good one to land on.
“If you want to make an old pastor happy, totally embrace how much God loves you, and then love each other like that.”