The general superintendent of the Assemblies of God’s parents taught him many things pertaining to life and ministry, but the most important truth they taught him was the real measure of success.
By George O. Wood
If you measured my parents’ ministry by metrics, they were not successful.
I am the youngest of three children with a sister and brother 8 and 5 years older, respectively. Thus, I was the “only child” at home from 8th through 12th grades. I saw up close and personal how much my mom and dad struggled while pastoring dysfunctional and very small churches.
They had better success and satisfaction in their days as missionaries to China and Tibet. My mother was only 26 in 1924 when she went to China as a single missionary. My dad went as a first-term missionary in 1932. They courted some before they left the U.S. and more on the boat, marrying in Shanghai, November 14, 1932 — and headed the next day for the long and arduous trek to the Northwest China/Tibetan border. Someone robbed their earthly goods in transit. They returned home before the outbreak of World War II, pioneered churches in Ravenna, Ohio, and Traverse City, Michigan; pastoring also in Illinois.
Our family returned to China in 1947. When we left for the final time in 1949, there were not more than 200 Chinese converts to show for all the years they spent there. Their additional work among the Tibetans, like my Uncle Victor Plymire’s, also had borne little fruit.
My parents always wanted to return to China, but the door never opened. While hoping for that opportunity they traveled from pillar to post during the next 30 years — pastoring small churches in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas, Missouri, and California — plus one failed church plant in Indiana. Their longest tenure in a pastorate was 2 1/2 years — until their last church before they retired. That church, of about 30 souls, was blessed by their labors for 5 years. Between pastorates, they did evangelism — or, actually in those days in the Assemblies of God, you booked meetings until you could “get” a church. Often weeks went by with no meetings and no income.
The longest stretch my dad was without a church came during my junior and senior years in high school. So I could have a stable experience, we moved to Springfield, Missouri. Mom stayed with me in a small rented home while Dad traveled. Mom and I rode the city bus as transportation, and our one weekly luxury was walking several blocks from church to Hamby’s restaurant where we could dine for a dollar.
I saw my parents’ dedication to the Lord and His work. Specific memories stand out.
I recall living for several weeks in a church basement in San Angelo, Texas, during a sweltering summer without air conditioning. I was about 12 years old. My dad and I passed the daytime playing ping-pong.
I remember the drama of the annual vote on the pastor. I now humorously say that in those days all forms of entertainment were denied the saints except the annual vote on the pastor. The church got to candidate three ministers, then vote in the one they liked. The new pastor experienced 3 months of honeymoon, 3 months of some discontent, 3 more months of growing discontent, followed by the last 3 months of active campaigning to get enough no votes to keep the pastor from being re-elected by a two-thirds margin. My dad was smart. While I was a sophomore in college, he had me join the church he pastored even though it was 120 miles away. He thought he might need my vote at the next annual election. Twelve months went by and Mom and Dad called me, “We’ve been counting the votes and we’re one vote short. Can you drive down for the business meeting?”
That church didn’t need a secret ballot. Everyone knew who was voting for whom. I entered the church 5 minutes after the start time. When everyone saw me, they knew the result. Sure enough, Dad got another year by one vote — mine and the deacon’s daughter who drove down from college with me. The next year Dad knew he didn’t have the votes, so he got to the head of the parade and resigned before the business meeting.
When I was 10, Mom and Dad were pastoring a church that got infested (I chose that word deliberately) with the Latter Rain. It was charismatic craziness. Dad was never one to back off from a confrontation, so he preached against the excesses, all but naming the people in the congregation who were for the “new wave.” Mom would say at the Sunday family dinner, “Well, Dad preached a real zinger today.”
My call to ministry occurred in the middle of that schism. Two deacons accosted my dad one Sunday night at the altar, demanding he resign. The big tall deacon placed his fist against my dad’s chin saying that Dad wasn’t “spiritual” and needed to go. But Dad held firm. On a subsequent Sunday night I remember sitting next to my mother, looking up at her, and saying, “Mom, when I grow up I’m going to be a preacher just like Dad, and I’m not going to pussyfoot either.” To this day, I’m not sure I know what “pussyfoot” means — and I probably have been a tad more diplomatic than my dad, but his resoluteness for right doctrine made me greatly admire him. Dad saved that church for the Assemblies of God.
In my 2009 sermon at General Council, I told the story of my parents’ unsuccessful church plant in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Dad worked in a factory and Mom sold Avon to provide a living, and they paid pretty much all the ongoing expenses of the little mission they had purchased with their last $1,000 in savings as down payment. To me, Mom and Dad were heroic ministers who led a life of sacrifice. I never want to see church planters have to go it alone like my parents did.
The memory that still brings tears to my eyes when I think of it is a church they pastored near Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, when I was a college senior. One bitter cold weekend I drove up to see them. They were living in the cinder block basement of the church — having converted two Sunday School rooms into living quarters. They couldn’t afford to heat the place, so periodically they would turn on a little electric space heater to beat back the zero cold and dampness. They got the church back on its feet. Today there is a new sanctuary in that town.
In fact, most every church they pastored is now thriving. And, as for their work in China, the believers in our old city and area now number over 15,000.
My parents never lived long enough to see the fruit of their ministry. They are examples of the truth, “some planted and some watered.”
There’s so much more — especially about my parents’ missionary experiences in Northwest China and Tibet. Their journals tell the story of their extravagant commitment to Jesus, their endurance in the face of hardship, the miracles that helped cement my faith as a young person, their risk-taking in bringing the gospel to people who had never heard the story of Jesus.
My mother knew she and Dad were not big preachers. They only attended two General Councils, and very few — if any — district councils in all my growing-up years. They could not afford it. I wish stronger churches could adopt pastors of smaller churches and make it possible for them to attend a General Council or district council. What an encouragement that would have been to my parents.
No, my parents were never in the headlines. They were like most unsung hero ministers of the Assemblies of God who serve faithfully with little or no recognition. But, as Francis Schaeffer said, in God’s work “there are no little people, and there are no little places.”
When I was a boy, Mom would often say two things to me, and she said them often. The first thing she said was, “It won’t matter 100 years from now.” Indeed that is true. One hundred years from now it won’t matter if we led a small ministry or a large one, whether we lived in a nice house or a rented one-room apartment, whether we drove a new car or an old jalopy, whether we got our clothes from Macy’s or Goodwill (where Mom got hers). What matters 100 years from now is whether we loved Jesus and loved the people Jesus called us to.
The second thing she said was, “Georgie (my family name), when we stand before Jesus He will not ask us if we have been successful, but if we have been faithful.” Of course, in retrospect, I realize the Lord wants us also to be fruitful as well as faithful; but it is my parents’ focus on faithfulness that informs my life to this day. I have been more successful than they if you examine success by metrics, but they were exceedingly faithful in spite of what seemingly was a lack of success.
I am grateful to have been blessed with the heritage of a mom and dad who lived their faith in the face of much hardship. Mom died first, at the age of 81, in 1979. We placed on her tombstone, “God’s Faithful Servant.” Dad died 5 years later at the age of 76. His tombstone reads, “God’s Faithful Minister.” I cannot think of two more fitting epitaphs to describe their lives and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.