Quite a few people lost a mentor today. I am one of them. Charles Siburt taught me an awful lot about ministry. As a young minister, I knew of Charles and his reputation as a scholar/minister for the Glenwood Church of Christ in Tyler, Texas. Like my father, he was a minister who took the life of scholarship seriously. He was someone thriving in congregational ministry who didn’t back away from intellectual pursuits. To the contrary, Charles knew and demonstrated that there was nothing more practical than good theology.
My office possesses a stack of three ring binders, artifacts from the classes I took from him at ACU. No one gave you more resources than Charles, and I’ve kept everything he gave me. They stand in my office as a reminder of what teaching ministry can be and how lives and congregations can be changed through the dedication of a teacher. His class on ministerial leadership that I took as a short course had a deep impact on my imagination for ministry. I read for the first time for that course, Luke Timothy Johnson’s book, Decision Making in the Church (now revised and titled, Scripture and Discernment). No single book has shaped my self-understanding as a minister more.
Charles chaired my DMin thesis. I count it as one of the great honors of my life that his signature sits atop the title page of my thesis. I also count it as one of the great honors of my career that he asked me to co-teach the intro course for the DMin at ACU, which we did for six years. The great thing about teaching with Charles was hearing the stories he told about congregational life. Because of his vast experience as a consultant, he knew more church stories than anyone alive. They brought his handouts to life. And no one assessed a room quicker than Charles. He saw the issues “below the line” faster than anyone I know.
The number of Facebook tributes and blogs like this one will testify to the fact that Charles was of immense help to ministers. But he did this without coddling them. He had a way of telling you what you needed to hear, the thing you least wanted to hear about yourself and ministry, but in a way that made you thankful for the information. He certainly cut to the chase, and sometimes to the quick. Those of us who had seen him at work this way affectionately called him Chainsaw Charlie. I can tell you that because of Charles I do not fear conflict, I have learned the importance of differentiating myself in the various systems of my life (self-define and stay in touch), and when in a tough spot I always seek my inner Charlie. My posture gets better and my voice a little deeper.
In fact, these gifts helped Charles and me after I left ACU a few years ago. We found ourselves on opposite sides of some departmental issues toward the end of my time there. I differentiated, but did not stay in touch. As a result, things did not end for me the way I wanted to there. I wanted to avoid that result in the future at all costs. So, I sought out Charles. I knew he could help me and would. I spoke directly to him. I didn’t duck issues or practice passive-aggressiveness. I shot straight with him. He shot straight with me. I felt heard and understood. I gained a greater appreciation for his perspective and was able in his gracious presence to own mistakes that I had made. We embraced as I left his office that evening. In hindsight, I feel like nothing I could’ve done in my ministry could have honored Charles more than the way I handled myself in that meeting. I had learned from him and we were both better for it. I wish I could’ve had more time to enjoy the fruit of that embrace and that we could have found ways to collaborate again.
I’ve written all of this without mentioning that Charles was legally blind, which is a challenge in any occupation, but certainly in academia. This is not the fact that you lead with in Charles’ case because he lived bravely, without complaint or self-pity. We have all watched with admiration, though without surprise, the way he fought cancer the last few years of his life. I wish I had one more conversation with him. I wish his office was still around the corner from mine. I wish I had a mentor like him (I still have mentors, but not one like him). But more than anyone else in my life, Charles urged me to be a full-grown Christian, one who acted like an adult. So, that’s what I’m going to do now.