LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – People in Louisville, I know, aren’t always sure what to make of Southeast Christian Church. When you grow to become one of the largest churches in the nation, you also become, willingly, a lightning rod for all things, and you become the center of a great deal of attention. You are at the same time held up as a beacon and tossed into the great political enmity of our time.
When you’re a pastor of a church that size, the magnitude is magnified. People lay all their complaints at your feet. Every failure big and small is placed on your shoulders. And maybe toughest of all to manage, I can only imagine, is the praise.
I remember my youngest son Henry, when he was a good bit younger, coming home one day to report that he’d met a real celebrity.
“Who?” he was asked.
“Dave Stone,” was the answer.
This past weekend, Stone bid farewell as Southeast Christian’s senior pastor, a position he held for 13 years, in a church where he has ministered for 30. He gave up the title a short while back, and on Sunday delivered his final sermon as a pastor there.
I know Dave, for the most part, only as many thousands probably know him, from my seat up in the balcony, or from a few encounters here and there. He called when my grandmother died. He asked about me after my stroke. And I have been grateful, because of math. I know how many people belong to his church – or at least, I used to – and I know how many hours there are in a day. And they don’t really add up.
I will tell you from watching Dave that he wears his heart on his sleeve. Sometimes both sleeves. And cheeks. And chin and, well, let’s just say all over his shirt. Even he has laughed at his own propensity to shed a tear while making a poignant point, or one close to his heart. They used to kid him about how much he laughed and loved to crack jokes. Like most of us who have put a few years behind us, he now finds his emotions closer to the surface, and the cracking you hear is more often in his voice than in a punch line.
They once asked the great American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson what he had thought of a particular church service, and Emerson said, “The snow-storm was real, the preacher merely spectral.”
Nobody will ever say that about Dave Stone.
As he began his final sermon on staff at Southeast, he held up a box of Kleenex.
“Everyone keeps giving me handkerchiefs,” he said, smiling.
Stone took the reins from Bob Russell, after Russell had spent 40 years at the church, and Stone led Southeast through a time of change and expansion. It will welcome its seventh campus next week. On Sunday, he handed the same baton he received from Russell to Kyle Idleman, who has been at the church for 16 years himself.
For Stone, I always felt admiration and respect for a man who, if you’ll excuse the sports analogy, was willing to fill the seat after John Wooden stepped down, a guy who was courageous enough to follow Coach K.
When Russell left Southeast, it had become what many would view as a behemoth, but in losing a leader who had been so much of its existence for 40 years, it also was an institution that may have been at its most vulnerable point in some time.
Stone’s presence, his willingness to absorb more than his share of the difficulty of that transition, his good nature and faithful authenticity, went a long way toward preserving and building on all that had been accomplished there.
“I feel very inadequate, very unworthy,” Stone said, in his final official message. “That’s not false humility, that’s raw honesty. One of the most difficult parts of preaching at Southeast is that people have a tendency to think you are better than you really are. And the size of the church and the setting makes it seem that way, but any accolades or attention that we have received are because of you all, at every one of the campuses, and they are testament to the lives that you all live, when you are away from church.”
Southeast held a great many events to commemorate Stone’s time there, including a celebration service Wednesday night.
“Monday, they had a golf scramble for me, you know what they called it?” he asked. “The Dave Stone Memorial Golf Tournament. That makes you feel like a million bucks.”
Stone isn’t quite ready for memorials yet, nor is he retiring. He isn’t stepping off the stage. His calendar for the rest of the year is already full, and he’s thinking of adding projects as time goes on, perhaps a podcast next year, and a book he’s been mulling over.
He’ll likely return to Southeast in periodic speaking roles. He’ll spend two weekends a month for the rest of this year at a Chicago church without a pastor. He and his wife, Beth, and their family, will remain a part of the fabric at the church.
Tributes came into Southeast from all over the world this week. Tim Tebow thanked him for being a mentor. Other pastors wrote, from the U.S. and abroad, as did people who probably live not far from you. Many of you reading this likely were among the voices.
I’m always hesitant to be one of them, at least in a public venue like this. There are countless others more qualified – and more worthy. I am, believe me, just one of the struggling masses. I am always struck that guys like Dave struggle with the same feelings – and give their entire lives, and those of their families. So many heed the call every day to love, pray, help, mentor, lift up, teach and minster to their fellow occupants of this place, that it’s important to take a moment to acknowledge a race well run.
Whatever people outside or inside think of Southeast, to be its senior pastor, with all that entails, is a job so fraught with responsibility that it would knock anyone to their knees.
Dave Stone had the good sense to stay there.
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