Pastoral lessons learned from watching Bill Hamel
I’ve been an EFCA pastor now at the same church for nearly two decades, and Bill Hamel is the only EFCA president I’ve ever known. The weekend I candidated, in 1998, happened to coincide with the Allegheny District Conference in the next town over, where recently elected Bill was the main speaker. So, I got to meet the rookie president right when I was being called to be a rookie pastor. I’ve been watching him in action ever since.
A month after that first meeting, Bill was present at my graduation from TEDS; and then a month after that, I saw him at my first EFCA National Conference. And he remembered my name every single time. He’s just that kind of a guy.
I’ve kept my eye on Bill over these last 17 years and consider him a role model from afar. While he’s never sat me down and directly mentored me, I’ve learned a lot from simply observing how he pastors as he presides.
For years, my nickname for Bill Hamel has been “Accessi-Bill” because of how approachable and responsive he has been to me. Not only has he remembered my name, but he has also quickly responded to each and every email.
Bill doesn’t necessarily write a lot of words, but I’ve received answers at all times of day and from diverse locations—once even from a transatlantic flight. He’s often directing me to the proper person to answer a question but has been happy to be the first line of response.
Whenever I’m tempted to set up layers of defense between me and my people, I’m reminded that Bill has always found time for one of his several thousand local church pastors.
My favorite Bill Hamel story is one of my least favorite stories about Matt Mitchell. It was one of those times that I was “that guy.”
Bill was the speaker for our very first district pastors and wives retreat, and he gave three very good messages from the book of Ephesians. But one statement he made didn’t sit right with me; I wouldn’t have phrased it that way. It wasn’t his main point, but it was a point he was making. So I sent him an email to set him right.
I still have Bill’s return email in my saved folder:
“Thanks for your kind affirmation of our ministry at the retreat. It was a wonderful weekend for Karen and me. . . . We came home refreshed. Can you clarify for me why you thought my statement about [issue] and the way I presented it was not biblical? I am very open to clarifying a presentation so it holds to the biblical test. Thanks for expressing that concern. . . . I look forward to understanding what you mean. . . .”
Yes, although he was the president and I was young enough to be his son, Bill expressed deep humility. Even after I responded with a longwinded explanation of my point, he finished our correspondence with: “I appreciate your willingness to lovingly attempt to sharpen my presentation.”
I learned a lot from that interaction. Bill may not even have changed how he talks about the minor issue we were discussing, but he listened. How often do I do that? How approachable am I? How teachable?
Changea-Bill and UnChangea-Bill
The third leadership quality I’ve grown to appreciate in Bill Hamel is his discernment regarding which things to change and which things to protect from change. It’s a skill I long to effectively develop.
Sometimes change is necessary. When I met him at the first district conference, Bill explained that the national office existed to serve the churches, and they were about to restructure everything to make sure that serving was exactly what they were doing.
At the same time, Bill has unerringly protected our association from changing where it would hurt us. The most visible example was the Statement of Faith revision process. I believe that we came out of that process with a stronger gospel-centered theological foundation. Yes, we changed, but we did not change our central values and commitments.
Bill also holds an unswerving commitment to compassionate ministry. Again and again over the last 17 years, he has called us to love those who are marginalized, hassled and easily forgotten. Look no further than his charge to us in his last column in EFCA Today. Will I have that same unswerving commitment to compassion?
If so, then I won’t be following just the example of a faithful EFCA president but also that of our Lord who, when He saw the crowds, “had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
So even as I’m grateful for the mentorship that Bill Hamel has played in my life and ministry for almost two decades now, I know that I am only following his example as He follows Christ’s.
We invite you to share more tributes to our outgoing president below.