Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Big Smile and a Ponytail

With feelings of anticipation we stepped out of the rental car.  Three of us: a lady from our Student Ministry who also had teenage children, my wife Cathy, and me.  We had flown into Portland the night before and departed first thing in the morning across the mountains into Central Oregon.

Our arranged meeting was over lunch, hoping for some insight into the couple with whom we would speak.  I'll never forget that first impression: large eyes, a big smile...and a ponytail.  And that was the husband.  His name...Tom Burks.  It was early summer of 1996.

Tom and Stacy were meeting with us to discuss their future and ours.  We needed a Youth Pastor; they were considering a move from those beautiful mountain vistas to the desert.  Tom and grown up in that town and and gone "home" to lead a Youth for Christ ministry in local schools.  Stacy was the energetic girl with a quick wit (also from the Pacific Northwest) whom he had met in college.  We were all praying, seeking God's direction.

One day earlier, we had met a man old enough to be Tom's dad.  That man was seasoned, having spent his adult life in Youth Ministry.  He had formal training.  He had a strong track record.  He would be hard to beat, if our only concern was a side-by-side resume' comparison.  As our conversation progressed with Tom and Stacy, my heart said "Tom" and my head said "the other guy."

After the lunch meeting, the three of us climbed into the car and started the journey back to Portland.  We would pass near Mt. Hood on this route, but it was shrouded by low-hanging clouds.  Rain began to fall.  The cold, moist air was a planet distant from Yuma at that time of year.  As we drove, we began a casual conversation about our meeting with the Burks'.  Not wanting to dominate, I asked our traveling companion, Janice, what she thought.  Then I asked Cathy.  I was amazed to discover that we all had identical impressions.  The man we had met the day before had training and experience, but he didn't have something we saw in Tom...vibrant energy.  It was as if the joy had been squeezed out of the other guy and Tom was radiating it.  "You can learn skills," I said, "but you can't learn passion."  Faster than I thought possible, we were unanimous.  We came home and announced our recommendation to the leaders at Stone Ridge.

We didn't know then what we would only learn after Tom had been with us a few years...his ministry skill set was adequate in his work with teens, but it wasn't his best strength.  We discovered his ability as a Worship Pastor (his role since 1999) only after a painful ministry "train wreck" when many left our church.  For several months Tom led pretty much alone, standing before us with an acoustic guitar and helping us learn to sing our hearts out in worship.  It is an understatement to say that he has grown.  Today, he works with at least 4 or 5 worship teams, coaching them and helping them grow.  He oversees a large tech ministry, responsible for our multiple services.  In addition, he is an engaging preacher, who often helps us see God in a more intimate way.

But there is one skill many of you don't know about the man who long ago cut off his ponytail (smile still intact!).  Tom is, I think, the most effective strategist on our staff.  He is the one who often sees most clearly as we pray and think our way into the future.  He is invaluable to me...and to us all!

For those reasons and so many more, take a moment this month and thank Tom and Stacy for 15 years of faithful service.  Our church family is blessing them with a bonus (something we do on five-year anniversaries), but your thoughts of thanksgiving will mean more than you can imagine.