Can your hero become your friend? – A post in the “Why Ministers Matter” blog tour

This week is inviting leading pastors and authors to share the story of ministers who have touched our lives in a blog tour called “Why Ministers Matter.”  I’m honored to be today’s stop on the blog tour that includes thoughts from Max Lucado, Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter and other great pastors and authors.

We were asked to share the story of a minister who made a difference our lives.  That’s both an easy and a difficult assignment, since so I can think of so many pastors that have influenced me through the years that it’s difficult to narrow down.  It’s also not the first time I’ve been asked this tough question… 

When I was ordained in 2005, our Bishop laid her hands on my head and spoke the words “Jessica Lynne Box LaGrone, take thou the authority to preach the Word of God and to administer the Holy Sacraments.”  It was an amazing moment.  But I have to say that I felt the authority given to me to preach had been transmitted before her hands ever touched my head.
As Bishop Huie stood in front of me, my husband of three months and a group of mentors stood behind me, hands on my shoulders, praying for my ministry and the journey ahead.  I had been allowed to choose the pastors who stood behind me, praying over me.  Picking out just a handful of people who had influenced me was a tough decision, but in the end the choice was obvious.  They were all men who God had used to shape my faith and my ministry in incredible ways.  Here they are on my ordination day.

Ordination 2005 – my mentors

Garry Masterson (on the left) and Kip Gilts (on the right) are two pastors who helped launch me into ministry. I worked as a Youth Minister for Garry and then later in my first position as an Associate Pastor for Kip.   They each took a chance on me when I was young, disorganized and naive, starting out and thinking I already knew it all.  Both of those men are incredible leaders and visionaries who showed me what it truly meant to have a pastor’s heart.  I saw Garry and Kip love and care for their families and include them in their ministries, and I learned from them that it was possible to have a healthy family life while doing a difficult job.  When, as a jaded 20-something, I almost walked away from the church and my call, their love for people and for Jesus restored my faith in ministry itself. But (sorry guys!) this blog post isn’t really about them.
The man at the center of the photo with me is the one who immediately came to mind when I was asked the question about the most influential pastor in my life.  Ironically, although he was a successful pastor of local churches for most of his career, I never experienced him as a pastor, but as a professor.  However, Dr. Ellsworth Kalas is such a pastor at heart that whatever role he is filling at the moment: professor, seminary president, guest preacher or lecturer, he is always a pastor to those around him.  
Dr. Kalas was my hero.  He was one of the reasons I chose to attend Asbury Seminary. His teaching on the art of preaching is legendary.  I had read his books and heard his name spoken in hushed tones as the best preacher in The United Methodist Church.  I couldn’t wait to experience his wisdom in person.
When I got to seminary I was disappointed to learn that Dr. Kalas’s classes are in such high demand that most students don’t have the seniority to get in until their last year.  There was a rumor, though, that he reserved a couple of seats in his Intro to Preaching class and then gave them out to students of his choice.  In hopes that I could get into his class early in my seminary career I sent him a note: 
“Dr. Kalas, you don’t know me, but I understand there may be an open spot in your preaching class you are saving to give to some special student.  I’d like to be that student.  I would enjoy having you as a professor.  And I know you would enjoy having me as a student.”  I got in. Dr. Kalas still laughs about that note. I’m still shocked that I had the audacity to send it!
Once I got into his class I sat spellbound by Dr. Kalas’s teaching.  The content of his lectures was rich. I still pull up my notes sometimes 12 years later when I’m preparing to preach. But the real treasure was so much more than anything we could write down or be tested on. Dr. Kalas would often give us some guideline about preaching, and then to illlustrate his point he would launch, seamlessly, into a sermon right in front of us. We would sit fascinated, unable to believe that we were in the presence of such greatness. When he returned to the point he was making you could hear an audible exhale from the class.  

With my friend and fellow Asbury grad,
Nolan Donald

 When we got to the portion of class where we were to begin our preaching assignments, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I was pretty terrified.  I had preached a handful of times, all in front of people in my home churches who knew me and loved me and told me I was great. I had no idea whether to believe them or not.  Now I was supposed to stand up and preach in front of my peers, whose job it was to critique me, and in front of a man who had the most masterful preaching presence I had ever witnessed. Gulp!  
I got up in front of the class with no notes in front of me (Dr. Kalas wouldn’t allow us to use any!) and preached a short sermon on the call of Moses. I felt like I was standing before the burning bush myself!  When I finished, I sat down and waited for the critique to begin.  To my surprise, Dr. Kalas praised my preaching, holding it up as an example to my classmates.  Again and again that semester he let me know that God had given me an important gift that I needed to hone and cherish.  It would be several years before a bishop laid her hands on my head, but that classroom was the place I was truly ordained.
Dr. Kalas’s confidence in me gave me confidence in myself.  When he told me I was great I had no choice but to become so.  I went on to work for him as a research assistant and grader, doing small tasks to help make his job easier.  The best part of my job was that I got to go to his office each week and sit down to have a conversation with him, the topic of which usually strayed far beyond what help he needed in the office.  We would often sit for an hour or more as he shared stories about his experiences as a pastor and wisdom about life.  That office was the best classroom I ever experienced.  Those stories still play in my head when I’m searching for wisdom to make tough decisions in my own ministry. 

Dr. Kalas flew to Texas to pray for me at my ordination in 2005

He once told me a story about his own family that made me realize what made this man I admired so great. When his children were young he was the pastor of a large church, with a lot of responsibilities and demands on his time.  The church happened to be on his son’s way home from school, and each afternoon as he walked home, his son would stop at the church and come into his dad’s office.  Dr. Kalas would get him a coke and come around from behind his desk to sit with him and hear about his day before giving him a hug and sending him off on his way home.  When his son grew up he also became a pastor (the ultimate compliment to parents in ministry, since many preachers’ kids grow up and run from the church because their parents put it ahead of them in their priorities).   He called his dad up one day and told him he had just realized what a sacrifice all those afternoons meant.  “I thought you had nothing better to do,” he said. “Now that I’m a pastor I realize how incredibly busy you must have been, but you made me feel like the only important thing that happened in that office all day.”

With my son Drew in 2010

When I thought about that story later, I realized that I had made the same mistake his son had made, thinking, in those long afternoon conversations, that the relaxed way in which Dr. Kalas asked about my life and taught me from his own, that he had nothing better to do.  In reality, his time is very much in demand. In addition to his teaching and writing, within the next few years he became the president of the seminary at a time when many people needed his wisdom and guidance.  I can tell you that each person that encounters him still feels like he has all the time in the world for them.   
Somehow, Dr. Kalas moved in my life from the position of far-off hero to teacher to mentor to friend.  Not many people who start out on a pedestal in your mind can live up to it once you know them well.  Once or twice he has asked me to call him Ellsworth.  I just can’t bring myself to do it.  I get to see him once or twice each year, on visits when we try to pack months of conversation into one afternoon.  I’m still in awe every time I get to sit and talk with him.  He still looks me squarely in the eye with that patient, affirming smile as if I’m the only person that matters.  He’s still my hero.  

Dr. Kalas speaking at The Woodlands UMC September 2012,
with friends Alicia Coltzer and Melissa Maher

Is there a pastor/minister/professor who has greatly impacted your life? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.
Join the “Why Ministers Matter” blog tour to read as today’s leading pastors and authors share their stories of ministers who made a difference in their lives. Visit for a complete list of virtual tour stops and to link up your own post about a minister who mattered to you!
Next stop on the blog tour…


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Becky Hamrick

I so enjoyed your blog. This was my “God Time” this morning. My favorite of the year. I feel so blessed to have been included in this e-mail…thank you! As always…you bless our lives…you are a dear heart.

Kendon Wheeler

Awesome Jessica! Would have loved to have heard him. What lessons he passed on to you and others, me included, as I read your blog.


Thanks Kendon. I can’t imagine how many young men and women are growing up to call your name when asked about a minister who has changed their life. The impact you’re having on the next generation in Guatemala is amazing!

Susan Salley

Jessica, I loved this. What a great mentor relationship you have. This brought so many memories of my dad – who was a pastor, professor and my personal hero. His praise pulled me along as I tried to catch up to his confidence in me…and the church was on my way home from school.

Robyn Bishop

Thanks for sharing the impact of Dr. Kalas on your life! Thank you for being an encouragement to me!

I am so grateful to so many that encouraged me. I want to particularly mention Rev. Jeanne Pearson who was my Pastor when I lived in New Jersey! She was a prayer warrior! I am so grateful for her witness in my life! and the life of my family!

Jim Lentz

Two pastors (in addition to you, Jessica, obviously) come to mind immediately. The first was the Rev. J. Don Skinner in Bridgeton, New Jersey. My wife and I were young then, and had recently moved to town. We were looking for a church, and had visited “First Church” in the middle of town, but were still looking (the choices weren’t many). One day this loud guy knocked on our door and introduced himself as Don Skinner from the smaller Methodist Church outside of town. He was a gregarious person, and invited us to church. I believe before we had even attended a service, he invited us to a progressive dinner party with a large group of Sunday school classes, which we attended in various homes with a lot of folks. We had hoped to slip into church quietly, but no! Don was a dynamic and exciting preacher, and built up the church’s membership rapidly, I think to the dismay of First Church’s pastor. He was an excellent singer and led the music from the pulpit. But always I remember him being on fire for Christ. We were very active in that church as a result of his enthusiasm and inclusiveness, and looked for the same type of church when we came to The Woodlands.
The second is Rob Renfroe who led me, back in the ’80’s when we joined TWUMC to a deeper faith and richer understanding of what it means to be a Christian and man of God through his teaching in our teacher training classes. I had thought myself a pretty good Christian previously, but Rob brought me much farther along the path, and I’ll always be (eternally?) grateful for that.

Allison Farrar Milliron

Hi Jessica! I happened upon your blog today and was so excited to see how God is working in your life. I’m not sure if I was in the same Preaching class with you and Dr. Kalas, but your description brought back the exact same feelings I had in his class so long ago! I’m so thankful now that he made us get up there without notes, although at the time I, too, was petrified! Josh Milliron and I live and serve at the Moss Bluff United Methodist Church, a suburb of Lake Charles, LA. We are only a few hours away from Houston, so the next time we are in town, we will have to look you up!


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