H.B. London Jr. on life, ministry and family
In an exclusive, candid interview with Focus on the Family Canada, H.B. London Jr. shares the wisdom he’s gained from more than 50 years in the ministry and 20 years as the “pastor to pastors” at Focus on the Family in the U.S. We had the privilege of spending a few days with London on the eve of his retirement. In this candid discussion, he shares how the ministry has changed over the decades, important life lessons he’s learned, and his top five tips for answering God’s call in your life.
Clergy care team: How did you end up coming to Focus 20 years ago?
H.B. London Jr.: I was Jim [Dobson] and Shirley’s pastor, as well as Jim’s cousin. We sat around the dinner table one night and discussed the crisis letters that Focus [on the Family U.S.] was receiving from pastors around the country. We talked about what could be done about it. Jim asked me if we could actually work together without killing each other [laughs] and that is kind of how it all began. We didn’t know what it was all going to look like. I thought that I would just go around and visit with pastors and they would just welcome me into their offices. But they couldn’t care less about something like that. So for a few months I prayed and asked God what we were supposed to do. The message I received was that I was supposed to be a “pastor to pastors” – a term that really hadn’t been used yet. My goal has been to help facilitate spiritual restoration and renewal with clergy couples and help them manage their time, finances and their personal lives – including their family.
CCT: What things did you do to support pastors?
HB: We tried to offer something new each year that might help pastors in what they do. We didn’t really know what to do; it was a lot of trial and error and we figured it out along the way. It was like a teacher staying one chapter ahead of the class. We did things like the clergy call-in line, the Shepherd’s Covenant and Pastor Appreciation Month. I ended up being away a lot, which I had always done.
CCT: How did being away a lot impact your own family?
HB: I was of the generation that believed that if you looked after the ministry then the Lord would look after your family. Ministry was about success and numbers and image. My boys resented the fact that I was away so much when they were young. It created havoc in our marriage – it took a real toll.
CCT: You’ve been to Canada a number of times to minister to pastors here. Do you have some favourite memories of ministering in Canada?
HB: I was scheduled to come to a conference in Alberta when 9/11 happened and I ended up not being able to get there. Another time, I was trying to fly into Halifax for a conference and the weather was so bad that the plane tried to land twice and eventually had to fly back to Toronto.
CCT: Do you see some differences between ministry in Canada and the United States?
HB: That’s a hard one to answer. We are close neighbours and have a lot in common – especially in the cities. I suppose I see that there is less respect for the average pastor here. Churches are possibly a bit more conservative, especially the smaller ones, and I don’t think your pastors get paid as much. Of course, you don’t have health care to worry about, so that’s good. I’ve also learned that Canadians don’t like it when we refer to the U.S. and what we do there [chuckles].
I think that wherever you pastor, there are some similar challenges. Most every pastor needs to see something happen as a result of the time they put into their ministry. You can’t judge effectiveness by what happens in the four walls of your church. Most congregations are pretty settled in and don’t change a lot. The same people sit in the same place every Sunday. Sometimes you need to look outside of the church to get satisfaction, like being a chaplain or being a coach of a team – just to see some progress.
CCT: What inspired you to write so much?
HB: At the beginning, there wasn’t much out there for pastors. I mean, anyone can write a book on pastoring, but most books are about church growth or leadership. There just wasn’t much there for their personal life. That’s why I first wrote Pastors at Risk. After that, publishers wanted more.
CCT: Is there still a book you would like to write?
HB: I think so, but I don’t have a plan. When I think of how hard it is to write, well . . .
CCT: You’ve done hundreds of interviews of pastors, authors and other professionals. Do you have some memorable ones?
HB: I interviewed Bill Bright before he died and Adrian Rogers before he died; Jerry Falwell before he died. They were memorable because they were icons. They gave their whole lives to the ministry and they became models to the rest of us. It was a real privilege. Interviewing Jim Dobson was also great. He wasn’t in control [of the interview] and I got to ask the questions and bring out his personal life.
There was one interview I never got: Billy Graham. I interviewed his son, daughter, nephew and grandson, but not him.
CCT: Do you have any words of advice for young pastors?
HB: Pastors can get bright eyed and bushy tailed about the call and never look at the price.
CCT: Do you have any advice on answering the call?
- Make sure your spouse is on board with you. If not, it’s like dragging a weight behind you. You need to agree on what God has asked you to do.
- Find out what your strengths are and play to your strengths. Every pastor seems to say that their strength is preaching, but it’s not true.
- It’s okay to choose the part of the world you want to minister in. Ministry has a way of tearing you and your family apart. Some pastors take on smaller responsibilities to be near family. That’s real smart.
- Don’t take shortcuts. They will eventually catch up with you. If you don’t study enough, steal sermons, don’t do pastoral things – you won’t get close to people. Pastors are so afraid of being hurt that they stay away from people rather than embrace them. You need to visit them, have coffee with them. You need to be there. We tend to over talk and not listen. We need to listen. Of course the closer you are to them, the more they will criticize and judge you. It’s a price I was willing to pay.
- Guard your heart. There are so many temptations in ministry.
CCT: What about those who choose ministry as a second career, coming to it later in life?
HB: Your call needs to be affirmed by an older elder. Time needs to go by. For instance, three months later, do you still feel that way? There’s the question, “Can you do anything else?” You will need some education; are you willing to go to school?
I believe God gives us some turf to minister on. It’s not necessarily big or formidable, but it is still significant because in that turf are the souls of men. It’s not our responsibility to gripe about the size of our turf but to make the most of it that we can. We don’t concentrate on size but on meeting the need.
CCT: Are there some things you wished you would have done differently?
HB: I wish I would have studied more. I wish I was smarter.
CCT: Billy Graham said he wished he would have spent more time with his family.
HB: Yes, he said he would have travelled less, spent more time with his family and studied more. I agree with him.
CCT: In the past, you’ve talked about the four quarters of ministry.
HB: The first quarter is where you don’t know the trade and your challenge is to not get discouraged. The second quarter is where you really learn the trade and you get more responsibilities. The third quarter is when you’re most effective. You retool and settle in for the duration. The fourth quarter is where you see the goal line and you want to finish well. You use your influence to encourage others. It’s funny; the challenges of the first quarter come back in the end. You don’t really know the future and there’s a lot of uncertainty. It takes a lot of faith.
CCT: Are there some particular challenges about the quarter you are in now?
HB: I’m in the fourth quarter for sure. I worry about outliving my usefulness. “Will anyone want me to share my experiences with them?” I also worry if I can relax enough so I can enjoy life. I don’t know what’s next for me. We are moving to Palm Springs, but I can’t just sit out in the desert and rot. I need something to do. A lot of guys quit and destroy themselves – they atrophy, withdraw from contributing. I worry about that.
CCT: What are your plans from here?
HB: I hope I can minister to young pastors. Maybe have some of them in for rest, recreation and restoration. Maybe help churches decide what they want to be. I’d be happy if some church let me do hospital visitation for them. Retirement is a time of reordering your life; it’s not all known to you. I want to pay back and invest in others. I want to listen, observe and maybe I can keep someone from hurting themselves.
CCT: What do you hope people will see as the legacy you leave behind?
HB: That he had great passion for what he did and gave everything he had. I never wanted to be anything other than what I am: a pastor to pastors. I honestly love pastors because they empathize with everyone. I hate seeing pastors who are “hot dogs,” who are arrogant and like to talk about what they’ve done. I just want to say to them, “You better be careful.”
There’s no promotion from being a pastor. I don’t get the same “highs” at Focus that I got being a pastor. Of course, I don’t get the same lows, either. [laughs]
I’m grateful that I’ve been able to help Jim Daly with the transition. We’re close friends. I’ve been able to be his friend and confidant during a time when not many people – other than the [Focus U.S.] board – were. He’s a good man and I really love him.
CCT: We want to thank you for all you’ve invested in all of us. Thanks for your ministry to us here in Canada.
HB: I just appreciate what you all are doing here in Canada; your passion for pastors. It’s wonderful how you embrace the clergy and their families. Your new retreat centre will give you a different dimension in your ministry. I don’t know what will happen in the U.S. We have enough Pastor to Pastor pre-recorded until the end of the year. I think there will be a new host. I’m not sure all that will happen there.
CCT: We hope we will be able to see you back here in Canada in the future.
HB: I would be honoured. It’s been a great ride.
H.B. London Jr. retired at the end of July 2011 from his responsibilities at Focus on the Family in the U.S. Our deep thanks to the Lord and to London for his influence on us – for some, on a personal basis, and for others, through the ripples he created.