My Friend and Mentor Bill
On Saturday I received word that my friend and former pastor The Rev’d William W. Spiegelhalder died in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection of the dead through Jesus Christ.
Pastor Spiegelhalder was ordained all the way back in 1944 by the legendary Methodist Bishop Fred Corson of the Philadelphia Annual Conference of the Methodist Church. Bishop Corson is an important part of Pastor Spiegelhalder’s story. Here is why: Bishop Corson was a churchman to the highest degree. He loved the church of Jesus Christ and was committed to working towards ecumenical agreement and Methodist Wesleyan renewal in his own tradition.
This churchmanship of Bishop Corson was passed on to Bill Spiegelhalder. It would come to define Bill’s ministry and we can trace much of it to Bishop Fred Corson who laid his episcopal hands upon Bill at his ordination.
My connexion (the Methodist use and spelling of this word is intentional here) with “Bill” Spielgelhalder happened in the late Winter of 1998. Back then I was a GI Bill student at Millersville University of PA and my wife and I began attending the church where Bill served as a very active retired assistant pastor. In those days Bill, would preach occasionally and my wife and I saw him around the church. We also met Bill’s lovely and charming wife Virginia. Even though they were fifty years older than we were, we gravitated to them. We enjoyed Bill’s thoughtful and engaging style of ministry and Virginia’s sweet and kind personality. While studying history at Millersville I grew increasingly interested in potentially serving in the church in some capacity. The seeds were initially sown as far back as 1991 by my pastor who was now the senior pastor of the church we were attending and also where Bill was serving as the retired assistant. As I began the ordination discernment process my relationship with Bill grew deeper. By the summer and fall of 1999 I grew increasingly excited about becoming a pastor in our Lord’s church. During this time and for the next few years Bill would have me over to his house and we would talk about the church and what being a pastor was all about. Here’s the thing: Bill was a retired pastor in his late 70s who had served for decades and yet he was as excited about being a pastor in our Lord’s Church as much as I was in my twenties. We would talk about liturgy, preaching, pastoral care, apostolic succession, bishops and the Gospel. To outside observers this was really insider pastor stuff, but to a fascinated young man Bill took the time to share his experiences and thoughts and I did not want the conversation to end. Bill was a churchman, just like the Bishop who ordained him. I wanted to be a churchman too, someone who loved our Lord’s church, her liturgy, her ethos, her ministry. Bill and I connected through this shared love.
There was a practical side to it as well. The church where I was member and where Bill was the retired assistant had a wonderful sacristy that had windows that let natural light in. I remember seeing my pastor and Bill vest and how carefully and seriously they did so. The light would come to rest on Bill’s face and I could see it in his eyes that we were about to do something serious and significant. In that sacristy, he had the face of a churchman. We were not entering into the worship service in a frivolous manner but with seriousness and reverence. As easy going as Bill was, he did not trifle or make light of the preaching task or his mission as a pastor in our Lord’s Church. I saw this and took it in. That’s the guy I wanted to be. A churchman just like William Spiegelhalder.
I did disappoint Bill on a few occasions. On one occasion, I was thrown into a ministry situation I was not ready for. I was overwhelmed and needed to back out. As Bill and I took a long car ride and talked I could tell he was disappointed by my decision to quit prematurely the ministry I was involved with. That day hurt and it was all my own doing. I never wanted to let him down and on that day, I did. There were other times of disappointment too. I tried to follow his footsteps to his seminary alma mater but I could not stay there as a student because too much had changed in the sixty years since he had attended. The authority of God’s Word was no longer in place there. The same was true for another seminary Bill had recommended to me. Too much had changed in the decades. I am not sure how much Bill understood that and I pray I did not let him down too much. Finally, after a couple of years as an unordained local preacher I made the agonizing decision to finally leave Methodism. This was Bill Spiegelhalder’s church. He was a true heir to John Wesley. It was the church in which I was baptized and in which I heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I talked with my former pastor and with Bill about the situation at length. They both knew me so well and understood my reasons. Those reasons may be for another blog post later on. Two years later both pastors participated in my ordination into the Lutheran Church. I was so honored they were there.
Bill would later say to me that if he were considering the ministry today he would probably go with the Lutherans. I like to think he said that for my sake and I appreciate it if that was the case, but Bill Spiegelhalder was a Wesleyan Methodist in the best and truest sense. He loved God’s grace in Jesus Christ and preached it to thousands over his lifetime.
Over the years as a Lutheran parish pastor I sometimes catch myself doing something or saying something that reminds me of Bill Spiegelhalder. I like to think he passed his ministry on to me. Christians will write and speak of Apostolic Succession and mean all sorts of things theologically, but this is what I mean when I write of Apostolic Succession: Bill preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ and did so faithfully and dutifully. He did his best to teach this to me in order that I may be sent out and do the same. I carry the same the message. I bear the same Word. The ministry goes on. One pastor goes down another picks up the flag and keeps moving forward until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. Bill and I are different in so many ways: in temperament, personal history and generationally, but what we had in common was Jesus and his holy church. He shared his love of Christ and His church with me at the right time. In fact, I believe the good Lord put Bill on my path to teach me, and encourage me to go forward for the Gospel.
So, Pastor Spiegelhalder I’ll do my best here and among the people the Lord has sent me to. I’ll try to remember all that you taught me. I will seek to honor your legacy in the ministry by being faithful to our Lord and his Church. Eventually, I pray, I will join you in the church triumphant. There I will come alongside of you once again with all of the dear saints of the Lord at the “Marriage Supper of the Lamb” that never ends. Together we will once again say, “Thanks be to God, Amen and Alleluia.”