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Tuesday, May 31, 2016


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith for the Years of Winter… ©

SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER? Celebrating the life and legacy of Paul Sellers, who is probably going to Hell.

There is an old preacher story about the temperance preacher who ended his fiery anti-booze sermon with “If I had my way, I’d throw every drop of liquor in the river.” The congregation rose and sang, “Shall we gather at the river?”

Yesterday Ron Dickinson alerted us to the death of Paul Sellers, at the much-too-early age of 67.

Paul was my last District Superintendent. I had other DSs later, when I did interim pastorates in other conferences, but he was my DS when I retired.

A couple of weeks before that happy day, he said, “If I can just get you retired before anything happens…” I took that as a compliment. It’s nice to have a DS who thinks you are still capable of stirring things up, even in your post-cancer almost-retired dotage.

District Superintendent in Methodism is a curious position. A DS is a fellow pastor in your conference [geographical area] who has quite a bit of power over hisher colleagues, but only for a limited time. After six years, the DS stops being your boss and goes back to being a colleague. It makes for tricky relationships.

Since Methodist pastors are appointed by the bishop, and required to go wherever they are appointed, and churches are required to accept whoever the bishop sends, the bishop has ultimate power, over the whole conference. A DS has limited power, serving a smaller area within the conference, suggesting to the bishop who should be appointed where, and supervising the pastors and churches within that district. Limited, but still power, and that makes DS a difficult and demanding job.

It was not difficult and demanding enough for Paul. He had too much time on his hands, enough time to rename the districts of our conference.
Some folks think he assured his place in hell via that renaming.

When the Central IL Conference, from which I retired, merged with the South IL Conference, half an hour after I retired, a name for the new merged conference needed to include IL, for identification. Since there was still a North IL Conference, the name couldn’t be only directional. So, somehow, the name for the new conference became Illinois Great Rivers.

That could have been enough, but Paul got the idea that the districts should be renamed, too, no longer be known by the major city in the district, such as the Springfield or Champaign districts, but by the “great river” that flowed through that district. Those names are very artful, flowing, incomprehensible. Who knows where the Lamoine River or the Embarrass River flows? Who even knew there was a Lamoine River or an Embarrass River? With a dozen districts to be named, some of those rivers had to be diverted. Little Methodist children in IL are destined to fail their geography tests forever.

That was one of Paul’s strengths, though, to think artfully, outside the usual flow lines, encouraging his pastors and congregations to consider ministry in new ways.

Despite his general nervousness, and anxiety about me in particular, Paul and I were friends, and ran around together, drinking coffee, going to meetings. We even bought his father-in-law’s car when he could no longer drive. It was a white Ford Crown Victoria that looked like a police car. It served us well through three states.

One reason Paul hung out with me, though, was to keep an eye on me. In retirement, I continued to live in his district for a while before we started moving to follow the grandchildren. He thought it wise to keep me busy, so he created an unofficial position of “Assistant DS for Preaching.” I was to visit the churches where there were preachers new to the position, or those Paul just thought needed some help, so I could hear them preach and give them advice. He also assigned me to help those who were not native English speakers with their pronunciation and vocabulary so their congregations could understand them better. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think anyone else did.

“This is an ideal position for you,” he told me. “Nobody preaches like you do.” I took that as a compliment, too, except now… I wonder.

I’ve had many good DSs. Dallas Browning, F.T. Johnson, Otis Collier, Ralph Steele, Jim White, Floy Ekin, Ed Hoffman, Dale Pitcher, John Keller, Wayne Hess, Jack Newsome, and finally, Paul Sellers. I give thanks for them all, but today, I pray especially for Paul, as he stands at the Pearly Gates, and St. Peter says, “I’m sorry, Paul, but considering those rivers…”


I tweet as yooper1721.

THE STRANGE CALLING, is sort of a memoir, a collection of stories from my ministry. When I first felt I was being “called” by God to be a preacher, the ministry was known as “the high calling.” In my experience, it seemed more like a strange calling. You can get it from the publisher, Smyth&Helwys, or lots of places on the web, including Amazon, B&N, etc.


  1. I DID Not Know Paul Renamed the Districts - I was against it - but if he was for it, there must have been a good reason!
    Paul was absolutely one of the BEST D.S's the UMC ever produced.
    BTW after him they started calling them "Conference Superintendents" of the --- district"
    Thanks for writing.

  2. well stated thanks for your great words