The news that Lifeway Christian Stores will all close brought back a memory of something that happened in one of them that was, in some ways, life altering.
In 2010 the Church of God decided to abolish the Department of Lay Ministries, which I was working for at the time. That left me without a job with the church. Mercifully that wasn’t my main source of income, but there’s something special about doing God’s work, even when the institutions don’t always go your way. This was all complete by the end of August, a month after the church’s General Assembly.
Sometime during the fall I was in the Lifeway store in Chattanooga, when I ran into Dr. Donnie Smith, who was the Executive Director of the Church of God Division of Care. The Care Division includes the ministries of the denomination which used to be called “benevolent.” These include the Church of God Chaplains Commission (which trains and certifies chaplains for the military, prisons, etc.,) Church of God Ministerial Care (which works to restore ministers in the wake of personal disaster,) Operation Compassion (which furnishes supplies by the trailer load for disaster relief,) Smoky Mountain Childrens’ Home and, as much as Ilhan Omar hates to hear it, Ministry to Israel.
Donnie’s wife Barbara, who was making a miraculous recovery from a stroke, was down from Cleveland to get her hair done, and Donnie had some extra time, so he went to Lifeway. We talked about church events and people for some time; it was nice to keep up.
But keeping up wasn’t the end of it: a couple of weeks later Donnie called me and offered me a position on the Care Board. Tom Offutt, who was from Winchester, VA (where my Aunt Dorothy had lived for many years) had passed away suddenly shortly after his appointment, leaving a vacancy of the Board. It was a pleasant surprise to get this invitation, and to get “back in the loop” in the life of the international church. I’ve been on the Board ever since; it’s been an excellent experience.
I’ve always thought it strange that two Church of God people–one a current General Assembly appointee (Donnie) and one former one (me) would gather in the Baptist bookstore to discuss Church of God things. But our own publishing house has had its share of misadventures in the “brick and mortar” store business; that’s why Lifeway got our business.
And 2010 was a year of other changes: about the same time my Kenyan department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and his Cameroonian assistant sat me down and asked me to obtain my PhD. This decade has been an adventure in many ways. God is always doing something new in our lives, and the fact that it was in Lifeway shows that he has a sense of humour too. For his part Donnie passed into eternity last summer, too soon gone; I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity on the Care Board that he did.
There are many who disparage Lifeway for their restrictive policies on what they would carry. But it’s like the places I can’t teach: institutions make decisions that they must live with, and it’s their prerogative to do so. Personally I think that Lifeway’s closing of their stores is a net loss for the church in this country. But that’s just me.