It seems ironic that Dr. Cornel Venema has spent many years involved in academia and serves as a seminary president when a memory from his childhood he and his father share was that when he began his education, he hated school.
“I recall that when he started school,” says Dr. Richard Venema, “he evidently walked to his school the second day, but did not go in. Instead he walked home again.”
Cornel’s first days of formal education were while the family lived in New Zealand, and the first school he attended was in Dunedin.
“I hated it so much that at first I would often come walking home,” he explains, “only to be sent back to school with a scolding from ‘mum’ and a pack of chewing gum.” [A holdover in speech patterns from his youth in New Zealand is his continued British English reference to his mother.]
The childhood memory Cornel most associates with his father, is trying to keep up with him.
“No matter where we went (and we traveled a great deal), Dad was always far in front of the rest of us, all of whom were desperately attempting to keep up,” he says. “Venemas are not the kind of people who like to live life at a slow or leisurely pace!”
But keeping up with his father by becoming a minister was not Cornel’s original plan.
“When I began study at Trinity Christian College, I wanted to major in philosophy and possibly attend law school,” he says. “I do not remember any single event or cluster of events that led me to decide toward the end of my first year of college that I should prepare for seminary and eventual entrance, D.V., into the ministry. My father never expressly encouraged me to enter the ministry, though the most significant factor in my life that led me to do so was his example as a minister of the gospel. Once I announced to my parents that I had decided to pursue the ministry, they were, of course, very pleased and supportive.”
They may have expressed their pleasure and support to Cornel in person, but they were a bit apprehensive the first time he exhorted in their church.
“My wife and I heard him preach for the first time in Pella,” says Dr. Richard Venema. “Not having a clue as to how he would do, we decided to sit in the back of the balcony. Happily we were pleasantly surprised and thankful.”
Richard claims Cornel never gave his parents any trouble and they always had a good relationship, but he was concerned about Cornel’s decision to attend Princeton.
“As a father I had some concern when he received a scholarship from Princeton,” Dr. Richard Venema says. “In fact, I bluntly told him that if he bought into the devilish liberal theology of that institution I would rather see him dig ditches than become a minister.”
“The Lord was good,” he adds. “He became a very faithful pastor of the Ontario CRC, a church within three miles of the one I was serving…. When he received his Ph.D., the elders informed the Classis meeting of it and that he had even graduated magna cum laude. Some of the more liberal pastors then approached him and said that he surely could not agree with his dad. Evidently he told them that after Princeton he agreed with me more than ever.”
The father and son share more than similar theological convictions. They share a passion for the gospel’s proclamation to the lost. Although they have both served as effective leaders in ecclesiastical and educational settings, they prize the pastoral ministry. But each man has his own unique personality and followed his own path into the ministry.
Richard Venema was born on a farm near Hospers, IA, on April 15, 1922, as one of seven siblings. Two of his brothers also became ministers, serving CRC congregations primarily in Canada.
Richard remembers his mother teaching him at a young age to sing, “Jesus Loves Me” and to recite Psalm 23. He was 9 years old when she died in 1931. He recalls her hospitalization and subsequent death at the age of 33.
“The picture of her lying on that bed on which she died is printed indelibly on my mind,” he says. “The same is true of her kissing me and saying, ‘I want to see you in heaven.’ I remember sitting on the front steps of our house on the unhappiest 4th of July of my life.”
After two years of high school, Richard stayed home to help on the farm. He admits that the Holy Spirit tugged at his heart for a long time before he pursued the gospel ministry.
“All I can say is that since my teen years I felt a calling which I resisted for some years,” he says. “Only after I was married, having become a father, and quite successful farming and raising turkeys in partnership with my father, did I succumb to the Spirit’s prodding.”
Richard Venema and Carrie Van Surksum were married at her parents’ farmhouse in Northwest Iowa on December 21, 1944, and lived on the farm where Richard had grown up. Their daughter, Karen, was born in 1945. Richard finally felt compelled to follow the Spirit’s leading with the first and drastic step of having a farm sale.
Since he’d had only two years of high school, Richard returned to Western Christian High in 1946. By taking additional courses over the summer, he was able to graduate a year later. Having been awarded a one-year tuition free scholarship to Calvin College, he moved his family to Grand Rapids in 1947.
“I had been reared in what might be regarded as an ‘old school’ Christian Reformed Church…and also by parents who were strict about church attendance, sound doctrine, Sunday observance, etc.,” writes Dr. Venema. “When I went to Grand Rapids to prepare for the ministry, I found it rather troubling to discover that after World War II the CRC was steadily drifting away from its longstanding tradition of ‘struggling’ to be orthodox and conservative not only in its biblical faith, but also in its traditions and practices…. But this gradual shifting from the kind of orthodoxy which had characterized the church in the past did not become apparent to me until I began my studies in Grand Rapids.”
During his last year at Calvin College, Richard Venema was one of the pre-seminary seniors who became known as the “sacred seven.” Disturbed by what they saw as a tendency to enthrone man rather than God, these seven students signed a grievance against six professors whose teachings they viewed as “inconsistent with” and “detrimental to” Calvinistic Christianity.
The college’s board of trustees initiated a formal inquiry, interrogating the students and investigating the charges. Faculty members, quick to support their co-workers, labeled the investigation a “witch-hunt.” The grievance swiftly disseminated into the larger denominational context, becoming ammunition for conservative critics.
After a year of heated discussions, Calvin’s president managed to squelch the issue. Five of the seven men would later leave the CRCNA, but only after many years of faithful service in the CRCNA.
Richard J. Venema received his B.A. from Calvin College in 1951 and a B.D. from Calvin Seminary in 1954. He and Carrie were blessed with the births of three sons during their time in Grand Rapids; Gerard in 1949, Richard in 1952, and Cornel, born shortly before his father graduated from seminary.
Also in 1954, Richard was ordained in Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, IA. Daughter Laura was born in 1957.
Under the direction of the CRC Board of World Missions, Rev. Richard Venema served congregations in the fledgling Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) from 1958-1963; first on the South Island and then on the North Island. It was here that the Venemas first met Rev. G. I. Williamson.
“I met Richard and Carrie in 1963 when I arrived in New Zealand for my first term of service with the RCNZ,” says Rev. Williamson. “It was what you might call ‘warm friendship at first sight.’ And what initially was most impressive was this somewhat flamboyant (I simply can’t think of a better word, though this isn’t really adequate) American CRC minister in the midst of these Dutch immigrants in New Zealand.”
“Richard loved the part he played in that period when the RCNZ was still young,” he continues. “He was, as I recall, full of ideas. But it was not long before I began to see what an important person Carrie was in her own steady and quiet way. Carrie was Richard’s ‘center of gravity.’ But I saw it always as a matter of quiet example, rather than what she said.”
“My mother was not only intellectually very bright, but a warm, hospitable help to my father in many facets of the ministry,” Dr. Cornel Venema says. “Though you might find some who would speak an unkind word about my father, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would do so regarding my mother.”
The Venema family returned to the United States in 1963 and Richard accepted a call to Harderwyk CRC in Holland,MI. In 1966 he again responded to a mission call; this time from the CRC’s Board of Home Missions, under the auspices of the San Jose CRC, who called him to serve as the pastor and director at Friendship House for American Indians in the San Francisco Bay area.
“In all the churches my father served,” says Dr. Cornel Venema, “I believe my mother was able to display her gifts to the fullest during the time he served the Friendship House CRC in San Francisco. There my mother’s gifts were uniquely suitable to helping many Indian mothers and their children, who often lived in very difficult circumstances.”
“Carrie in many ways was a mother to these people,” writes Dr. Richard Venema. “She saw to it that they knew that they were always welcome in our home.” Relating how helpful his children also were in this ministry, he adds: “Cornel was the darling of the mothers in that he was as fond of the babies and children as they were of him. They welcomed his babysitting and it was not unusual to hear a mother ask, ‘Where is Cornel?’ In fact, one of the mothers named her little baby, Cornel, in honor of him.”
Dr. Richard Venema’s work at Friendship House ended in 1970 and the church subsequently closed. The ministry to Native Americans, however, continued under the direction of two women who had been blessed by it.
Because the Venema family moved so often, Cornel attended several different schools. His original dislike for education may have been due in part to beginning school when he was only four years old. He attended two separate grammar schools in New Zealand. After the return to the States, he attended two elementary schools and a middle school in Michigan. When the family moved to the San Francisco area, he attended Alameda Christian School for a year before graduating. His first three years of secondary education were at Walnut Creek Christian Academy. The family then moved to Iowa, where Cornel completed his basic education at Pella Christian High School, graduating in 1971.
Over the course of the two decades following Dr. Richard Venema’s work at Friendship House, Richard served three different congregations named First CRC: initially in Pella, IA (1970-1975), then in South Holland, IL (1975-1980), and finally in Chino, CA (1980-1989). During these years, he received his M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary (1977), and completed his Doctor of Ministry from Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, IL (1981).
Meanwhile Cornel attended Trinity Christian College for three years (1971-1973) before transferring to Dordt College. Reasons for the transfer may have been primarily personal. On August 27, 1974, Cornel married Nancy Van Gorp, a classmate during his one year at Pella Christian High. Cornel graduated from Dordt in 1975 with a degree in philosophy. He received his B.D. from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1978, and studied at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1978-1982. He was ordained in the CRC in Ontario, CA, in 1982, and completed his Ph.D. requirements for Princeton in 1985. The two Venema families lived in close proximity until 1988, when Cornel was appointed Professor of Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.
While Dr. Richard Venema still served the First CRC in Chino, CA, he made the decision to retire. Because Carrie’s parents were getting older, he and Carrie moved back to their native Northwest Iowa in 1989 to be near them. And Cornel’s family now lived in the area since Mid-America was originally in Orange City. Richard served as interim pastor for three months at Calvary CRC in Orange City, before First CRC of Sheldon asked him to be an interim pastor during its vacancy.
“This I did for 14 months…performing all the duties expected of a pastor,” he writes. “So much for retirement!”
He admits that he was happy to continue an active ministry. He and Carrie rejoiced to finally have an opportunity to build the home they’d always dreamed of owning.
“But the joy we had in moving into our new home was soon shattered,” he writes. “Just two weeks after moving, Carrie was diagnosed with cancer.”
Daughter Karen had fought bouts with cancer for most of her adult life. Now Carrie faced her own cancer struggle. Radical surgery appeared successful and granted Carrie two years’ reprieve.
Although Carrie’s father had passed away, she enjoyed time with her mother and sister. Richard and Carrie traveled extensively during this time period, including trips to Europe that incorporated visits with relatives in Holland as well as with daughter Laura and her family in Germany. But Dr. Richard Venema was never away from a pulpit for long.
“From January to March in 1991,” he writes, “we had the opportunity of enjoying the beauties of Oregon and its coast as I ministered to the CRC in Salem. Following that I spent six months helping the Calvin CRC in Rock Valley.”
Dr. Venema served Ireton CRC from July to December in 1991, and again in March and April of 1992. Then he returned to Salem, ministering to the newly established independent Reformed Church for several months. From October of 1992 through much of 1994, he sporadically served the Doon and Sanborn CRCs.
But Carrie’s cancer had returned and treatment had proved ineffective. When the family gathered for Christmas in 1993, they sensed this might be their last time together. All the children and grandchildren came. Karen and Ed De Young came from Michigan with their two children. They had previously lived in Lethbridge for many years. Ed was the principal of a Christian school and Karen taught elementary school. (Karen would lose her long battle with cancer in May of 2010). Gerard (Jerry) and Patricia brought their three children from Michigan. Patricia worked as a medical technician in a hospital laboratory. Gerard (who’d obtained a Ph.D. in geometric topology) taught mathematics at Calvin College. Richard (Rick) and Ginny came from Georgia with one son. Rick’s Ph.D. in biochemistry prepared him for teaching and research at Georgia State Medical College in Augusta. Ginny also had a degree in biochemistry. Laura and Peter Janoschek brought their four children from Germany, where Laura was a Registered Nurse and Peter was an engineer at Daimler-Benz (Mercedes) in Stuttgart.
“During that time we did a lot of reminiscing of our life together as a family,” says Dr. Venema. “We also looked at hundreds of slides going back all the way to our life in Grand Rapids in my student days.”
As Carrie’s health declined, she and Richard discussed his future. Ever since he had signed the Form of Subscription when he was ordained into the CRC in 1954, he had done his utmost to uphold that pledge.
“I may have had many failings in my ministry and life, but I have a clear conscience when it comes to that pledge,” he writes. “In every church I served I was pleased to have had elders and deacons who willingly joined me in my effort to ‘contend for the faith.’ Again and again we made known our desire to ‘hold to the traditions we had been taught.’ We did so with overtures and letters, in our active participation in the…Alliance of Reformed Churches, which in many ways led to the establishment of the United Reformed Churches. Personally I had been a member of the Reformed Fellowship since my student days in Michigan. This fellowship had come into existence in the early 1950s with the intent of maintaining the Reformed orthodoxy of the CRC. A number of times I served as president of local chapters. All along many of us hoped we could lead the church back to its distinctive Reformed moorings. But as time went on, many of us began to conclude that it was a lost cause.”
Dr. Richard Venema was convinced that his retirement did not free him from the pledge he had made in signing the Form of Subscription.
“Nor did I think that one could lightly leave the church which had given me so much and in which I had served so happily for forty years,” he writes. “However, I came to the conclusion that I did not want to spend the rest of life as a minister in a church which increasingly was departing from its distinctive heritage.”
With the blessing of his supervising consistory at Sheldon CRC, Dr. Richard Venema quietly transferred his credentials to the Dakota Presbytery of the OPC. But Classis reacted by dismissing him. The Sheldon consistory protested that action and requested that, in light of his forty years of faithful ministry, he be given an honorable discharge instead. Classis refused.
During a Dakota Presbytery meeting in Volga, SD, on September 23, 1994, Dr. Richard Venema was examined and received as a minister in the OPC.
“I called Carrie and told her it was ‘like coming home,’” he writes. “To me it was interesting that I was received as a minister in the OPC forty years to the day that I had been ordained as a minister in the Bethel CRC in Sioux Center.”
“I can now testify to the fact that I have had no regrets for my move. Perhaps I need to add that had there been a United Reformed Church federation at that time, I may well have joined this new denomination. But since I did not want to be independent, I chose the OPC as my church home.”
Carrie’s health rapidly spiraled down and on November 9, 1994, she went to be with her Lord.
“She had always been an encouragement to me and always shared fully and kindly in whatever ministry in which I may have been engaged,” writes Dr. Richard Venema. “But now I had come to the sad end of forty-nine years and eleven months of the great life I had enjoyed with her.”
In his grief, he welcomed the opportunity to serve as interim pastor to a newly organized OPC in Anchorage, AK. He planned to be in Alaska for only three months, and agreed to come in May of 1995. Shortly after he had made this commitment, the North Shore Reformed Church of New Zealand sought his assistance. He agreed to spend March and April there prior to going to Alaska. Before he left for New Zealand, he sold the “dream home” he and Carrie had built in Sheldon.
As Dr. Richard Venema’s ministry in Alaska extended far beyond his intended three months, he met Mary Hogan, whom he married in March of 1996. Cornel performed the ceremony while Jerry and Rick were groomsmen.
Richard and Mary purchased a large home with an attached apartment, which they had time to utilize as a Bed and Breakfast while other men served the two OPC churches. Mary planned to retire from her position as a secretary to the Alaska Attorney General in March of 1997, after their return from a trip to Europe.
“However, God had other plans for us,” writes Dr. Venema. Mary became ill while they visited Laura’s family in Germany. After a few days, she felt well enough to take the scheduled train trip to Italy. But she quickly worsened, and by the time they arrived in Milan, she wasn’t even able to walk. Dr. Venema knew no Italian, but he managed to find a doctor. Mary was immediately hospitalized and passed away less than two days later.
“Here ended another chapter of my life, just a little more than ten months after we were married,” writes Dr. Venema. “But I have to say these were a very happy ten months.”
He arranged for Mary’s body to be sent back to Alaska and exchanged his airline ticket for an earlier departure date. When he arrived at the Anchorage airport at midnight, nearly the entire OPC congregation—including the children—waited to meet him.
With the help of Cornel and Karen’s families, Richard continued the Bed and Breakfast business for a year, but eventually decided to sell the house and move into an apartment.
Over the next couple of years, Dr. Richard Venema preached in Anchorage and Wasilla as well as in many other locations including Pella, Sioux Center, Salem, Walnut Creek, Boise, and then for three months in Orland Park OPC before once again returning to Alaska.
During this time frame, Richard was becoming better acquainted with Nijole Liubaviciute, who was from Lithuania, and the two were married on May 13, 1999.
After the Anchorage church received a regular pastor, Richard and Nijole moved to Tinley Park, IL, in September of 1999. Richard served the Covenant OPC in Orland Park and managed Nijole’s cleaning business. In March of 2000, the session of Wasilla again sought Richard’s assistance.“For several months, I would fly to Alaska to preach for two Sundays at a time and then return to Tinley Park,” he writes. “Finally, at the end of August, we sold our townhouse…and moved back to Alaska.”
The next year, Richard and Nijole anticipated traveling to Latvia and Lithuania, where Dr. Venema would teach some seminary courses. Nijole was eager to visit her homeland and Dr. Venema was excited to help the struggling Reformed churches.
Unfortunately, Dr. Richard Venema’s trip, which had been scheduled for September, was canceled due to the tragic events of 9/11. He and Nijole were able to travel to Lithuania in December, although he was not able to teach as previously planned.
His enthusiasm for strengthening the Reformed faith in the Baltic States is shared by Cornel, who was inaugurated as President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary on September 27, 2001, and has traveled five times on teaching trips to Latvia.
In 2002, Dr. Richard Venema was asked to serve as Stated Supply in Helena, MT. From September of 2002 until he moved there in February of 2003, he flew to Helena once a month to preach for two subsequent Sundays.
Although the Helena group grew enough to organize as a particular church, it was beset by problems that resulted in the loss of key leaders and faithful families.
“In the fifty plus years of my ministry, God had always blessed the churches I served with numerical growth,” Dr. Richard Venema writes. “But here we had lost half of our membership, and from then on this ministry suffered in any number of ways with the result that in 2009 the ministry was discontinued altogether.”
“I guess I will never know why the end of my ministry had to be so disappointing,” he admits. “The Lord did show me very vividly that ultimately the success of a ministry depends entirely on Him.”
In November of 2009, Richard and Nijole moved to Chino, CA, and became members of the church he had pastored from 1980 to 1989, which had since affiliated with the URCNA. He finally and fully retired from active ministry.
“Nijole and I are very grateful for our new home in which I hope to live until the Lord takes me to my eternal home,” he writes. “I recognize now that my active ministry has come to an end.”
“Unlike some ministers, I never had long pastorates. There are some pastors who are able to serve well for many years in one church. But my observation is that some stay on altogether too long. I tend to agree with one of my respected professors at Calvin Seminary, R. B. Kuiper, who used to say to us: ‘The church is Christ’s, not yours; therefore, do a good job and move on.’”
Dr. Cornel Venema writes, “The features of my father’s work as a minister that made the greatest impression upon me, and that influenced me significantly were the following: a deep and enthusiastic commitment to the Reformed faith and churches; boundless energy in performing all of the many duties of the ministry; a pastoral heart for all of the church’s members, young and old, rich and poor alike; a strong commitment to evangelism and missions.”
Dr. Richard Venema concludes his memoirs with this: “I praise God for a long and wonderful life. From the time I began preaching as a seminarian in 1952 until I stopped preaching regularly at the end of 2008, I had preached 5,160 times in church services, and 185 times at funerals. Besides there were any number of talks and speeches I gave at various occasions such as rallies, conferences, nursing homes, and so on. I pray that all these messages may have been a real means of grace for many people. With Paul I must confess the words of Ephesians 3, “…to me was this grace given…to minister.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6-12 of the January 18, 2012 issue of Christian Renewal.