While Rev. Robert W. DeVries has officially retired twice, he continues to be active in the ministry. He served for several years as the Clerk of Classis Eastern US of the URCNA, and still fills the vacant pulpit of the New Haven URC in Vermont a few times per month.
Christian Renewal recently interviewed him via email about the highlights and challenges of his ministry.
CR: Rev. De Vries, you graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1955 and first served the CRC as a home missionary in Franklin Lakes, NJ, then as the congregation’s called minister. In 1963, you accepted a call to Framingham, MA, where you served until 1970, when the Lord brought you to Rochester, NY, for nine years. You then served the Northside congregation in Clifton, NJ, from 1979 until your first retirement in 1993. You became a member of the URCNA, associating with the New Haven congregation, and retired again in 1997. What were you doing during the period between and subsequent to these two retirement dates?
Rev. De Vries: In 1993, my wife and I retired to our New Hampshire vacation home, which we had winterized. It had been our plan to ultimately move to Vermont where we had a Reformed church, and in 1999 that move was realized.
I had learned in 1998 that I had colon cancer, and following surgery and radiation treatments, we made the move to Middlebury, VT. Here I received all my chemotherapy treatments, and God was gracious in conquering my cancer.
Sadly, in 2001, we learned that my dear wife of 53 years had pancreatic cancer. She suffered for about nine months before the Lord mercifully took her home. Although I had conducted countless funeral services during my ministry, it was at this time that I truly learned experientially the meaning of grief and loss. The Lord wonderfully brought me and my children through it all, learning to lean upon His mercy.
CR:What were some of the highlights of your ministry?
RDV: This is really not an easy question; I could go in many directions. I think that I would answer it by saying that the highlight of my ministry is the ever-growing humbling awareness that God has called me to serve various congregations as His mouthpiece!
For me this is a huge challenge. For many years of my ministry I had a small plaque hanging by the doorway of my study that reminded me, each time I left my study, of the staggering responsibility of what I was to do. The plaque was a prayer of J.H. Moulton, which reads, “Oh, if mine own words should on Thy Word falling mar the great message, and men hear not Thee!” Whenever I was required to take God’s Word and explain it to a congregation, to a class, or to an individual in need, this prayer gripped me.
I confess that I have not always felt this formidable aspect of my calling, but as maturity grew on me, both physically and spiritually, I was increasingly struck by this challenge. In fact, as I was reading the Puritan, Richard Baxter, I came across similar thoughts that stirred me as well. Baxter is quoted as saying, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and a dying man to dying men.” What an awesome calling—to preach the very Word of God!
CR:What have been other challenges?
RDV: Your questions don’t get any easier.
Well, of course, there were many—challenges with congregational difficulties, challenges identifying with the struggles of fellow members, and challenges with understanding difficult texts from the Word. Were I to bundle these together in a general challenge, I would say that it was most frustrating for me to witness the hardening of the hearts of those covenant people who knew better.
It was the painful combination of watching a professing believer surrender to the subtle enticing of Satan, as well as my own acknowledged weakness in turning them around. My personal frustration fluctuated from pleading to scolding to impatience, and even to annoyance! I guess that my frustration was mostly with my own degrading reaction. But God’s grace, age and experience have brought with it a more biblical approach immersed in prayer and in the patience of the Lord who hounded me for so many years.
CR:What do you mean by the Lord hounding you for so many years?
RDV: Bear in mind I said this in the context of my frustrations in dealing with those who were drifting away from the faith they once claimed.
I say “the Lord hounded me” because this is how I see God’s persistent grace in bringing me to himself. My birth mother died when I was ten years old, and my immigrant father was severely tested—without church support. We drifted from the church and from the Lord for some six years. My father remarried an unbelieving wife, which initially made things worse as far as our drifting was concerned.
While we were drifting, God was working! An unbelieving young man had moved from Juno, Alaska, to the Los Angeles area. He was converted, went to the Bible Institute of Los Angela, Wheaton College in Illinois, and to Princeton Seminary in New Jersey. A small Presbyterian church in New Jersey was searching for pulpit supply, and the Seminary provided this young man. He was an evangelical who brought the gospel to this village church. My drifting father learned of this, and brought my step-mother and me there.
We heard the gospel. Thanks to God’s “hounding” Spirit, my father was revived and became an elder, my step-mother was converted, I was converted, and I met the woman of my life, who had also been converted under this young man’s ministry. Such is the relentless, “hounding” of our sovereign God, who unfailingly brings that lost sheep to himself!
And this I needed to remember when dealing with others who were drifting away.
CR:What have been the greatest rewards of your ministry?
RDV: This is quite simple—the greatest reward would be the opposite of “my biggest challenge.”
I’m not sure that there is a greater reward this side of glory than seeing God’s Spirit work in another’s heart to finally “see” the amazing grace of God in Jesus.
CR:What do you view as the crucial issues facing the church today?
RDV: The church always struggles with a balanced managing of doctrinal purity and compassionate living.From my little corner in Vermont, I cannot be expected to sense the issues of the URC or of Reformed churches in general; but one issue that surfaces in my context is the limited perspective that we often have of our church. Too often we have parochial view of the church that is limited to our own federation, or even to our own congregation.
This gives the impression that we don’t care about what God is doing in other Reformed assemblies. Tragically, this parochial attitude can sometimes be focused on our own believing community, to the exclusion of the broader community in which we function. Sometimes our preaching is only to the believing congregation that we serve, to the neglect of the lost in our broader community.
One way to broaden our perspective of the Lord’s work is more intensive reading. We are blessed with good Reformed scholarship that can challenge our minds and views so that our concerns are broadened. We have the opportunity to deepen our own biblical understanding; and to broaden our outlook on God’s work by reading the work of missionaries and other theologians.
CR:What advice would you give to young pastors?
RDV: Whatever advice I’d give them would hopefully be in the spirit of humility. Quite simply, I would suggest that they preach the Word faithfully; that they love the Word. I would suggest that as pastors we not only master the Scriptures, but have the Scriptures master us.
I would also suggest to know the members of your congregation and to tailor your message to their level. Too often sermons go above the heads of the membership. And, also remember the unbelievers tucked away in the pews! Worshipers experience varying levels of spiritual maturity. Not all have Christ in their hearts, and we pastors need to make God’s Word clear to the simplest mind. Theological terms, terms in foreign languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or even Dutch) don’t always resonate with every worshiper.
CR:What advice might you give to any believer?
RDV: Here my answer can also go in any number of directions, from devotionally reading the Bible to cultivating a more intense prayer life, from analyzing the gifts that God has given them to using them for the honor of God in the congregation and in the community. But, under all of this, my prayer for every believer is that they not lose the sense of amazement at the marvelous grace of God for them. Of course, amazement at God’s grace only comes about with a corresponding sense of the heaviness of our personal sin. Only when a believer is astonished at God’s love and mercy will their service of God move from duty to delight!
The above interview by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 22 & 23 of the February 12, 2014, issue of Christian Renewal, as part of the “Shared Wisdom: Tapping into the experience of seasoned ministers” series.