Dr. Cornel Venema and his wife, Nancy, never expected they would lead a tour group in Europe to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But in God’s providence, they were in Germany on the actual date marking the event.
Tony Aguilar, representing Levia Tour in New York City, contacted Dr. Venema and asked if he’d be willing to host a tour that included stops to significant sites in Reformation history.
“The itinerary was already in place, although I asked them to make a few changes after I agreed to work with them,” Dr. Venema explained. A concern that Wittenberg would be too busy on October 31 led to scheduling that visit a day earlier; a good move since many dignitaries were in Wittenberg for a celebration on the 31st and the tour group wouldn’t have had access to the Castle Church and other important sites for security reasons.
The group of 50 participants visited sites in Germany, France and Switzerland on the Reformation Jubilee Tour, which took place October 28-November 9, 2017.
The tour began with a worship service in a famous Lutheran church in Berlin. Dr. Venema preached from Romans 3:19-4:5 about Christ as the just and the justifier. Rev. Mark Minegar (Allegan, MI) led the group in prayer. Nancy Venema played the organ.
On October 30, the group took a bus to Wittenberg, where they visited the monastery that eventually became Luther’s home. Another site was Phillip Melanchthon’s house, and participants also viewed the Castle Church door, where Luther had nailed his 95 theses 500 years earlier.
This was one of the most memorial days for Rev. Ed Marcusse of Immanuel’s Reformed Church (URC) in Salem, OR, and his wife, Denise. The couple enjoyed this once-in-a-lifetime trip as a gift from Rev. Marcusse’s current and former churches in celebration of his 25 years in pastoral ministry.
“Standing in front of the door of the Castle Church where Luther posted the 95 these was moving,” said Rev. Marcusse, “but even more interesting was touring the ‘Luther House Museum’, which the German government organized in commemoration of the 500-year anniversary.” He explained that when Luther married, Prince Frederick the Wise gave the then-empty monastery (where Luther had lived and taught) to him as a wedding gift. “This may seem like quite a large gift for one couple (the building is HUGE), but by the time he marries, Luther’s fame has spread all over Europe and on any given night he has between 30 to 300 visitors staying with him in order to soak up more of his teachings. His new wife, Katarina, feeds and houses them all. The daily life of the Reformer was well-chronicled in this museum.”
It was on the second floor of the former monastery that Luther frequently met with students after dinner for theological discussions. Notes taken during these “table talks” were published after Luther’s death.
To celebrate on October 31, tour members began the day with worship. They then traveled to Erfurt, the city where Luther attended university, became a monk, and was ordained a priest. Part of the day included a trip to Wartburg Castle near Eisnach. When Luther left Worms after being declared a heretic, Prince Frederick arranged for Luther to be “kidnapped” and hid for ten months at Wartburg Castle. During this time of seclusion, Luther translated the New Testament from the Greek into German, a step that propelled the Protestant Reformation forward. People now could read these Scriptures for themselves.
On November 3, the tour bus stopped in Worms, Germany, and participants visited the Cathedral where the Diet condemned Martin Luther of heresy. The visits to Wartburg Castle near Eisenach and to the Cathedral in Worms, where Luther took his stand in 1521 in the presence of the young emperor and an assembly of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, were highlights for Dr. Venema.
“Both of these places were pivotal in Luther’s reformation career, and you could not but be impressed by the courage that he was given by God’s grace to take his stand for the gospel and the authority of the Scriptures in the face of likely martyrdom,” he said. “North Americans, with our strict appeal to the separation of church and state and our history of religious freedom, have almost no sense of what Luther was facing and of the tremendous implications of his reforming work for the church and the Christian life in the world.”
The tour continued into France and arrived at Strasbourg, where participants visited the famous Cathedral as well as the homes of John Calvin and Martin Bucer. On the journey to Switzerland, the bus crossed a section of Germany and stopped at Constance. Group members viewed the building that housed the Council of Constance from 1414-1418.
Although the Council’s primary purpose was to deal with the schism caused by three men claiming to be the Pope, the Council made a sad and significant decision related to the Reformation. It condemned the Czech priest Jan Hus as a heretic and sentenced him to be burned at the stake.
The execution of Hus took place 102 years before Luther posted his theses. It’s interesting to know that Hus is reported to have said, “You are about to burn a goose [Husa in Czech means “goose”], but in 100 years a swan will arise that you will not be able to kill.”
A Lutheran church now stands at the place where Hus was executed, and tour members had a worship service there on the second Sunday of the trip. Rev. Marcusse preached from 2 Timothy 3:15 on Sola Scripture.
“It was personally moving for me to do this,” he said. “As I preached, the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ mentioned in Hebrews was running through my mind.”
The tour went on to Zurich, Switzerland, where Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger lived and worked. In Lucerne, tour members viewed a famous lion sculpture and the highly-photographed Chapel Bridge with its octogan-shaped Water Tower. The group then traveled through the Alps, enjoying breath-taking vistas of some of its highest peaks.
The final day of the Reformation Jubilee Tour was spent in Geneva. Rev. Marcusse was impressed by seeing “Calvin’s church and especially standing in Calvin’s auditorium, across the street from his church, where every weekday at noon he would teach, working his way through Bible books verse by verse. These talks were written down by faithful scribes and turned into transcripts, which we hold in our hands today as his commentaries.”
Reflecting on the trip, Dr. Venema found it “sobering” that “many of these events and sites are long forgotten in a Western European society that is post-Christian and often ignorant (even hostile) toward its own history.”
He also sees a need for North Americans to develop a more balanced perspective. “I believe Christians, especially Reformed Christians, in North America face two challenges when considering the sixteenth century Reformation. The first challenge is not to ‘idolize’ a particular moment in history, to romanticize it, and to think that we need only to return to the past rather than continue to seek to be faithful to the Word of God and the gospel of salvation by grace alone. The second challenge is to recognize the importance of history in the unfolding of God’s purposes through time, to become better students of our own history so as to understand and appreciate more our reformation heritage and its continuing significance for the church’s life and ministry today.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 11 & 12 of the February 9, 2018, issue of Christian Renewal.
On November 30, 2015, the Lord took home to glory Dr. Richard J. Venema at the age of 93. He served many churches in multiple federations and was well-known within the Reformed community as a forthright defender of God’s truth.
Writing a memorial piece always carries the danger of either idolizing or idealizing a man, but Richard Venema’s frankness was apparent to all who knew him. At the funeral service held in Sheldon, IA, on December 15, his son Dr. Cornelis P. Venema read from a message sent by his brother Rick: “For all my life, I thought of Dad as a good father, even though he was hard to get along with sometimes—” at which point, murmurs of amusement rippled through the gathered family and friends. Everyone, it seemed, understood that about Richard Venema, but also knew him as a passionate man of God.
Noting that his father would not want a eulogy, Dr. Cornel Venema said he’d like to share one thing: “He had not only many years of life, but they were full of work and labor for the Lord.” He added, “He, together with my mother, served a number of churches in a variety of circumstances and places. Dad proved to be a blessing to many.”
Some of the ways he blessed many were evident in a continuing stream of communication to the family. Some people expressed not only sympathy, but also how Richard J. Venema influenced their lives.
On the Helena funeral home’s website, Sally Apokedak (who now lives in Georgia but attended the OPC in Wasilla, AK, while Richard Venema served there) wrote about how his booming voice frightened her children, but they always ran to hug him after the service or when he visited.
“Richard Venema was a pastor at heart,” she says. “I was struggling in a certain situation, and I’ll never forget him standing over me and yelling, ‘You forgive, you forgive, you look at Jesus on that cross and you forgive.’ And what could I do but obey? I could easily have gone a whole different direction at that critical moment. He shouted at me because he loved me and he invested much time and energy into my family. Pastor Venema was seventy-nine years old by the time I met him, and serving as pulpit supply, but he wasn’t coasting. He was working while it was yet day. I trust he’s hearing a ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ right about now.”
At the Sheldon funeral service, Rev. G.I. Williamson, an ordained OPC minister and associate member of Cornerstone URC in Sanborn, noted that Richard Venema had examined him when he came to New Zealand in 1963, but that he examined Richard in 1994 when Dr. Venema became affiliated with the OPC.
Preaching from John 14, according to Richard Venema’s expressed instructions, Rev. Williamson stressed the resurrection of the body. He noted that being born again, the first resurrection, is good. Departing from the body to be with the Lord is better. But the bodily resurrection on the day of the Lord is best. He said, “When Christ returns, Richard J. Venema will be seen again.”
At an earlier service held December 4 at Emmanuel Chapel in Helena, MT, Pastor Jonah Barnes also preached on John 14. He prefaced his message by saying, “When I visited Richard in the hospital…he made sure that I would not spend my time…speaking highly of him. He told me, ‘Keep it short,’ and…I am not here to direct you to Richard, but to the King who has conquered death and lives to die no more.”
He said, “Christ lived the perfect life. Richard did not, neither can you, or I. But Christ has come as the way, the truth, and the life….’” The text of his entire message can be found at: jonahmb.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/richard-now-triumphant
Richard James Venema was born on April 15, 1922, near Hospers, IA. He and Carrie Van Surksum were married in 1944. He initially resisted the call to ministry, successfully raising turkeys with his father and farming for some years. But in 1947, he followed the Spirit’s leading to pursue college and seminary training in Grand Rapids. He was one of the Calvin students who became known as the “sacred seven” for taking a stand against liberal teaching.
Nevertheless, he faithfully served the CRCNA for most of his ministerial career. He graduated from Calvin College in 1951, from Calvin Seminary in 1954, and was ordained that same year in Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, IA.
Under the direction of the CRC Board of World Missions, he was on loan to the fledgling Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) from 1958-1963. Upon returning to the States, he served the Harderwyk CRC in Holland, MI, from 1964-1966. The CRC’s Board of Home Missions then called him to the Friendship House, a ministry for Native American Indians in the San Francisco Bay area (1966-1970).
He served a series of First CRCs during ensuing years: Pella, IA (1970-1975), South Holland, IL (1975-1980), and Chino, CA (1980-1989). In 1981, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, IL.
While serving First Chino, Dr. Venema decided to retire. In 1989, he and Carrie moved to northwest Iowa to be near her failing parents. Only two weeks after their move into their newly-built dream home, Carrie was diagnosed with cancer.
Treatments granted a reprieve. The couple traveled extensively interspersed with Richard’s stints as interim pastor at Calvary CRC in Orange City, First CRC in Sheldon, Calvin CRC in Rock Valley, Ireton CRC, Doon CRC, Sanborn CRC, and the CRC in Salem, OR. He served some of these congregations more than once and also ministered to the newly-established independent Reformed church in Salem for several months.
As Carrie’s health declined, she and Richard discussed his ecclesiastical future. He was convinced that retirement did not free him from his Form of Subscription pledge to uphold the truth. He was examined and received as a minister in the OPC in 1994. A couple of months later, Carrie passed away.
He made a commitment to serve a newly-organized OPC in Anchorage, AK, beginning in May of 1995, but first returned to New Zealand to serve the North Shore Reformed Church for two months. In 1996, he married Mary Hogan in Anchorage. She passed away only ten months later, while the couple traveled in Europe.
In subsequent years, Dr. Venema preached in Anchorage and Wasilla as well as many locations in the contiguous US: Pella, Sioux Center, Salem, Walnut Creek (CA), Boise (ID), and three months at Covenant OPC in Orland Park (IL).
He married Nijole Liubaviciute in 1999. For several months, he flew to Alaska to preach for two Sundays before returning to their home in Tinley Park. The couple then moved to Alaska, but he soon was called to serve as Stated Supply in Helena, MT. For several months he flew there once a month to preach for two subsequent Sundays. In 2003, he and Nijole moved to Helena, where he served until that church was discontinued in 2009. They moved to Chino, CA, and affiliated with the congregation he had previously pastored. After being received by the URCNA in 2010, he finally and fully retired from active ministry.
In 2013, Richard and Nijole moved back to Helena and attended Emmanuel Chapel, a congregation associated with the CREC (Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches). He passed away on November 30, 2015, after a brief illness.
He is survived by his wife, Nijole; his children Gerard A. (Patricia) Venema of Grand Rapids, MI, Richard C. (Virginia) Venema of Augusta, GA, Cornelis P. (Nancy) Venema of Dyer, IN, Laura (Peter) Janoschek of Aalen, Germany; son-in-law Ed De Young (late Karen) of Lethbridge, AB; step-daughter Ieva; 14 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren; sisters Theresa (Peters) and Melvina (Marlowe Pranger) Vander Linde; sisters-in-law Audrey (late Henry) Venema and Norma (late Alvin) Venema.
I’ve seen some great pictures of Dr. Richard J. Venema, from the one of Montana’s governor recognizing him for 50 years of ministry to the leonine profile on his online obituary. But my favorite remains the one of escaped kittens playing around his feet while he performed the outdoor marriage ceremony for my husband and me.
Because I, too, am one of those people whose lives were changed by his gruff and passionate love for me and the Lord.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 16-17 of the January 13, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.
Cheyenne, WY, may bring to mind its world-famous rodeo and Frontier Days that have attracted visitors for over 100 years, or perhaps the Warren Air Force Base, command center for the US Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.
But the city is also the site of the annual Cheyenne Reformation Conference hosted for the last four years by Northwoods Presbyterian Church (PCA).
Conference organizer Dr. Alex Ramig explains its goal: “The conference focuses on bringing seminary quality teaching to Wyoming and is certainly unique in our state and possibly even in the entire Rocky Mountain, USA, region.”
The 2013 Cheyenne Reformation Conference, held on October 11 & 12, featured Dr. Cornel Venema speaking on “The Last Days: The Unfailing Promise of the Future.”
A Friday evening concert led off the conference. In Session 1, Dr. Venema spoke about “The ‘Signs of the Times’ and Christ’s Triumph,” showing how in the “Olivet discourse” of Matthew 24 Christ comprehensively describes what will occur during the time between His first and second advents.
Session 2 on Saturday morning, “The Millennium and Christ’s Triumph,” explored John’s extraordinary vision in Revelation 20 (which has been interpreted in different ways) about the reign of Christ and His gathering of the nations.
In Session 3, Dr. Venema used 1 Corinthians 15 to show Paul’s encouragement to the church with the truth of our “Resurrection Hope and Christ’s Triumph” over death.
Session 4 focused on “Promised Rest for Christ’s Church and Christ’s Triumph” by examining Paul’s instruction in 2 Thessalonians 1 regarding the certain promise of Christ’s return and rescue of His church.
The sessions were followed by a question and answer period, and Dr. Venema preached at the morning worship service of Northwoods Reformed Church on the subsequent Sunday.
Over 80 people attended the conference, most from Wyoming, but others from Colorado, Nebraska and Texas. Attendees indicated that the conference exceeded their expectations and they would recommend it to others.
“I received many informal comments of appreciation,” relates Dr. Ramig. “Especially noted was Dr. Venema’s scholarly knowledge, his ability to communicate effectively and his pastor’s heart.”
Pastor Bob Hemphill, Laramie Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), expressed his thankfulness to conference organizers: “By God’s grace, you ran another excellent program from speaker to subject, to registration, to books, to food and to music. All was worthwhile, delightful and well-organized. It’s a great blessing to have this annual conference in our state.”
Previous conference speakers have included Dr. Scott Clark, Dr. Dennis Johnson, and Dr. Derek Thomas. The 2014 Cheyenne Reformation Conference is scheduled for October 24-25 with Dr. Joel Beeke.
Reformation celebrations are rather rare in New Zealand. Yet churches belonging to the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) hosted some significant Reformation-related events in 2012.
Rev. Leo de Vos says about a meeting held on Reformation Day in the Reformed Church of Silverstream, “Some of our churches are not inclined to have services on special days while others are not used to holding any service to recognize the Reformation, so this was rather new.”
The Silverstream meeting was one of several stops on a New Zealand tour by Mid-America Reformed Seminary president, Dr. Cornel Venema, who traveled with his wife, Nancy, and others from the Mid-America community between October 23 and November 10. In addition to the Silverstream Reformation event, which was held in the Wellington area, Dr. Venema spoke at two conferences and preached on two Sundays at locations on both the North and South Islands.
“We were very thankful for the number who came,” says Rev. Peter Moelker. “We had pastors and members attending from the Reformed Churches (RCNZ), but just as many from outside the RCNZ, including Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist.”The Reformed Church of Avondale hosted the Auckland Reformation Conference 2012 on October 26-27. Between 100 to 120 people attended the conference on “The Supremacy and Finality of Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Venema spoke in three lectures on the supremacy and finality of the word of Christ, the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and worship through Christ.
“In that the Reformed churches of any stripe in New Zealand are all relatively small, it was a great opportunity for mutual encouragement in our desire to be faithful witnesses of the Lord in this increasingly pagan city,” says Rev. Moelker. “We had been praying that the Lord would prepare the way and that the Word spoken would be particularly helpful and challenging to us in our context. The Lord certainly answered that prayer.”
While in the Auckland City area, Dr. Venema also spoke informally at a breakfast meeting of pastors and office-bearers about recent theological discussion regarding the Two Kingdoms/Natural Law view.
At the Silverstream event on October 31, Dr. Venema focused on the finished work of Christ our mediator, based on Hebrews 10:19-25. He pointed out that worship should be a great privilege since Christ has opened the way and we no longer must worship through priests or sacrificial ritual.
“Approximately 150 people attended and sang beautifully,” says Rev. de Vos. “We do sing the roofs off of our churches in New Zealand! I believe that many people appreciated recognizing Reformation Day and the wonderful gospel message preached.”
The Reformed Church of Dovedale hosted the second conference, which was held at St. Christopher’s Anglican Church in Avonhead (Christchurch) on November 2-3.
“We deliberately held the conference at this church hoping to attract some of our local evangelical Anglican brethren, but sadly (for scheduling reasons as much as anything else) none came,” explains Rev. Andre Holtslag. Still, about 60 people attended each of the three lectures on “Contemporary Challenges/Opportunities Facing the Evangelical and Reformed Churches.” Under that theme, Dr. Venema addressed challenges to preaching as the principal means of grace, challenges to the churches in evangelism, and challenges to the Reformed understanding of Christ’s Kingship (the Two Kingdoms/Natural Law debate).
“The response has been quite favourable with folk benefitting from timely reminders about these important truths,” shares Rev. Holtslag. “We are hoping to make this conference an annual or bi-annual event as the Reformed faith needs wide exposure. I believe the addresses on preaching and evangelism were very helpful as we too can so easily get sidetracked by this new idea or that fresh approach.”
Dr. Venema, who spent several childhood years in New Zealand while his father, Dr. Richard Venema, served congregations there, had meaningful visits with many old friends and acquaintances. He was most moved, however, by the vitality of the churches.
“The New Zealand churches are few in number, and relatively small in size, but I was encouraged by the wonderful singing of the congregations (would put us to shame, I think), the simplicity of the lifestyle of the people, and even the openness of the young people of the congregations,” he says. “My father wanted so much to go along with us, but his age and health wouldn’t permit it. He would have been ‘pleased as punch,’ to use one of his favorite expressions, to see the vitality of the churches. I don’t mean to paint too rosy a picture, but I was personally moved by the visible evidence of the Lord’s faithfulness from generation to generation in building and preserving his church among the Reformed Churches in New Zealand.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 10-11 of the January 16, 2013, issue of Christian Renewal.
Regular readers know I write for Christian Renewal, but may not be aware that I also write for Mid-America Reformed Seminary, which is located south of Chicago in Dyer, IN. As Contributing Editor for the Seminary’s newsletter, the Messenger, I usually write a few articles for each issue and this week I wrote and submitted four.
You can find PDF files of the Messenger issues from recent years here.
Mid-America’s home page currently contains a couple of items under “News” that I wrote: one short piece about the Seminary’s recent graduation and a link to the most recent alumni profile on Brian Allred.
I’ve written several of these website profiles, posted in the form of interviews with students and alumni, which you can find here. Alumni profiles have featured Valentin Alpuche and his ministry to the Hispanic population in Chicago Heights; Ken Anema, Bill Pols, & John Bouwers, who all graduated from the Seminary the same year and still serve their first churches; Mid-America Board member Jon Blair, who began attending Mid-America at the age of 40; and Brian Allred who taught at the university level for several years prior to attending seminary.
Part-time student Carl Gobelman adds huge commutes and classwork to his full-time work. Student Roberto Rossi has served as a missionary in the Ukraine. Prior to attending Mid-America, student Jeffrey Scott and his wife worked as house parents for disadvantaged children in Chicago’s southside while he attended Moody Bible Institute and worked summers as an electrician.
It’s fascinating to interview these different students and pastors from such a wide range of backgrounds, ecclesiastical fellowships, and geographical areas. The hope is that readers find the interviews interesting, too.
But most of my time for Mid-America involves writing newsletter articles. This week I wrote articles on graduation, its international spring banquet, a Board of Trustees report, and the final chapel service of the academic year with a student award and gift. You’ll be able to read those articles in the June issue ofthe Messenger.Watch for it!
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.
Dr. Cornel Venema teaching in Riga in 2006
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.