“God Bless You, Buddy”
A Tribute to Wallace Kephart for His Eightieth Birthday
It would be very difficult to overestimate the positive influence of Wallace Kephart in my life over the last two decades. The Lord has used Wally in countless ways to encourage, challenge, support, and shape me. I can’t imagine what my life and ministry would be like if God had not intersected our two paths.
Wally’s influence on me began before I had ever heard his name. In the early 1990's Wally sat on the Board of Regents of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), my alma mater. By serving on that board, he helped to forge, shape, and protect the first-rate seminary education which prepared me theologically to be a pastor in the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA).
And he had also formed a friendship with both the director of placement at Trinity and the district superintendent of the EFCA’s Allegheny District, so that when I was looking for my first pastorate and Lanse EFC was looking for their next pastor, Wally already had the relationships in place to build that bridge.
Wally was the chairman of the search committee that invited me to candidate at Lanse Free Church in the spring of 1998. I still have a file of printed-out emails that we exchanged during that time. How exciting! Each conversation led us closer to the eventual call. We both saw the Lord’s hand guiding every step of the process. And we prayed for each other using this relatively new medium of email. I sent prayer requests for term papers and final exams. Wally sent me lists of men that he was praying for to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Some of those men are now leaders in our church! We’re still praying for others together.
Heather and I stayed at Wally and Nesta’s that candidating weekend, and they showed us around central Pennsylvania. One morning, he woke us up early and took us out to Blue Knob to join the youth group on their spring retreat. While Heather napped in the backseat of the Aurora and we crested Sandy Ridge, Wally began sharing with me the details of all of the difficult struggles that the church had gone through over the last ten years of its history. He didn’t want there to be any painful surprises after I became the pastor. I was so encouraged by his transparency and clearly evident care for the church family and their prospective pastor.
After I was called to pastor the church, Wally agreed to be the church chairman for the next full year and then allowed himself to be re-elected two more years just so that I would have continuity and faithful support at the top leadership level as I found my feet as a rookie pastor.
Wally also got me involved in the broader EFCA right away. He encouraged the church family to make it a part of my job description to be credentialed and to attend district and national conferences. In fact, Wally and Nesta took us to our first national conference in Albuquerque just two weeks after the start of my ministry! Wally is a big part of the reason that I am so heavily involved in the EFCA today.
And if those initial things were all that he ever did, I would be forever in Wally’s debt because the foundation we laid then still stands 18 years later. But that’s not all he ever did for me! Wally has continued to faithfully minister alongside me, to support me in innumerable ways, and to challenge and encourage me to follow Jesus Christ with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength. I’m pretty sure that after eighteen years now, I’ve been his pastor longer than any other pastor he ever had in the last eighty. But he’s also been a pastor to me this whole time.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from watching Wally in action:
Wally is a man who is driven. He’s always looking for more. More growth, more disciples, more development, more prayer, more giving, more blessing. He never lacks in vision. In eighteen years, I’ve never gotten ahead of him in wanting more for Lanse Free Church. I often lag or drag behind! His desire for more hasn’t grown less with age even as he’s begun to slow down some. But it’s not a desire for more glory to him. He’s always looking out for the good of others and especially for glory to his Lord. And he doesn’t try to achieve all of this on his own power but by abiding in Jesus because without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).
Wally is relentlessly positive. He can find the up-side of anything. When I first came as the pastor of LEFC, I discovered that a group of teenagers was loitering out in the church parking lot on Saturday nights all summer, potentially causing mischief. Wally’s response? “I’m glad they’re here and not somewhere else. What can we do to get them here on Sunday mornings? What can we do to reach them for Christ?”
Wally is not naive. In addition to the silver lining, he can also quickly identify the down-sides and problems going on around him. But he doesn’t let those negatives capture his focus. He brings a potential solution to every problem, and he believes that God will turn things around in His good timing.
For many years, long before I entered my D.Min program at Westminster Theological Seminary, Wally took to playfully calling me, “Doctor Mitchell.” He could see that it encouraged me, and I think he could see my future–that I would eventually get my doctorate. His positivity certainly helped make it happen!
Wally never stops acquiring knowledge and skills. You might think that he would eventually take a break and rest on his laurels, but he continues to get out his Bible at church, to attend Sunday School, to go to a men’s Bible study, to read good books, to listen to teaching on the radio and television. Every week at church, he tells me a story of something he learned over the last seven days. And it’s not just spiritual things. He’s always developing a new ability or new understanding of how things work in fields like mechanics, engineering, or communications.
Did you know that Wally believes that you can’t out-give God? I’m sure you’ve heard him say it! Wally has learned through experience that God loves (and blesses!) a cheerful giver. Time after time, I’ve been the recipient of Wally’s generosity, especially of his time and expertise. When we were building our house, Wally let me set up my doors and cabinets in his garage to paint and stain for weeks on end! He’s been at our house running a tractor to plant a lawn. He’s loaned us cars and equipment. He’s given me hours of counsel on various problems that I’ve had to solve. And he never complains; he just gives.
If that’s true for me, how much more is it true for Lanse Free Church. I doubt that the hours of service that Wally has put in could be counted up. He’s driven and fixed buses. He’s sat on boards and committees. He’s kept our lawn mowers running. He’s shown up early and left late. I don’t know how many bags of trash I’ve seen him tie up and carry out to the dumpster. I remember when he was about seventy, finding him on his knees laying cement down to level a floor in an office. He never stops giving.
Wally has also influenced our church family to be generous. He always sees worthy projects, missions organizations and ministries in which we could be involved. So many churches have an inward focus, but due in part to Wally’s influence, our church is always giving to others. And you know what we’ve learned? You can’t out-give God!
Wally prays. He doesn’t just say that he’s going to pray for you; he prays for you. And he is a champion for prayer and prayer meetings. I’ve been to more than one thousand prayer meetings with him since 1998 and maybe as many as two thousand when you count them all up. When I first came as pastor, Wally suggested that a few leaders meet to pray with me before Sunday School gets rolling every week. That weekly prayer meeting continues today. Last year, he started an extra monthly “Harvest Prayer Time” to pray for those folks in our spheres of influence that need to trust Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Just last Sunday, he challenged the entire church family to personally pray five minutes every day for loved ones who need the Lord in their lives. Prayer never goes stale with Wally. He is always looking for the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes Wally and I disagree. We don’t share the same perspective on every single thing, but even when we’re on opposite sides of an issue, I always know that Wally is for me. He’s always looking out for my best interests. Through thick and thin, Wally sticks with his family, his friends, his church family, and his association of churches. His loyalty is not blind, but it is steadfast. He lives out the love of 1 Corinthians 13, “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (v.7).
Wally could never get involved in politics because he is such a straight arrow. He couldn’t run for office because he doesn’t know how to lie. Wally is a straight-shooter and always tells you how it is. He can be kind of blunt sometimes; however, the Bible says “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6). You don’t have to worry about not really knowing where you stand with Wally, and he’s committed to trying to get on the same side of the problem as you.
Always sharing the Lord.
You knew this one was going to be last. Wally has a heart for the gospel. He wants people to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. He knows that God desires for people to not perish but to come to repentance, so he goes after them with the good news. He is focused on reaching men, especially businessmen like himself, to trust in Jesus with all their heart and lean not on their own understanding but in all their ways submit to him so that he would make their paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).
The thing that Wally cares about the most is that the people he cares about the most know the Savior that he cares about the most. Nothing would please Wally more than to know that he had a part in you coming to know Jesus yourself.
I could go on and on, but you can see how I’ve been blessed by knowing Wallace Kephart. I’m thankful for the last eighteen years of his eighty, and I look forward to being his pastor and friend for as long as the Lord will give us.
On Sundays after church, Wally always shakes my hand on the way out of the worship service and says, “God bless you, Buddy.” And that’s what I say back to him today on the occasion of his eightieth birthday.
Wally, you’ve been a blessing to so many, especially to me. God bless you, Buddy!
-Pastor Matt “Doctor” Mitchell