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Uncovering the Right Mentor

Illinois District hires a retired pastor to encourage struggling rural ministers.
Rural pastors in the Assemblies of God Illinois District, faced with leading small, often economically strapped congregations in off-the-beaten-track communities, needed a mentor offering rock-ribbed determination and experience, both spiritual and practical.

District Superintendent Phillip B. Schneider believes he found his man in Don L. Wallace, whose 74 years of life took him on a circuitous route to the ministry.

Wallace spent much of his childhood years amid the cotton fields of Arkansas before his family moved to the Chicago area when he was 10. As a young adult, he rebelled against his Pentecostal upbringing, taking on jobs as a bartender, tavern bouncer, coal miner, and trucker — as well as a rough lifestyle, including drug use, to match.

“My parents were good, godly people, but in my younger days I didn’t have a good reputation,” Wallace says with a sigh. “The simple explanation is that I was a sinner.”

The lifestyle eventually proved too much for his wife, Lois. After around two decades of marriage, at age 38, Wallace found himself served with divorce papers and the couple separated, even though Lois still loved him.

“Thank God, one day she called and invited me to a revival service at a little church out in the country, a tiny place called Orchardville,” Wallace recounts. On Easter 1983, Wallace returned to the Lord.

A year later, the couple not only rebounded in a healed marriage, but Wallace had taken to preaching. His first pastorate, a nine-month pulpit stint, occurred at the same church where he repented of his wayward past.

The Wallaces began attending Salem Assembly of God a short time later. Ultimately, Wallace obtained his ministerial credentials and ordination after completing Global University correspondence courses, and became a part-time associate pastor there.

For the next three years, Wallace supported himself, Lois, and two children by working as a truck driver and carpenter. Then, in 1988, the Wallaces took up the challenge of a struggling church in the south-central Illinois city of Effingham.

Though a community of more than 12,000 people, Effingham Assembly of God had no building of its own and barely 60 people in the Sunday morning pews when Wallace arrived.

When Wallace retired two years ago, ending 28 years as senior pastor to settle back in Salem, Effingham Assembly averaged 350 worshippers in two Sunday services, in a church building without debt.

But as the Wallaces, great-grandparents four time over, settled into a quiet retirement, Schneider had other ideas.

“Don and Lois Wallace have been successful pastors in rural communities for more than 30 years,” Schneider says. “They have the ability to speak the language that people in small communities understand. Asking Don and Lois to help these pastors and churches seems like a natural first step.”

Indeed, Wallace’s approach to his new calling is a natural one. As part of a cohorts program crafted by Illinois South Region Executive Presbyter Roy R. Rhodes, pastor of Abundant Life Community Church in Alton, Wallace helps lead two-hour workshops at multiple locations and times each month. Topics range from financial stewardship and pastor-board relations to recruiting and keeping volunteers.

But often his new ministry is more low-key, and personal.

“My wife and I started out just showing up at a church,” says Wallace, now married to Lois for 56 years. “We’d walk in, sit in the back, and familiarize ourselves with that particular church.” Afterwards they would try to develop a relationship with the pastor and board, making themselves available.

Sometimes, he fills the pulpit for a Sunday or two to enable a struggling pastoral couple to take a rare vacation, or when they face family or medical emergencies.

“These are people who love God and are not getting much financially out of it,” Wallace says, his voice briefly choking with emotion. “They are also working secular jobs as they devote their lives to a community and a congregation. It almost is a missionary mindset.”

Currently, Wallace is also mentoring several pastors on a deeper, more personal level, sometimes spending hours at a time counseling a pastor about challenges at church.

“These younger guys need to see me not as some gray-bearded has-been but as someone who’s ‘been there, done that,’” Wallace says. “Thank God, so far most of them do.”

The Illinois District also recently hired Gary W. Grogan as a specialist to mentor young pastors.

Robert E. Mims

Robert Mims has been a journalist for more than 40 years, including stints as a news wire service and newspaper writer and editor. He also had done numerous book and magazine assignments as a freelance writer and editor.