Who is the Wisest Man I’ve Ever Met?
“Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family.” Proverbs 18:24. MSG
I hired Gary Shrader over the telephone. I was 26. Gary was 24, green and newly graduated from seminary.
Our fledgling church needed a youth pastor. I received Gary’s resume and was so impressed that I didn’t even bother to bring him out for an interview. I noticed on his resume that he was valedictorian of his high school class. I thought that anyone who was valedictorian would be a great hire. Several months later, I discovered that there were only 13 in his graduating class. Gary pulled up to the church with a tiny U-Haul trailer. I asked, “Where is the rest of your stuff?” “This is everything I own,” he replied.
Hiring Gary was the best decision I ever made.
He was a splendid youth pastor. He was also hilarious. I loved his rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot, Short and Stout.” Imagine Gary painting lipstick around his belly button and making it talk. He played foppish King George in the Christmas Pageant, the Young Messiah, and brought down the house. He dressed as Albert Einstein when he played the Bionic Baptist in a sketch promoting missions. Gary sat on the lap of our Education Pastor and played a ventriloquist’s dummy. Gary, the deadpan puppet, told so many jokes off the cuff that people were falling out of their chairs. No one at youth camp can ever forget the story about “Diarrhea: it runs in your jeans.”
Gary was the only one brave enough to accompany my wife Julie on youth mission trips. I tried to go once. I almost had a nervous breakdown. Julie was scatter-brained and was never afraid of anything. Gary was not afraid of Julie.
Gary was our only eligible bachelor. He was a catch. Young women lined up at the door of the church office hoping to curry Gary’s favor. Only one woman won the prize: Gary’s heart. Jan Wooten became his bride. Jan was a pastor’s kid. Gary had a formidable father-in-law. When Pastor Henry Wooten performed Gary and Jan’s marriage ceremony, Henry said, “Do you promise to love, honor and cherish this woman?” Gary replied, “Yes.” Henry snarled, “If you don’t, I’ll break your neck!”
Gary is one of the most spiritual men I’ve ever met. We were leading summer camp in the mountains of Northern Arizona. Gary and I got up early every morning to go to the chapel to pray. Long before there was ever a Prayer of Jabez book, I heard Gary praying the prayer of Jabez for himself. I heard him pray for God would expand his boundaries. God answered his prayer. He mentored young pastors and missionaries all over the globe.
He was loyal, honest and faithful. He was always forward thinking, adaptable, open to change. That’s why he succeeded in every pastoral position he assumed. Gary was a renaissance man. I once asked him, “How did you get so wise?” He admitted that driving a tractor on his Oklahoma farm gave him time to think. Perhaps we all need to spend time on the farm. Billy Graham did also!
My friend gave me the best advice I ever had. Once upon a time, we were facing a church split and I was deciding how to handle it. Gary appeared at my office door and said, “Roger, now is the time the average pastor does something stupid.” I kept my mouth shut as Gary advised, waited it out and God worked it out.
I remember when I was a 30-year-old pastor with PTSD, the church leadership recommended I take a sabbatical to recover. I assigned Gary the job of holding the church together until I returned. He did.
He gave his wise counsel in a number of different ways. He had the ability to sit quietly in a meeting, synthesize everything that was said, and then frame an answer that was directly from God and imminently practical.
For example one of our worship leaders committed adultery. I was traumatized. I wasn’t sure to make it public. Gary encouraged me to handle it up front with the congregation. I preached the Sunday service. I preached on what to do biblically when a church leader sins, and Steve, head of our counseling department, shared with our congregation how to heal their grief and disappointment. Speaking the truth in love allowed the couple to stay in our church for a time, and paved the way for an easy staff transition.
Gary was my go-to guy. Whenever the church had a problem, I asked Gary to fix it. We had a charismatic Sunday school teacher who convinced 100 people to follow him and make his own church. Instead of getting angry and vengeful, Gary said to pray a blessing over all of them. A year later, his church fell apart and most of our former members returned. It was our blessing that opened the door for their return.
He was quite versatile. During his career he was a youth pastor, a missions pastor, a church administrator and an executive pastor. Gary excelled at every post. He was the steady hand that kept our ship aright.
Gary consulted on every decision to hire church staff. I wanted his advice. He was an excellent judge of character. Gary helped me select hundreds of church personnel over the years. He helped me fire a few, too!
Gary and I were always passionate about growing the church. We made an attendance chart on the back of the bathroom door in my study. Every Monday we would look at the numbers and see if we were doing enough to reach people for Christ. We were chatting in my tiny bathroom one Monday afternoon and Elsie Robinson, my secretary, knocked on the bathroom door. She looked in the door, saw both of us crammed into the tiny bathroom, shook her head and left.
Gary called the 1980’s the “Camelot Years” at Casas. There was only one level of staff, we were all good friends, and the church was exploding. But we outgrew our old site.
It took twelve years to re-locate our church to a 100-acre plot five miles north of our church. We faced almost insurmountable obstacles. Gary stood beside me in every challenge we faced. He helped coordinate the sale of the old property and secured continuing income for the Casas ministries today. Gary orchestrated plans to get the church debt-free by the time I retired. And he did!
One thing that most impressed me was Gary’s vision to make our church a mission-minded church that spanned the globe. Casas gave millions of dollars to support world missions, and sent out hundreds of missionaries. I remember one summer we had over 500 people involved in long and short-term mission projects overseas.
Gary and Dwight Nelson travelled to India to do mission work. Gary asked for bottled water. He looked out his window and saw the waiter fill a plastic bottle with a water hose. Gary also ventured to Kenya and went off into the bush to take photos. Suddenly a nearby elephant trumpeted and began to charge. He escaped to his tent not knowing if he and his wife would be trampled underfoot. Finally the elephant lost interest and lumbered away.
When the Libyan Embassy became available in Pakistan, our church purchased the building. I assigned Gary to start a seminary for native pastors. We trained several hundred pastors over the next few years. It was all Gary. I never even went.
Gary coordinated our 40-year partnership with Pastor Roberto Morales in Mexico. He also coordinated short-term mission trips throughout the year with our sister church. Pastor Roberto expanded his ministry throughout Mexico and Peru. What a legacy!
Gary was a fabulous teacher but he hated to preach. He taught me what to do if ever I accidentally said a bad word in the pulpit. Gary was preaching on Jonah and used an illustration about a garbage scowl that confessed, “I wanted to be a beautiful ocean liner and all I ended up being is a stinking shi*.” He kept right on going. Everyone in the congregation said, “Did he really say that?” Gary never admitted it. I used his sage advice the next time that I bungled my words. I kept on going. I adopted his recommendation. “If you try to fix it, it will always be worse.”
Gary had a personal prophecy for me. He said that my ministry after 55 would be greater than before. I grieved having to retire early for health reasons, and Gary’s words rang true when we began our web ministry. Preach It, Teach It fulfilled my dreams to help pastors and missionaries around the world. I counsel pastors on every continent every day. Our site reaches millions. His words have always given me God’s perspective instead of my own.
He was a great encourager. When I was down, he had an open door to listen. The one thing I remember most was that Gary was always at my side. In every phase of my ministry, he never left.
When I suffered through so many health challenges, crises and criticisms, Gary said, “Roger, you are the toughest man I ever met.”
He was wrong. Gary was the toughest man. He fought a battle for his life. Inoperable brain cancer was his greatest challenge. He handled excruciating pain and relentless setbacks with grace. He even laughed in the face of adversity. Jan, his faith-filled wife, showed grace every day in his suffering.
I have never known anyone like him. I will always love him and admire him. He truly is the friend who sticks closer than a brother.