Every Pastor Needs a Harvey Chaffins

Our family consists of seven living creatures. Five are humans and two are animals. The first nonhuman family member is a skittish and annoyingly nocturnal hamster named Snowball and the second is a rotund and lethargic cat named Holly Chaffins.

Her first name is Holly, because she was born around Thanksgiving time and we adopted her just before Christmas. Her last name is Chaffins, because it reminds us of very special friend.

I met Harvey Chaffins 17 years ago. And even though he and I were separated by 50 years in age,Harvey became a dear and trusted friend. We shared many common loves that fostered a special connection.

Nowhere was this connection any more apparent than when my family chose to name our very first feline, to the horror of some and the delight of others (including Harvey), “Little Harvey Chaffins.”

“Big Harvey Chaffins” (my oldest son differentiated between man and animal by calling the man “big” and the cat “little”) was in his mid-seventies and I was in my mid-twenties when I became his pastor. I was very young and had lots of ideas and passion but at times lacked tact and wisdom. As often happens in these kinds of situations, some of the older folks in the church began to struggle with all the change I was promoting.

It was at this point that Harvey stepped in. While he did not agree with everything I did at the church, he loved me and wanted the best for both church and pastor. Driven by this love, he came to my office one day and informed me that he would once again serve in formal church leadership. His reason for doing so was simple, he thought he could help. “You’re young and I’m old. I can say things you can’t and get away with it.”

Things did not end up the way either of us would have liked. With time and distance to give me perspective, it seems fair to say that neither the church nor I have ever been quite whole since those hard days. But the lessons I learned from Harvey have stayed with me. By his example he taught me, he taught all of us, what it means to function with grace.

Harvey’s gracious and loving spirit allowed him to follow and come alongside a pastor much younger than himself. Grace seasoned his conversation with me and with others. Even when Harvey had to confront me or say hard things, I always knew he loved me.

I never got a chance to tell him (Harvey passed away in 2005), but Harvey Chaffins— “Big Harvey Chaffins”—is one of the main reasons I am still in ministry. When I didn’t believe in myself, he believed in me. When I doubted my calling, Harvey never did. When I resigned from the church as a hurt and hurtful 29-year-old,Harvey still believed that God was not done with me even though I thought He might be.

It may seem silly, even disrespectful to some, but our current cat’s name is Holly Chaffins because it reminds us of a very special and beloved person. It reminds me of a mentor, a friend, and role model without whom I would know much less about grace: “Big Harvey Chaffins.”

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