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First in an occasional series on long ministry
Richard Hornok attended Dallas Theological Seminary and planned to become a pastor. Before graduating, he heard about a tiny church plant on the border of Texas and Arkansas, in a city called Texarkana. “It was basically just a little Bible study meeting on Sunday mornings,” he said. Hornok arrived at the church with his newly pregnant wife, Vicki, expecting to stay three or four years before moving on to bigger and better things.
“We thought we were going to take on Texarkana and show them how it’s done,” he said. “We were as cocky as could be.” Three or four years turned into 35.
Ministry was harder than Hornok anticipated: The church grew slowly, and some congregants negatively compared him with other potential leaders. Some criticized personal decisions he’d made, such as financing a car and avoiding being alone with any woman not his wife.
But a few older church members loved and encouraged Hornok and his wife. Several times, when the couple wondered whether to leave, other pastoral positions simply did not open up. Ultimately, they always felt convinced God wanted them to stay.
Decades of preaching to the same people has kept him sharp. His wife takes meticulous notes in her study Bible, and Hornok said if he changes his position on a passage, she calls him out. He tries to preach new passages to deepen his Biblical knowledge: Last summer it was Obadiah.
Another benefit to staying at the church has been long, deep relationships. Hornok baptized one man, performed his wedding, attended his children’s births, then years later officiated his wife’s funeral when she died of cancer. Now Hornok meets with the man and his new fiancée to help them prepare for marriage. “If I’d bounced around to other churches, I would have maybe had the experience of doing one of those things,” he said. “I am getting to do all of life with him as his pastor.”
Staying in Texarkana has also earned Hornok the community’s respect. People ask his advice and value his opinion: Once, FBI agents consulted him as they strategized regarding local cult leader Tony Alamo.
But pastoring the same church for decades comes with challenges. Hornok can’t preach the same way he did in the 1980s: Society has changed, and he needs creativity to communicate and offer relevant applications. He sees people using their smartphones during sermons and knows if he bumbles a Greek term, someone will fact-check him.
Eight years ago, some disillusioned congregants became enamored with other local churches and asked, “Why can’t we be like them?” Their comments made Hornok wonder if it was time for a change. He interviewed with several churches, but none hired him.
To Hornok’s surprise, the process helped to reignite his passion for his own church. The other churches’ consideration affirmed his preaching and ministry skills, leading the 61-year-old pastor to conclude, “You can do this, and you can do this well all the way to the end.”