Remembering Charlie

By Dick Koehneke

I first met Charlie Mueller in 1969 or 1970, when I was a vicar at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hicksville (Long Island), New York.  Charlie was the devotional leader at a gathering of pastors in the New York City area.  My vicarage supervisor graciously invited me to attend with him.  When I heard Charlie speak, I remember thinking, “What a cool and dynamic guy!”  Little did I know what the next 50 years would hold.

When I was ordained as a pastor in 1971, Charlie was beginning his second year as president of the LCMS Southeastern District.  Through the placement process I had received a call to serve Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Kannapolis, North Carolina.  As district president, Charlie wrote a letter authorizing my ordination at my home congregation, Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois.  It was a beautiful letter, so warm and encouraging. 

After I had been at Mount Calvary for a while, Charlie made a personal visit.  He arrived at the parsonage about fifteen minutes early.  When I commented on his early arrival, Charlie said that he liked to come early “to get a feel for what was really going on.”  Understanding what was going on was something he loved to do, and he was excellent at doing it – as his “Just Watching” letters and articles demonstrated for many years.

At one of the District’s pastoral conferences, Charlie and a group of pastors (myself included) were talking about pastoral ministry.  Charlie said that it takes about 20 years of ministry for a man to become a good pastor.  I was maybe in my third year of ministry at that time, and I thought, “Come on!  I’ve got a good idea what it’s all about right now.”  Now I would say that at the 20-year point I was just starting to figure it out. 

Once when Charlie was chairing a District convention, he was talking about something.  Maybe it was about marriage and the family, maybe not.  All of a sudden he said, “You know, I’m so happy being married to Audie that I could just sit in a corner and giggle.”  Isn’t that beautiful?

In 1993 I came to Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Sometime in 1994 I contacted Charlie.  I believe he had just retired from Trinity Lutheran Church in Roselle, Illinois.  I asked if I could come to Roselle to meet with him to discuss large-church ministry.  As we were talking over breakfast he asked me, “Do you want Holy Cross to grow?”  I said, “Absolutely.”  He said, “I’m glad you didn’t ask if I meant spiritually or numerically.” He didn’t believe in separating the two.  As I recall, he said he believed that healthy church growth is “total, organic, and comprehensive.”  He was right.

From 1999 through 2001 I served in the first group of facilitators in PALS (Post-Seminary Applied Learning and Support), the LCMS initiative to help new pastors make the transition from seminary to parish ministry.  The new pastors were in a small group of other new pastors for three years, meeting for six 24-hour retreats each year, facilitated by an experienced pastor.  I saw Charlie at the Kansas District church workers’ convocation in 2000, and we started talking about PALS.  He offered to come to my group of six new pastors for one of our 24-hour retreats to talk with them about pastoral ministry.  He said he would come at his own expense.  He came and of course he did a fantastic job of talking with them, not at them.  All of us in the group came away refreshed and encouraged.  

I loved Charlie’s one-liners.  They are highly condensed wisdom.  Here are three examples.

“All of us are smarter than one of us.”

“When in doubt, don’t.”

“Choose your enemies carefully.”

One of my favorites was something he said when he was talking about working with people in complicated ministry situations: 

“Love ’em through it.” 

I’ve learned the wisdom of that one over the years, sometimes as the giver of the love and more often as the receiver.

In 2011 Charlie and Rich Bimler invited me to write something for their new website, Rich and Charlie Resources.  They have continued to extend the invitation, so I’ve kept writing something every month.  It’s been an indescribably wonderful honor and privilege.  It’s kept me touch with two fantastic people named Rich and Charlie.  I thank God for both of them.

Charlie was a keeper of the flame.  He remembered people from the past and celebrated their accomplishments.  He also fanned the flame.  He applied their insights to our current situations so that we can serve faithfully in our generation as they did in theirs. 

Charlie Mueller did even more than keep the flame and fan the flame.  He shared the flame with those who were willing to take hold of it.  I’m thankful beyond words to have been touched by his torch for 50 years.  Now he has passed the torch to us.  Let’s keep it, fan it, and share it!