GOD IS PROVING, THROUGH THE LIFE OF PASTOR JOHN STUMBO, THAT HE IS STILL IN CONTROL
Imagine a group of church leaders sitting down to pray and dream about the future, drawing up their long range plan. Included are two new Saturday services, hiring additional personnel, partnering with another church in reaching out to the community, strategically joining with a ministry in another country, starting a building project. Sidelining the lead pastor. WHAT?
Imagine being the lead pastor at a large church. You are a visionary who foresees, with God’s blessing and grace, amazing things ahead. You are greatly loved by your congregation, respected in the community. You are in excellent physical condition, running marathons. You are working on your doctorate. You are steering the largest building program the church has ever undertaken. In the blink of an eye, it seems, you can barely talk and can’t get around without a walker. WHAT?
The week of October 19th, 2008, John Stumbo, the lead pastor at Salem Alliance Church, thought he was coming down with the flu. When he didn’t improve he was checked into the hospital. He stayed there for 77 days. Five times his wife, Joanna, was advised that she needed to come quickly because he wasn’t responding. It was bad and it was frightening.
Fast forward, months later…
John is suffering from a disease that the doctors call dermatomyocitis, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the muscles and has left him in a very weakened state. He has lost 45 pounds from his original weight and because the muscles that aid in swallowing were affected, he has to receive his nourishment through a feeding tube. The average person swallows 1,000 times each day, but John can’t even swallow his own saliva. His voice is an agonizing whisper. His heart and his vital organs are fine. His memory and mind are as sharp as they’ve ever been. But since he was allowed to go home last February he has been in constant discomfort, dependent on Joanna and other caregivers to help him with almost everything he does. Doctors cannot tell him what the future holds. John is 48 years old.
In the meantime, what has happened to the church whose dynamic, brilliant leader was struck down in his prime? Everyone, to a person, would agree that, even though we are a better people for John’s ordeal, our hearts have been broken by the things he and his family have had to experience, and never-in-a-million-years would we have wished for this to happen. As we walk with him through this journey we have all shed many tears, asked many questions of God, and have had to come to grips with the knowledge that, simply put, God’s brain is not like ours, operating on a different dimension. We do believe that God weeps with us and that what John, his family, and Salem Alliance are going through deeply matters to him. We also know that God is in the business of redemption. He will use this for his purpose, and the good will be magnified to a much greater degree than the pain. We continue to hope. One night last November, over 1,000 people gathered – with four hours notice – to pray for John.
Others prayed in their homes. That was one of the times God brought him back from the brink of death. John later told the congregation, “I had my hand on death’s door, but I had about three thousand of you pulling me back. I didn’t have a chance to get into heaven with all of you people praying for me.”
There have been other corporate prayer times – at Salem Alliance and at churches all over the world – and millions of individual prayers offered on John’s behalf because we believe that John is “one touch away” from being completely healed, that God is able to remove this curse from John in an instant – if that is his will. As we anticipate that day we are sensing the Holy Spirit’s closeness in a new way as we lay John’s needs, as well as those of the church, before our all-powerful God. Many people, young and old, are making decisions to become followers of Jesus Christ. Life isn’t going on as normal. We’ve changed. We go deeper. Things we took for granted are now reasons for thankfulness. God, through John, has touched the hearts and lives of his people in unique ways.
And John perseveres. He can slowly walk a mile on his treadmill. He continues to minister to literally thousands of people throughout the world on his blog (johnstumbo.org or salemalliance.org) where he shares insights into his mysterious journey. John writes very well, and his story is an honest, gripping, encouraging, heart-breaking, challenging, and sometimes humorous tale. The comments that are left on the blog demonstrate that he speaks to many people where they are, helping them with their own trials, their own pain.
On recent blogs John discussed fifteen elements of persevering that he clings to, that have helped him personally. Included in those are suggestions to keep praising God, to rely on what you know to be true and not what you feel at the moment, to intentionally look for humor in the circumstances, and to take on day at a time, knowing that some are going to be more difficult than others.
This past June, John, of his own initiative, stepped down as lead pastor of Salem Alliance Church and has been reassigned to a part-time associate pastor role. As we wrestle with exactly what that will look like, we know that God has a plan and it is perfect.
We are thankful that, in God’s providence, Salem Alliance has a preaching TEAM. Ours has not been a “one man show” so even though John is terribly missed, his absence has not been devastating and the church has moved forward in health. One of the associate pastors, Steve Fowler, has been appointed as interim lead pastor. Others – staff and volunteers alike – have stepped up to the plate, filled the gaps, worked many extra hours, poured their hearts into their calling – to honor God and to honor John.
We are all in this together, for the long haul. John is not leaving us and we are not leaving him. We are committed to the Stumbo family, in whatever form that may take in the future. (John and Joanna have three children – one married and two in college.)
When asked about how the family is handling this crisis, Joanna said, “After being married for 26 years, we thought we knew our script pretty well. We thought we had a good idea of what our future looked like. But working through this illness has forced us to learn improv. We’re making it up as we go.”
On John’s office wall is this prayer: “O Lord, may the power of my example far exceed the authority of my position. Amen.” It is evident that John’s awe-inspiring example is touching lives in ways he never imagined and in ways that are more far reaching than a “position” could have taken him. And we don’t know the end of the story yet.
On June 24th, when John spoke briefly to the congregation (at all five services!), he said, “God is in this and God is good.” At another time he commented, “I never would have chosen to lose my health and be in the situation I am in, but I am trusting that God’s ultimate purposes will be fulfilled.”
That is the embodiment of faith.
Before retiring, Natalie Warren served on the pastoral staff at Salem Alliance church for eleven years. She graduated from Westmont College and took several short-term mission trips to Guinea, West Africa, and Jordan. Currently Natalie serves on the Governing Board of Salem Alliance, enjoys spending time with her eight grandchildren and, along with her husband Jim, lives in rural Monmouth, Ore.