David Potete and I did not even know each other when I emailed him in January of 2002 to tell him I wanted to be his youth pastor.
I had visited his church, but the group I was with was so big that we didn’t even shake hands. So I’m sure he thought I was crazy contacting him cold turkey with that kind of pronouncement. But he was a few years into planting a church and really wanted the help. So he did his due diligence to make sure I wasn’t a doofus, and he welcomed me aboard.
No one in my family had ever been a pastor. I was fresh out of college and a blank slate for how to be one. He had over 20 years of experience at that point and had a lot to pour into someone. It was a perfect match. And even though we didn’t know it at the time, we were about to embark on an epic, biblical mentor-protege journey.
I should note that David has done (and continues to do) the same with many other associate pastors in his church. One thing that was unique about me, however, was that I was single. And I was able to work part-time teaching ESL out of the church auditorium for years. This meant we saw each other frequently and had a ton of impromptu meetings in his office.
We talked about everything from TV shows to preaching to how to biblically help homeless people to why I was single for so long. He let me borrow or straight up gifted me more books than I could count. Some meetings were counseling for me, while others were just to briefly catch up. All were based on him sharing his life with me; not just his church visions and pastoral wisdom, but even conversations about food and fiction books (and he constantly, always, offered me his candy and cookies). We laughed and cried and bonded in ways that I did not know before. And those times were like gold to my pastoral, spiritual and personal development.
Yet I cannot box in his influence in my life just to those one-on-one times. I could discuss essential things about pastoring that he taught me for days. But today I want to write about the most important. These are things I have carried with me into my first month as a senior pastor at Bear Point, as I seek to be a biblical mentor to others:
David taught me that pastoring is being there for people when it is utterly inconvenient.
I always knew that if I needed Dave at 3:30 AM in the dead of winter, that I could call him; and, if it was even remotely possible, he would come. I know this because he did it. He gave me and my wife airport rides at ungodly hours more than once. On several occasions, the battery in our car died, and Dave came every time I called. Even twice in a day on one occasion. And perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this is that he never seemed annoyed by any of it.
No one I know, pastor or not, does more sacrificial acts for other people than David Potete. I’ve often said that if you know him, he has probably helped you move, or gone downtown with you to support you in court, or shoveled your snow. Or all of the above. He even gave a kidney two years ago to a non-blood relative. Because it is who he is.
David taught me to speak the truth in love.
I can preach tough topics boldly from a stage, but I struggle when I am with a person one-on-one in telling them hard truths about themselves. Dave may have had internal struggles with this at well, but it does not stop him from doing it. Because he has integrity. More than once he and I would be having lunch with someone or in some counseling session, and I would know the person needed to hear something they probably didn’t want to hear. And David courageously would say it.
But he never did it arrogantly or rudely. With his nonverbal communication and choice of words, he would communicate humility. And that he loved the person he was talking to. He balances truth and love as well as anyone I’ve ever met. It is extremely easy to emphasize one over the other. So he reminds his people often that “The hardest thing to achieve in the Christian life is balance.” Yet he succeeds consistently himself.
David taught me that truth often, though not always, lies in the nuance.
If you are a regular reader of Rambling Ever On, you probably have noticed that our staff tempers many of our opinions on serious topics. And that we avoid using many extreme statements on controversial issues. Steve Lytle even wrote an article about it.
For my part, I learned this from Dave. He and I spent hours talking through topics that people want to be simple and even simplistic. Yet he never settled for that. He viewed some truths as gold to be mined for, to be worked for, to be given mental sweat to discover. And he took me along for the ride, meaning I’m forever indebted.
Yet on the important topics, like the life and work of Jesus Christ, he is unashamedly bold and straightforward.
David taught me to let others be the hero.
One time when I was one of three bi-vocational associate pastors working with Dave, I was looking at our sermon schedule. And I saw our names a bunch. So I did the math—he as the senior pastor had only preached 35% of the sermons that year. If you attend Northwest, this isn’t a surprise. Thanks to Dave, this has been the DNA of the church.
And I not only often preached, I did at least 25 baptisms during my time there and did communion and baby dedications dozens of times. I was given free reign to cast a sub-vision (being bilingual) to his greater vision (reaching the people in our neighborhood no matter who they were). David was extremely unselfish with the leadership spotlight.
Additionally, this was often done in very subtle ways. There were times someone in the church would have a question about some apologetical topic. And he would send them to me, lauding my knowledge on the topic and downplaying his own. Then I would later be in his office, and I would see that he’d read several books about it himself. And, if I cleverly asked the right questions in a private setting, I would see he knew quite a bit about the subject himself. He is an extremely well-read pastor but is so eager to point to others this often gets overlooked.
David taught me that table fellowship is probably the best way to deepen relationships.
David and his wife Pam are two of the most hospitable people you will meet, and they use their house to welcome people for meals, short stays and even not-so-short stays (I lived with them for months when I moved to Chicago, until I got a job and my future roommate Josh moved up so I could split an apartment with him).
They have used their home, and especially their dinner table, as a powerful ministry tool. On several occasions, they’ve invited the whole church for Sunday lunch. And 70+ people showed up. If you know the Potetes, you know they will never see it as a sacrifice. Because they love it.
David taught me to appreciate humor, laughter and abundant life.
Very few people I know really seem to relish life on a day-to-day basis as David does. He definitely mourns when it’s time to mourn and takes appropriate things seriously. Yet he laughs a lot, creates inside jokes with close friends and finds joy in the smallest things. For example, once he and I were driving and he was hungry. And he found some fresh potato chips in his car. He fist pumped and shouted as though the Cubs had won a game. It was hilarious.
He would buy me Christmas gifts to remind me of some joke we had shared. Because he knew it would cause me to lose it laughing. He would put notes in the Sound booth (like “More Cowbell” on the soundboard volume controls). Regularly he would put a Snickers bar in my church mailbox. All of this was him finding out the things I enjoyed and using them to make me happy and create subtle moments of deeper friendship.
Dave’s joy is infectious and in a very proactive way. Because he cannot live any other way.
I cannot pay him back, so I now pay it forward….
I could write 100,000 more words on this and still not say enough. But, as God has led me and my family to our first senior pastor position, I think about these things all the time. They were, and are, crucial to preparing me for this. And even without what I am doing now, they made our 17 years together a very Paul-and-Timothy type relationship. David Potete is a biblical mentor in the strongest sense of the word. As a result, I am blessed to have been one who got to experience it as profoundly and for as long as I did.