I’ve Been Everywhere is a song made famous by country music artist Johnny Cash. It chronicles, in rapid-fire succession, a lengthy catalog of 80-plus well-known and out-of-the-way destinations traversed by the song’s narrator. For those who know him, it’s not hard to imagine Stan Toler, a long-time harmonizer of gospel trio and quartet music, lending his own deep-throated baritone to this travel song. As a pastor, well-known seminar speaker, church planter, author of 90 books, and general superintendent, he’s covered a lot of ground in over 40 years of ministry. Whether he is flying out of town to speak at a church, mulling over a new book concept, drinking coffee with thought leaders, or updating his Facebook with new photos, he seems to be, literally, “everywhere, man!”
Born in the hills of West Virginia, Toler was called to preach at age seven in the middle of a three-and-a-half week revival. He took his first pastorate at age 17 at Westside Wesleyan Church in Newark, Ohio, and was ordained the following year. In college, he became best friends with noted leadership expert John C. Maxwell. They began a lifelong association and collaboration resulting in Stan serving for many years as vice president of Maxwell’s INJOY Leadership Institute, teaching seminars and training church and corporate leaders. Toler also planted and pastored congregations in the Church of Christ in Christian Union, a network of churches in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, based in Circleville, Ohio. Lacking opportunities in that fellowship and seeking a place to serve, he met with then General Superintendent Jerald Johnson and former District Superintendent J. Wilmer Lambert and was invited to become part of the Church of the Nazarene. Soon after, in 1984, he was elected pastor of Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene. In 2009, he was elected general superintendent at the 27th General Assembly in Orlando, Florida. Grace and Peace Magazine caught up with Toler between stops to ask him how life as a general superintendent had affected his understanding of the church and its mission.
G&P: How has your transition from pastor to general superintendent affected your perspective on the global church?
Stan Toler: It’s affected my worldview many times over. As a pastor, I worked hard to make sure the World Evangelism Fund was paid. I look back now, and I’m very pleased I did because it makes it easier to talk to others about why it’s important. Now, I can see firsthand the work of God around the world. It’s vitally important for missionaries to be sent, for our message to be heard around the globe—now to 159 world areas. Last year, in two nights in Brazil, almost 70 were ordained. It’s great to see the aggressive growth that is taking place throughout South America; our church is growing by leaps and bounds.
Many have heard the story of my relationship with Pastor Adalberto Herrera of the Cali, Colombia, Church of the Nazarene. When we met, neither one of us spoke much English or Spanish, respectively. However, when I said “Juan Valdez,” we were able to have a cup of coffee together. And when I left, he sent six bags of Juan Valdez coffee with me! That in itself speaks for the fellowship of the Nazarene church. I love seeing progress being made, seeing our pastors, hearing their reports at the assemblies. It’s exhilarating to me to know that we’re in good hands, with good people, everywhere I go around God’s big world.
G&P: As a part of your jurisdictional assignment, you’ve traveled through much of South America. What have you learned there that could be a benefit to USA/Canada pastors?
ST: First, everywhere I went, I saw people engaged in passionate worship. Second, they’re intentional disciplers; they’re very strong in discipling people upon conversion. They work diligently to get people the right resources and the right materials, and this is evident from country to country. They’re also teaching stewardship. Time and time again, when I would go to the district assemblies, they were challenged to be 100% on the World Evangelism Fund budget, and more. Over a year ago, they gave $85,000 for Haiti. I also saw responses for brothers and sisters in Cuba, as well as the victims of the earthquake in Chile. They are constantly stepping up and contributing generously. They have a program called Power of One, an outreach initiative that includes many discipleship activities.
G&P: You are serving in a time of worldwide economic recession and shrinking budgets. How has it affected Nazarenes?
ST: This is the first time in my ministry when I can say the church, almost at every level, has faced harsh economic realities; very few have escaped it. It’s been painful, and yet it also calls for great faith. One of my challenges to church leaders is to remember we operate in God’s economy. God still owns it all. Everything we have comes from God’s hand of blessing, and God can do anything but fail. When we find ourselves in difficult times, we must have a resilient faith that says, “God is going to see us through this.”
G&P: In over 40 years of ministry, you’ve led churches and groups with differing views on what it means to be the church. How do we deal with a complex denominational family made up of people of diverse ministry and theological interests and perspectives?
ST: We have to be aware of the need for unity and diversity. The Church of the Nazarene had a big tent when they united in 1908 at Pilot Point. There were things they had to set aside, and things they agreed to do. The best way to do this is to maximize what brings us together, what unifies us. That’s what good pastors and lay leaders do. They find ways to join hands and heart and find what works best. As I’ve traveled God’s big world, not everyone does it the same way. Last year, on the Metro New York District, eight were ordained: one was from China, one from Barbados, one from Pakistan, Japan, Korea, Brazil, the Caribbean area, and finally, one from the United States. That is a reflection of the diversity of cultures and outreach initiatives we have to deal with daily as pastors of local churches—as well as general superintendents— in trying to unify the effort for the cause of Christ.
G&P: How does the Church of the Nazarene continue to make inroads in secular societies and make its message relevant?
ST: If you provide hope for people, you’re always relevant. Years ago, I was made aware of a slogan for the Greyhound Bus Company that’s always stuck with me: “If you focus on basic needs, you’re always needed.” That’s a wonderful way to provide ministry to a community. What are the serious needs in our community, and how can we meet those needs? They are different in every community; there’s no cookie-cutter approach to ministry. We must have a one-string mentality: find out what you do best, then play that string until you get good at it. Then you can start adding more to your ministry. When those various ministries work well, and the instrument is finely tuned, you can do quality ministry.
We also have to find ways to involve young people in ministry. That’s what kept me in the church—someone was always asking me to do something, to participate. We have to passionately pursue young people with the message of hope and love.
G&P: You have a long-time friendship with John Maxwell. In what ways has he impacted your thinking about pastoral leadership?
ST: John’s line was always, “Never do ministry alone.” That’s probably one of the most incredible statements he ever made to me. John also taught me that the mundane is important; we have to be faithful and responsible in the little things of life on a day-to-day basis. I was his only staff member, and I just served wherever I was called. This taught me sensitivity to staff members and what they’re dealing with, what they’re going through. John is the consummate leader, and he taught me your message is always your platform. You’ve got to know your message; you’ve got to articulate it well. In his newest book, he says it is important to bring your communication down to the level where people can understand it. How will the person who drives a truck for a living hear this? Then, out of the abundance and overflow of your life come your illustrations and platform for preaching and leading. John particularly taught me you have to lead from the pulpit. You have to signal the direction of the church clearly. It makes no difference if you’re an expositor, and you preach verse-by-verse, if you use the lectionary, or if you’re creative and topical in your style. You still have to lead from the pulpit. The style of leadership must be infused in your message. As did the prophets of old, you have to be willing to say, “Here’s the path, here’s the way, walk in it.”
G&P: You’re an avid reader. What books have recently impacted your thinking?
ST: I read three to five books per week. E-books are very helpful to me since I can read them on my iPad. Reading helps me to stay attuned to society. Never Eat Alone, a secular book, spoke to me about how important it is for pastors to know their people and to know them well—not just meeting them when they need to accomplish a task. Another book that has been particularly significant, especially in light of this major global recession and the challenges we face as a church, is the biography of former General Superintendent R.T. Williams (Roy T. Williams: Servant of God), released in 1947. It was written by G. B. Williamson, who was also a general superintendent. Williams served during the Great Depression. He had to deal with many of the same things we are dealing with today: the financial reverses and so on. Yet, he kept his vision and stayed on point as a leader. Many felt he was the glue that held the church together in those days—he was the confident, positive voice in the midst of dark times. That book has been especially meaningful to me. I’ve also been re-reading co-author H. Orton Wiley’s Introduction to Christian Theology, as well as his three-volume Christian Theology. Nazarene Publishing House has made that available for 99 cents to every pastor who wants to download it, and I’ve enjoyed that very, very much.
G&P: You’re attempting to make holiness classics available to ministers everywhere. Tell us more about this initiative.
ST: Thirteen different Wesleyan groups have put a team together to identify an essential holiness collection. To say they’re all classics, perhaps, is a misnomer, but they’re all important to our story and our history. Currently, we’ve identified 359 books. We’re interested in editing them and making sure they’re culturally sensitive without changing the message. Our goal is to make them available to all movements and in multiple languages to help spread scriptural holiness around the world. We have been encouraged by Nazarene Publishing House, who just reintroduced “100 Centennial Classics” in eBook format.* We’d also like to recover video and audio resources that would preserve the legacy of holiness preaching as far back as we can get those materials. It’s an exciting venture of faith, requiring some sponsorship to get there.
G&P: Church historian Martin E. Marty says the church needs to do a better job of telling its story. How do you respond to that?
ST: We have to tell the story. I wrote the history of three different churches where I served. You have to know where you’ve come from. Oklahoma City First Church was founded by evangelist Uncle Buddy Robinson on May 10, 1910. When I became the church’s pastor in 1984, the first thing I said was, “Tell me your story.”
I was greatly impressed at the M11 conference in Louisville that every service had a video story about someone who had found Christ. Months ago, I was in the Mid-Atlantic District, and missional stories were shared all day. They called it “Living the Story.” One pastor came to the platform to share about his church plant. He said, “I was born into a Hindu family, and a kid down the street invited me, when I was in eighth grade, to go to church with him. And I found Jesus, and now I’m a church planter.” As I listened, I had tears in my eyes. These are stories that need to be told around the world. They’re not just happening in South America, Asia, and in Africa, but right here in the United States. God is miraculously intervening and churches are being built. What a powerful witness and what a great way to tell the story!
G&P: Is social media an effective way for churches to communicate?
ST: I learned very early that informed people are happy people. Social media provides a tremendous way for the church to communicate well. I have over 5,000 friends on my Facebook page, and I’ll tell you what’s exciting about that: when I say I’m on the Washington Pacific District, and we’ve just ordained five people, all of a sudden I get 70 people who “like” that. Or I’ll say, “I’m on my way to Rio Bamba. Pray for us today.” And people do! On my birthday, I received 869 birthday wishes. Social media is a great way for pastors to affirm people and observe what’s going on in their daily lives. It’s not that difficult to send a private message and say, “I’ve prayed for you today.” I used to do it by handwritten notes; this makes it so much easier. Many churches send me their updates. I feel like I’m much better informed. And I love getting those newsletters and messages, and yes, even complaints! It’s a tremendous way to share, even to share the gospel, to tell the story about what’s going on in any church, anywhere in the world.
G&P: How is the Church of the Nazarene working with our sister holiness denominations?
ST: Our Board of General Superintendents has been dutiful in trying to connect with other denominations. It’s been my assignment, along with General Secretary David Wilson, to bring different groups in for meetings. We discuss how we can work and partner together. At minimum, we will develop a global Wesleyan Alliance that will work toward various causes. We want to partner as a church with our brothers and sisters across denominational lines and see if we can impact our world with the message of heart holiness.
G&P: During the 2009 General Assembly, you spoke on ministry to immigrants. Some delegates wanted the Church of the Nazarene to restrict its ministry to only legal immigrants. You disagreed. What motivated you to do this?
ST: When I pastored, I started a bilingual service to Hispanics with Pastors Sergio and Gabby Rodriguez. I knew the issues our church dealt with in terms of immigration. The state of Oklahoma actually discussed whether people coming to church would have to have a green card. My view has always been the gospel is for every creature, that the message cannot be selective. While I’m not going to suggest that anyone do anything illegal, I would say our message of hope and love is a message for every person; we must embrace the needs of people regardless of their status in the United States. Every person deserves to hear the message of the gospel of Christ.
G&P: What are the greatest challenges facing the Church of the Nazarene between now and the next General Assembly in 2013?
ST: I believe we have to challenge every district around the world to join together in committing 100% to everything we do. This is not a time for shrinking back but for stepping up and doing our best. We live in a changing world, and we have many issues we must continue to respond to: world hunger, social justice issues, and so on. I like to think in terms of both social redemption and spiritual redemption. As we move forward to our general assembly, our connections and partnerships with other holiness denominations is something we cannot ignore. We must work toward maximizing our gifts, resources, and graces in a unified effort. I see this as a response to the general assembly resolution that said for us, as a board and as a movement, to look toward partnerships that would make us stronger in fulfilling what Wesley called “the goal of spreading Scripture holiness around the world.”