What Mike Riley Taught Me About Leadership

On February 25, 2017 my friend Mike Riley won his valiant thirty year battle with cancer and went to be with the Lord. I learned so much about life and discipleship from my friend and elder Mike. Among the many things I learned from Mike were a number of lessons about leadership. I can only relate to Mike in terms of our common connection at the church. I don’t know how he functioned in other settings, but I expect others had similar experiences with him in the various groups in which he was involved.

Early every Tuesday morning the elders of our church meet and pray together for the needs of those in our church and community of which we are aware. The empty seat at that table still catches my attention. In the Sundays since he was last able to worship with us I have missed seeing him in his second row seat beside Mignon, his rock, inspiration, and lifetime love. In his roles in public life Mike demonstrated some wonderful habits of leadership that I not only want to remember but to emulate. I can’t say that they originated with Mike, but he demonstrated them with excellence.

*SMILE AND BE FRIENDLY. I can’t think of many more admirable qualities than to be able to smile and bring out the smiles in others. Mike had a ready smile and easy laugh. This served to diffuse any tension in the air and gave everyone permission to relax. Anyone meeting Mike for the first time would quickly feel that they had gained a friend. Truthfully, they had.

*SHARE OUT OF YOUR PAIN. Mike’s decades-long battle with cancer gave him a sharp eye for loving and serving others who had cancer. I don’t know how many of Dr. Amy Givler’s books he gave away to those who were just starting down that road. When he found out some acquaintance had cancer, they got a personal visit from him. I know that those people praised God for his compassion and care by the time he walked out of their door. He became a presence of hope and comfort as he pointed the way to THE source of eternal hope and peace. His pain became an invitation to a fellow journeyman down a difficult road.

*NEVER GIVE UP. Mike was a tenacious believer in following through with the things you really believe in. Mike wasn’t one to ditch an idea because he ran into a tough spot. He was one to think up new approaches and was willing to try another way. Mike didn’t give up on people, even when they struggled. He didn’t give up on his dreams to see Forsythe Church of Christ become a great(er) church. He never gave up on praying for others. He never let his health issues cause him to give up (at least when I was observing… I’m sure he had his moments in private).

*DON’T GET STUCK ON ONE THING. It may have been more about his personality, but Mike was interested in so many different things. He was socially involved in several clubs and organizations over the years. Aside from the fact that he grew up in Monroe, I think most everyone in town knew him because he had served alongside them in some capacity or another. His interests were varied and that put him in contact with many people he otherwise would not have been able to influence.

*LOVE YOUR MINISTER. It was my pleasure to be Mike’s preacher for the last nine years of his life. Like anyone else, I always appreciate encouraging words about my work. I could tell that Mike put some thought into the things he would say about my sermons. It would have been OK for him to say, “that was a good sermon, John”. Instead he has said, “I can tell you put a lot of preparation into that message – you always do.” If he could, Mike always set down what he was doing if I asked to meet with him or called him on the phone. Mike truly made me feel like I was a very important person. He was so good at valuing my opinions and concerns.

Mike, Mignon, and Keith Roberts at Area Wide Singing August 2010

*PAY ATTENTION TO THE TIME. Mike was committed to make sure we started on time at church.  It could be that this was just a habit of his. I appreciated his timeliness because it added to his reputation of dependability. If he told me he was picking me up at a certain time, he would be a few minutes early. If he ran late, he called. It was a matter of being a man of his word and also considerate of others. 

*DEFLECT AND PASS ALONG CREDIT. It wasn’t hard to complement Mike Riley, but he seldom allowed it to settle on him. He would either deflect the complement as too much or he would pass along credit. If you complimented him you would most likely hear him begin to brag on his wonderful wife Mignon and give her the credit. Sometimes he would remember that it was his dad that taught him something important that led to the compliment. If you thanked him for his work in the eldership of our church he would point to the other elders with whom he served and share the love. 

*SHOW UP.  It was crucially important to Mike to show up. If you had a surgery, he showed up (often with Mignon) to pray for you in the prep room before the surgery actually took place. I had never heard of being present in that space before I became the minister at Forsythe. I found out that it is a cold and scary place, just before going under the knife. Of course Mike knew that from his own surgeries. I also remember on a miserable day with rain pouring out of the sky, Mike and Mignon and Ronnie and Billie Teague took the three hour drive to the Lehrton Cemetery in Ruleville, Mississippi and sat with us while our son was buried. We had only known them a few months, but he showed up. He always did.

I’m sure I can think of more over time but these are the ones that are so vivid in my mind. His absence is an enormous part of my life.  I’m certain it is much more so in the lives of his beautiful family. He left a legacy of hope, faith, and love that remains strong in my memories. Those memories challenge me to be a better leader, Christian, and friend. 

Thanks for reading, JD.




When We Met Frank and Linda

I  know that when people hear me start in on Katrina stories they do their best to hide their expression that says “Oh no, not again!” I understand. But I have a reason to revisit this story. 

Katrina hit August 29, 2005. Unforgettable date for anyone who lived there at the time. Our home was flooded but also our church building just a block away. There were several people who worked hard at the church building to clean up. There was no power…it was late August… hot and nasty work. And of course we were thinking about when we might be able to gather as a church again. One day I went out back and there was a red and white tent set up. It was a total surprise to me, and a welcome one. David White at one time had been a deacon at Orange Grove Church of Christ in Gulfport was now a deacon at Brentwood Hills Church of Christ in Nashville where he and his family lived. David, as I understand it, was doing relief work on the Coast and had the tent set up.

The next Sunday we had folding chairs and had tried to pass the word around as best as we could that we would have a time of worship. No one had cars (they had flooded) and there was no electricity… no cell towers for calls … so we didn’t know who would be there. People from the surrounding neighborhood walked up to the tent for worship. It was quite an experience. Later we stored all kinds of supplies under that tent and people would drive by and tell us what they needed and we would put it in their trunk. 

David wasn’t through helping us and in time arranged for my family to come to Nashville to visit with a missions committee and perhaps to speak to the Brentwood Hills church about what we were doing. That was a rare privilege, as it was impressed on me that they do not usually allow basically unknown guests to get up like that. Thanks to David and the leadership there we were able to share the mission on the Coast. We also enjoyed a wonderful reception the night before. We stayed in the home of another Deacon, Frank Shelton.

(As an aside, it was also on this trip that I met another amazing person, Joe Dudney, which I wrote about HERE.)

Frank and Linda were wonderful hosts. They were very warm and inviting and we felt at home. Frank showed an interest in John Robert and showed him a prized Mustang convertible he had. We took some pictures in it and then Frank took us on a drive through the Lipscomb University campus. It was so much fun and quite a reprieve from the hard work going on back on the Coast. The Sheltons had a condo on Kentucky Lake and told us we could stay there anytime it was available. We did that once, and it was a beautiful time away.

Over the years Frank kept in touch via email and shared with me some of the mission works that were close to his heart. I knew that he was battling lung cancer for the past few years. Last night Frank won his battle and now is with the Lord. I don’t think any of us know exactly how God has things worked out on the other side, but I hope that Frank and John Robert can take a spin in a Mustang again. 

In the rubble of our post-Katrina world there were many bright encouragers. Frank and Linda, and David, shine strongly through those dark days because they loved with the love of the Lord. 

Here are the arrangements for Frank Shelton’s service:
Visitation will be held at Brentwood Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee on Friday, June 23rd from 4:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. and Saturday, June 24th from 1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. The funeral service will be held at Brentwood Hills Church of Christ on Saturday, June 24th at 2:00 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to:
Union Health Foundation, Frank and Linda Shelton Scholarship Fund
Union Health Foundation
1606 North 7th Street
Terre Haute, Indiana 47804

Brentwood Hills Church of Christ (memo: in memory of Frank Shelton) for
the Bright Angels Christian Academy in Oduwo, Kenya.
Brentwood Hills Church of Christ
5120 Franklin Pike
Nashville, TN 37220

or by visiting: brentwoodhills.org

There was an Army of Volunteers. I See that Frank and Linda are on this partial list of people who helped us. (LINK)

Thanks for reading. JD

Goodbye Jackson

A week ago all was normal in our household. Then one morning Jackson the dog didn’t want to get out of his kennel. This is very unusual because the morning routine begins by going outside, coming in for the morning snacks, then going back out again. It’s been this way for a long time. But not that day. Eventually he came out and wandered around outside. He came in and laid in his bed – without a snack. I figured something was wrong and maybe he just needed some time to let it pass.

Throughout the day Jackson was more lethargic than usual, never eating. So the next morning when he wouldn’t come out of his kennel I took him to the vet. He has been there for a few days now. He’s not going to come home.

We had theories at first about what he might have eaten outside that caused the issues he was facing. He did eat a lot of buds and leaves off of a hibiscus bush. Was that the culprit? I theorized he may have eaten off of the oleander in the back yard, but the vet said it would have likely killed him quickly – and the bitter taste does not encourage eating. So I don’t think that was it. Significant liver damage is the ultimate reason. The cause? I don’t know. Maybe it’s been coming for a while and just now showed up … or the hibiscus was the last straw. It doesn’t matter. Our hearts are broken to say goodbye to our furry friend.

You can read about the day we suddenly and without preparation decided we wanted to bring him home HERE. That was in March of 2009. Kind of unusual, the way we came across him. He won us over quickly. Here’s a picture of Maggy and Jackson before we got back in the car with him.

I don’t think I ever told anyone this. And if it’s too weird for you, I understand. We found Jackson on March 21, 2009. On May 21, 2009 we were mourning the loss of our son one year ago that day. I know perhaps it’s not theologically sound, but I have always believed that maybe John Robert asked the Lord to lead us to such a puppy as Jackson. It was all so sudden and unexpected … but I do think one of Jackson’s purposes in life was to bring some comfort and healing to our broken hearts. From day one he was so mild mannered, loving, and sweet natured. Whenever we reached to pet him, he always winced down, as if someone had hurt him in the past. Maybe we were a comfort and healing to his broken heart as well.

Today it’s our tears that fall. He has been at the vet’s now for three days on an IV drip with no real improvement and some signs that his liver is not functioning. When we arrived at the vet this afternoon, his breathing was ragged and the fluid in his system causing each labored breath to rattle. To keep him alive would be to prolong his suffering and actually let him live long enough to increase it. We won’t do that to our sweet puppy. For eight years he has trusted us to take care of him and we have done pretty well. We will fulfill our duty to him and send him into the next world. Yes, I do believe that God gave us pets to enjoy in this world, so why not the next?.

I have shared that graphic with others who have lost their pets, so I suppose it is fitting to share it here for us. We are grateful (and amazed) at so many people who were praying for Jackson, and thus for us. Thank you.

We have developed patterns of life that relate to Jackson being in our house. We come by the house a few times each day to let him out.  We board him when we go on trips. We have a schedule of feeding him. At night when it’s time to go to bed it is my duty to get him to come and get in his kennel. For the past few months he hasn’t wanted to get out of his bed in the den to come…I’ve had to pick him up and get him out of the bed. I have though he was just wanting me to pet him a little before heading to bed, but now I wonder if this illness wasn’t coming on. We’ll never know. But usually he’ll follow me down the hall and get in his kennel for the night. He’ll use his nose and paws to arrange the blanket the way he wants it to be (come to think of it, he hasn’t done that as much lately either).  And tomorrow we’ll start over. Except not this time.

This afternoon with the compassionate help of his veterinarian (who is as pained as we are I think)… we will send him to sleep for one last time in this life. It will be painless and he won’t be hungry or hurting any longer (he hasn’t eaten in four days).  I trust the Lord that He knows what to do with these ones we love so much.

Rest well, Jackson. You came along at just the right time in our life to bring us comfort and unconditional love. May you receive the same.

Thanks for reading, JD.






Tulsa Workshop: Melancholy Memories

Part of a crowd some time at Tulsa Workshop

I have to admit to being a bit melancholy. Today I got a notice in my email from a calendar entry. It’s time to go to Tulsa for the Tulsa Workshop. Only, the workshop is no more. Anyone who knows me well knows I live for this yearly family reunion and revival all rolled into one. I don’t blame the leaders for letting it go… the vital signs have been headed downward for a while now. But it’s hard not to miss this. And the truth is that there isn’t anything in the Spring within driving distance that can replace it.

There’s a temptation to kind of slosh through a lot of old memories at this point but I’ll spare you. I’ve written about the International Soul Winning Workshop  so many times (see some links below).

John Robert on a snowy day at Tulsa Workshop.

So many of my Tulsa memories are blended with memories of my family making the trek to Tulsa. Maggy, Nicole and John Robert and some of his friends would often go to the workshop. Can you imagine that John Robert  had no problem missing most of the week of school to go? He didn’t mind at all. And we didn’t either. We placed a high value on his education, but the spiritual experience of the workshop was of great value to us and to him. Even so, there’s a long list of names I associate with the workshop. Not just the speakers, but the friends that we would only see once a year. That was especially valuable in the days before Facebook! Do you remember those days? Barely.

I’d just like to say thanks to everyone who helped make Tulsa Workshop the wonderful experience it was. Under the fire of critics and armchair quarterbacks, these men and women made sure it all happened. At the helm for so many years Marvin Phillips and Terry Rush led the way. I was in awe of them and I still am. We worshiped with such joy under the leadership of many, but none more than Jerome Williams and later Shane Coffman and those that sang with them. It felt healthy to see the older coaches step aside and see Wade Hodges and Shane Coffman and Jason Thornton assume the roles leading the workshop. I know each of them would recognize an army of volunteers and helpers but those were the faces we saw.

On those stages I heard some of the most amazing preaching I’ve ever heard. I would be wrong to try to list them – but I can’t help a little. In addition to Marvin and Terry are such memories. The night Stanley Shipp preached with such passion. Jimmy Allen made such a powerful speech under the influence of one of his well known headaches that he was interrupted several times … and some were unhappy with some things he said, but he said them with full assurance! I heard Richard Rogers’ last presentation at Tulsa. He died before the next workshop came around. Mid McKnight – oh I’m so glad I had a chance to hear him. Jeff Walling, how did he do that every-single-year? Jim McGuiggan said one of the most memorable things I’ve ever heard on a stage in the pavilion. Don DeWelt – thank God Marvin had the courage to tear down that wall and bring that brother (along with other Christian Church brothers like Bob Russell) to Tulsa. I still have a lot of tapes and maybe one day I’ll figure out how to put them to .mp3 so others can hear them.

Well now I’ve just started rambling with Tulsa memories so I’m going to close that down before this post gets out of hand. Yes, I’m a bit melancholy that I won’t be gathering with friends old and new and hearing the gospel with them … but I’m happy too. There are a lot of smiles and much warmth in the memories flooding my mind right now.

As I mentioned above here are some links to a few other posts where I talked about Tulsa Workshop on this blog in past years. Thanks for reading. Feel free to share your Tulsa memories in the comments if so moved.  JD

International Soul Winning Workshop – March 4, 2008

Sharing a Few Video Moments from Tulsa Workshop – March 29, 2008

Thursday in Tulsa – March 23, 2007

Friday at Tulsa – March 24, 2007

Tulsa and the Trajectory of My Faith Journey – April 8, 2014



My Friend Mike Riley

Me, Mike and Mignon on a happy day.

Below are the notes for the eulogy I delivered at the funeral of my dear friend and church elder Mike Riley on March 2, 2017 at Forsythe Church of Christ. There was standing room only and an overflow crowd to honor Mike and support his family. Kevin Riley offered the first eulogy and there’s never been a more fitting one. Every dad would love to have his son speak about him in the way Kevin did. An audio recording of the entire service is available HERE. jd


It has been a few days since we said goodbye to Mike Riley, but the reminders of what he meant to us will continue to persist throughout our lives. I am grateful that we are having this assembly today to honor him and I’m grateful that you are here to honor our friend and his beautiful family. 

I have no doubt that for the rest of our days members of  the Forsythe Church of Christ will hear the laughter, wisdom, and joy of Mike Riley throughout these halls and in this pulpit. I am sure that when we pass by a certain pew or sit down in a specific room we will have flashbacks of a time when Mike was right there beside us urging us on in our faith, encouraging us when we were low, sharing a story from his arsenal of interesting experiences. He paid attention to us, all the while he was battling cancer and other illnesses, but you wouldn’t really know that. 

I know that many of you know him outside of these walls. Lifelong friends, Rotarians, Real Estate professionals, medical professionals, and many others connect his presence with the times of your lives that you loved the most. Family members and friends alike have a nearly inexhaustible supply of stories and experiences with Mike Riley. He had a way of bringing life to every moment. We will miss that. 

Surely Mike had a natural disposition that drew people to him. There is no question that the foundation of Mike’s joy and spirit was his faith. Mike had a way of being a devoted Christian that didn’t make anyone uncomfortable. He loved the Lord and he loved his family and he loved people. He loved his church and the doors were never open that he and Mignon didn’t come inside. They came early enough to visit with anyone who was here. They participated openly. They served devotedly. Mike Riley, like his father Max, loved and served this church for decades as an excellent leader. 

Friends, family, church, community – they all were made better by Mike Riley’s presence. 

I believe this is because Mike found his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. How else can one explain the joyous demeanor of one who has lived for so long under the threat of cancer. He did not succumb to self pity (that any of us could witness), but even made sure to visit friends and associates who had cancer, often giving them a copy of Dr. Amy Givler’s book about surviving cancerHe took the most painful element of his life and used it to bless others. No wonder we loved him. He was a great example of the Lord in whom he trusted and followed. 

Yes, it was hope in the life-giving power of Jesus Christ that kept Mike smiling in the face of giants all of his days. He had hope. Hope in the Lord can carry us through the most difficult days. There is no greater hope than what is expressed in Luke 24.

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” 8 Then they remembered his words.

There is no greater hope than that which arises from the empty tomb. Jesus is alive. No amount of philosophical reflection can overcome that one historical fact. Mike had no greater hope than the hope that he received by following after Jesus Christ in his life, with hope for eternal life given by a Risen Savior. 

I pray that all of us would pursue a life of hope on this basis. 


In 1939 a preacher from another generation published a book of sermons. In one of them Clovis Chappell tells of the experience of the passing of his father. 

“Years ago, I watched my father pass … He had a good voice. He used to lead the singing in our village church. As the end drew near, he stretched out those once strong hands, that were very weak now, and sang, “Jesus, Lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.” He was joyously confident that the Everlasting Arms, upon which he was leaning as he pushed his tired feet into the waters of death, would sustain him through those waters, and on into the eternal yonder. …Therefore, we join our voices with that of Saint Paul, and shout, “the victory is ours, thank God!” (Clovis Chappell, Values That Last, 1939)

I have no doubt that Mike is shouting today, “The victory is mine, thank God!”

I offer to you one of Mike’s favorite blessings:

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

Because of hope, it is well with our souls.

(At this point in the service Tommy Inman beautifully led us all in singing It Is Well With My Soul.)

The Lord’s Prayer together to end our service. 

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: 

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.



October … What’s That Month to You? For me, it’s the month…

…That I most look forward to. It’s the gateway to the holiday season … the first really cool nights and days without the sun scorching the landscape.

… Of trees changing colors and then disrobing for the winter, only to reappear with much splendor come Spring.

… Of my Mother’s birthday. And let’s face it, if she didn’t have her birthday then the likelihood of my own existence would be in question. 

… Of Thanksgiving, well, in Canada. Happy Canadian Thanksgiving to my Canadian friends like Karen and Drew and Charlie and Linda. 

… Of Rosh Hashanah, when my Jewish friends celebrate a new year and eat a lot; And Yom Kippur, when they repent and don’t eat a lot…or anything for that matter.

… Of Halloween. It’s not my favorite day but it is a time when I reflect back to when I was a kid and prowling the streets of my neighborhood without fear (a relic of the past). When we’d get home my brother and I would lay out our candy between us and make trades. Nobody wanted those peanut-butter atrocities and filling-pullers wrapped in orange or black wrappers. I’d rather get rocks than those things. But unlike my friend Joel, all the candy corn I can get is good for me.

… Of Barry Manilow. Caught you off guard, didn’t I? He has a great song called When October Goes and I like to listen to it near the end of October.

Yes October is a marvelous month. But most of all it was a night late in October, on the 23rd to be exact, that my eyes beheld one of the glorious miracles that still takes our breath away. I saw my baby boy for the first time. He didn’t even have a name yet, but we knew him and that’s all that mattered. It was 1989 and the expectations of spending our lifetime with that boy seemed promising. Well, I suppose we have no choice but to treasure the 18 years we had with him. We miss him so. But there are now a different set of promises that we cling to. Those promises are from someone who also suffered and died before his time, as humans reckon things. He did something no one else could do. He arose, and with him arose hope. 

October … What’s That Month to You?