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.
*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.