Gathering the Covenant Family

CHICAGO, IL (May 27, 2011) – Following is the text of an interview of Jim Hawkinson conducted by Jay Phelan following Hawkinson’s retirement in September 1994. It appeared in the February 1995 issue of The Covenant Companion.

How did you first become involved with Covenant Publications?

The process has always been interesting to me. In the spring of 1963 I got a call from Milton Strom, who was editor of the California Covenanter. He said, “Would you consider a call to Hilmar, California?” He also said this may be a call to wider service. I was thirty-three at the time. He had died by the time I came. In October or November, I was asked if I would edit the Covenanter in the interim for a few weeks. It turned out to be two years.

Clarence Nelson, president of the Covenant, called me and asked me if I would consider a call to become executive editor of publications. Carl Philip Anderson was executive secretary of Covenant Publications at the time. I came in the fall of 1966 to become executive editor with primary responsibility for the Companion, Home Altar, and Quarterly. When Carl Phil left office in 1970 I became executive secretary of publications.

As I look back on it now, I can see God’s leading. I had done graduate study at the University of Chicago in Old Testament and had thought about teaching. I had a major decision to make. Would I teach or preach? I knew I wanted to serve in the Covenant. My gifts laid more in the pastoral than in pure scholarship.

What were your special goals as you look back on these twenty-seven years?

My goals have always been largely ones of spirit—to gather our people across the lines that tend to divide them economically, politically, theologically, polity-wise, and so on. I was raised in a community deeply influenced by Lund and my dad [North Park Seminary dean Eric Hawkinson], Fondell, Frisk, and others who loved and believed in the whole community, the old Covenant idea that we were bound to one another.

I recognized early in the pastorate that most of our differences in the Covenant were more personal than theological. My goal was to bridge these differences and get people together.

The wisdom lies in the body and not in one or another of us. When we are together almost always you can count on something wonderful happening. When we are separate we tend to run in different directions and be divisive. I did not come with any desire to chart a course that had never been charted before. My goal has always been to hold us together until we saw together how we should go—a communal approach.

I read an interview about Pope John XXIII and his goals for Vatican II. Someone said he didn’t think the pope had any big ideas as to what would happen, but genuinely trusted the Spirit to work in the process of the community. I hear you saying a similar kind of thing, if we are together as God’s people, and trust the Spirit to be among us in the process of being God’s people then who we are and what we are to do become dear to us in the process.

That is an accurate description. I have always been a little shy about it. Our goal in book publications should be to lift up the gifts of Covenanters and encourage them to say what they feel ought to be said. I have been like a prompter, saying to people “What do you have to offer now?” They bring forth their gifts for the building up of the body, the Covenant, and also for the sake of the broader church. The way to be faithful to our task in the broader church is to be true to ourselves.

There is a tension between planning and spontaneity. We should lay the ground work that will be built on by the Spirit, should know where to dig the foundation and where to put the blocks, but trust the Spirit for the superstructure This is a tension in all of ministry.

It is. We have always felt that our leaders ought to have pastoral experience. Leadership not essentially different from the pastoral task at the local level—to gather people and help them to get over their predisposed feeling about other people. Almost all the committee stuff I’ve been involved in over the years—three hymnals, two books of worship, two confirmation materials—it’s not just what we produce, it’s the process of doing it together that’s important.

Let’s talk about the hymnal. You have been involved with music and singing. Music is central to who you are. There are people who are saying that we don’t need hymnals anymore. How do you respond?

What intrigues me and warms me is that here is all this [musical] wealth and we keep stating our preferences by sectioning ourselves off in one community or another, missing the richness of the whole thing. We are not a sect, we are a church. We are not independent at the local level even though we are autonomous, we are bound together with the whole Christian community on earth and throughout history.

My own spirit and ability to relate to different kinds of people grows out of the security of knowing that I am accepted in that community and therefore I don’t need to prove myself. I think the hymnody is very important in order to settle us as a people. On any given morning [in church] we sing hymns out of nine centuries of the Christian era, with music, text, and translation. Maybe one hymn spans three or four or five centuries that ought to settle us down.

I think particularly in the Covenant where we are not held by creedal statements or doctrines that everybody has to sign that our trust relationships require that we keep working on things together. I’ve said to some people who have been critical, that it isn’t only what we produce, it’s the process in producing it.

The well is so deep. I’m not very much a fan of people who say we just have to preserve the historical. I am also very excited about the contemporary. I’m excited about what has been uncovered in The Song Goes On that is very much a part of our common psyche (like “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” and “Lord When We Praise You with Glorious Music”). Like a prompter at the opera, I want to say let’s enjoy the whole thing because God gave it to us in order to unify us and make us sensitive.

If I have one concern it’s that we make room for one another. Obviously we all have preferences as to what we enjoy and don’t enjoy, and that gets involved with questions of quality. I have tried not to listen first critically, but to listen sympathetically, and try to find the authenticities in other people. Inevitably when you do that there is something that will bless you. If you start out with a critical attitude [thinking] “I’m not going to like this,” then you will end up critical.

What about the Companion? Why do we need a magazine?

I have been very close to the Companion because I felt that was my primary reason for being here. It ties in with questions of spirit. If we are “companions of all those who fear thee” [as preached at the organizational meeting of the Covenant in 1885] then the Companion ought to express that. It ought to gather the whole community, let all kinds of people feel freedom to share in it. Its spirit ought to help us to listen to one another and to learn from one another and be gathered.

I felt a certain freedom to do things that many evangelical editors said to me that if they did what I have done in the Companion they would be out on their ears in a month. I have to pay tribute to those who have been in authority over me. Never once was I told what I had to do with the Companion. Maybe it’s wise that I wasn’t told that!

It’s wonderful and it’s also scary. You realize that you have an awesome responsibility when you are talking to the whole church. I am very proud of the Companion. I have never been tempted to think of the Companion as my instrument. It’s our instrument together. There are a lot of things in there that I don’t agree with. I have never felt that it was my duty to make everything over in my image, or to protect people.

How did the issues facing the church change over the years?

In the sixties when I came we were in the middle of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. It was a time of great social upheaval. In the seventies we began to deal with the isms—feminism, nationalism. The eighties were dominated by the demise of Communism, the emergence of world hunger, increasing political unrest, the crumbling of moral values in Western society. Now in the nineties I think I have sensed some retreat of people in their anguish from communal things—some of it is cynicism over bureaucracy, politics, economics. People have gone toward individualism and localism. Many people come to us with no church background. The challenge in recent years to gather people is growing and will continue to grow. I think the Covenant ideal is still very strong, but we can’t assume it anymore.

Newt Gingrich recently talked about the White House being counter-cultural. My response was would that it was more counter-cultural because this is exactly what you’re talking about the culture heading in more isolated individualistic directions and the church being called to be counter cultural and to draw people back.

We have a better opportunity now than we have ever had in our life to counter that trend. The baby boomers are coming back to the church with a sense of hunger for what they have missed in meeting their needs, and are asking for community. We have to be out there.

What would you do differently?

Because our literature is so important, I would seek more help in the marketing end of things. Our people have no concept of the riches that are there. I am very proud of our literature.

If I could go back and do over what I did with my experience and maybe the trust level I would talk more directly to people who have skirted the fellowship, people who try to go their own way and build their own kingdoms. I would not go out to put people straight but I think I would say that they have hurt themselves by pulling their people away from the Covenant rather than jumping into it and offering what they have for the sake of the fellowship. I would work more intently than ever on things I believed in all the time, that we belong together and should not allow personal differences to separate us from each other. We should do everything we can to be together in one place in spirit so God can teach us and lead us.

What do you think is your legacy?

I’m not comfortable talking about my legacy. God himself only knows about my legacy if there is any. The community knows. If there is anything worth remembering the community will remember, for the rest it will be appropriately lost.

I would like my legacy to be one of spirit. That to me is more important. I feel a wonderful sense of release right now. That is also a part of what the community gave me. It’s not all up to me. I think what is growing on me increasingly is how thankful I am, that God has seen me through difficult times, he continues to sustain me, and points me toward the future.

There is a sense in which the very heart of Covenant freedom is a willingness to not be in control of the situation. Freedom involves my not attempting to shape my world or to shape God’s world in a particular way, but to trust the process of God’s Spirit working in it.

It has been said at times that I am a person who likes to control and I have been known in the denomination as a preserver and lover of the heritage. I am unapologetic about that. If at times I have been overbearing with that, it was not what I wanted to do but only because I felt so deeply about it that we don’t have anything to fear from our heritage. I remember an old pastor I went to call on once. I asked him if he knew any funny stories. He said, “I don’t know any stories, just tell them that God is good.” That is how I feel.

When I’d go to my dad or somebody else when I felt inadequate and ask, “Why don’t you go out and do it for me?” He would answer, “No I’ve had my day, it’s up to you now. We trust it with you.” That’s in the best of the Covenant spirit; that we really believe that the best is yet to be.

What out of this is your challenge for the church?

I think my challenge to the church would be to be true to itself. And the challenge to each of us would be true to the communal self—to the deep dreams and desires that grew out of the revival movement when God drew us together as a people and gave us a direction to go. I think my challenge to the church would be to reaffirm that—not by looking back but by looking forward. Stay close to the gospel.

I feel a little like the line that my brother Zenos gave me years ago from Herbert Butterfield at the end of his work on Christianity in history: “Hold to Christ and for the rest be entirely uncommitted.” Not hold to your doctrines, your ideas, or even your preferences, but hold to Christ.

We need to keep worshiping, we need to let our hearts be tenderized by the gospel. We need to repent when we are wrong. Above all, we need to understand that we don’t choose who is in the church, the church belongs to Christ. We do what we can to build the relationship—build up the body of Christ rather than separate it and divide it.

When you hear the authenticities in other people, your own soul is awakened and quickened by how God works in the mystery of his will and way. As I look back on my life, I don’t think of myself as a person who has done profound, historic things, but I feel good about the fact that I have been influential in the lives of people, and people have known at least when I have been out that I love Christ and the gospel and that I love them. I feel good about that.

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