7 Things Learned from Tom Fred Tenney
The afternoon before Tom Fred Tenney departed for glory I started this blog. T.F. Tenney was a unique and influential leader. His impact ranged across organizational boundaries. His “one-liners” are legendary.
(For the sake of brevity, in referring to Bro. Tenney I’ll occasionally use the initials TFT. No disrespect is intended. In personal notes and communication, he would on occasion use my initials. My responses or appeals for his input would often identify him as “TFT.”)
My friend Tim Mahoney has said several times, “If T.F. Tenney had not been called by God to preach he’d have been in the U.S. Senate or he would have become President.” I’m glad God called him to preach. Bro. Tenney was a:
- Student who perpetually worked to understand scripture. He studied the nuances of the Bible. During times when the General Board would take a 30-minute break, Bro. Tenney generally sat in “TFT’s Spot” yet again reading the Bible. His love of God’s word showed in his preaching.
- Prolific reader. I would occasionally ask T.F. Tenney, “What are you reading?” He always had several titles to suggest. Most of his recommendations were not “fluff” reading. On occasion, he passed me a book he had recently read. Those books are treasures.
- Prince of a preacher. He had something meaningful to say. From the early years with that shock of his dark hair flying as he preached, to the more sedate preaching of later years Tom Fred Tenney said something worth hearing. A closet in our home has a box with dozens if not hundreds of cassettes and compact discs of TFT’s preaching. If anyone wants to send me more via mp3, or as cassettes or compact discs I’ll gladly take them. Bro. Tenney’s preaching helped me to think.
- Author of meaningful books. From, “Pentecost, What’s That,” to “For Preachers and Other Saints,” his books had weight.
- Voice that mattered in significant situations. An honorary member of the General Board of the United Pentecostal Church, International has a voice but not a vote. Bro. Tenney was such a member. In my eleven years on the General Board, T.F. Tenney did not often speak. When he did, what he said was thought-provoking. Also, it often clarified and gave historical perspective to a matter being discussed.
- District Superintendent Extraordinaire. He quickly returned phone calls. He had time for Norma and me, even when we were no longer in Louisiana. As District Superintendent, he might preach a church anniversary for a congregation of twelve people on Sunday morning; and Sunday night preach to thousands. Whether 12 or 500, both congregations got his unique best. Not many people can do that! Bro. Tenney never resented going to smaller churches. I asked Sis. Tenney if her husband ever regretted going to any situation. She said, “No, Tom thinks he can help everybody. So he tries.”
T.F. Tenney is one of three men I took as a model or mentor. The late G. A. Mangun, Crawford Coon who is now quite ill and T. F. Tenney were men I watched closely. For the main part, my education came from observation rather than conversation.
T.F. Tenney influenced many. He directly influenced me in the following seven ways.
The Lasting Impact of Written Communication
Bro. Tenney authored several books. For me, something else was more important than his books. In the decades of Bro. Tenney’s service to the Louisiana District each month Louisiana’s preachers received a Superintendent’s Communique. Bro. Tenney’s writing was targetted, practical, beneficial, relevant and thought-provoking. His Superintendent’s Communique was my favorite periodical.
My file of Bro. Tenney’s Communiques is thick. It was material worth saving. It wasn’t that Bro. Tenney had to say something every month, instead, he had something to say. There is a difference! The Superintendent’s Communique addressed the unique needs of preachers.
An example: TFT Do We Have Room For A Prophet
When it was my lot to be a presbyter, I modeled a Sectional Doings newsletter after TFT’s Superintendent’s Communique. A bit later, my place in life changed and our team at North American Missions developed a bi-monthly Director’s Communique. We mailed it to every preacher. The main goal was to communicate about missions and missionaries. But, to get people to read that portion the Director’s Communique needed an article directly beneficial to a preacher’s ministry.
Our effort worked. T. F. Tenney gets credit for showing me the power of consistently and repetitively providing beneficial and targeted written material.
The Subtle Power of the word: “So”
A while back, I needed Bishop Tenney’s advice on a difficult matter. Bro. Tenney listened to my story. When I finished, Bro. Tenney’s first words were, “Bro. Carlton, I’m so sorry that you and the others are going through this. I’m just so sorry for your pain. I wish I could make it easier for you, but I can’t.”
He then helped with perspective and direction. Before I left, as he always did, he prayed for me.
Before I walked out the door of his temporary office at the Pentecostals of Alexandria he again said, “Bro. Coon, I’m just so sorry.” The word, “so” stuck in my mind. In that context, the word “so” had value. To be “so sorry” somehow super-sized his regret at this unfortunate event.
In reality, Bro. Tenney could do nothing to fix the situation. He could advise me and he did. But, he was “so sorry” this mess had happened.
From that day forward, in similar situations I use the phrase, “I’m so sorry.” When I’m unable to resolve a matter, whether illness, an unexpected death, a failure not easily repaired or the loss of employment I use TFT’s phrase “I’m so sorry.”
It is a necessary and helpful part of my pastoral vocabulary. Somehow the phrase “so sorry” in such situations adds weight to the regret.
A Leader says, “No” to Some Opportunities
In the late 1990s, Bro. Tenney and I were part of a pastoral anniversary in Kenner, Louisiana. After a service Pastor Walker took us to dinner.
It is a wonderful thing to ask questions and then listen to people who have accomplished meaningful things. Much better to listen than to talk. Through life, I have done a lot of listening. On that night Bro. Walker and I both did a lot of listening.
Sis. Tenney was also there. In a side conversation, I asked her how Bro. Tenney accomplished so much. Her response was educational. She said, “Tom knows what he is to do and that is what he does. He does not take on anything that he does not feel is on God’s agenda for him.” Sis. Tenney continued, “Even when I say, ‘Tom, somebody needs to do something about _________.’ His response will be, ‘That’s right Thetus, somebody needs to do something about it but it isn’t going to be me.'”
I immediately stopped trying to do everything that came along. Some committee opportunities were declined and I resigned from some things. My goal is to focus on the “God things” of my life. An effective leader says “No” to many opportunities or needs. Those who try to do everything excel at nothing.
Bro. Tenney once advised me, “Carlton, you can’t accent every syllable of life. Something has to be your main thing.”
The Importance of Facilitating the Ministry of Others
Around 2000 I began preaching or teaching an occasional camp-meeting. One was in the Rocky Mountain District. One evening District Superintendent Russel said, “Bro. Coon, I’ve known about you a long time. When you were about 23 years old a letter came from T.F. Tenney telling me about you. He suggested that you were a good evangelist and that if we could ever use you in our district you would be a blessing to us.”
The fact of such a letter was news to me. I’d not asked Bro. Tenney to write a letter. He never told me about writing the letter. Unbeknownst to me, my District Superintendent had attempted to expand my opportunities.
Bro. Tenney wanted growth, progress and expanded influence for my ministry. Facilitating the ministry of others was part of TFT’s identity. I try to apply that principle. One of my computer files is named: People Getting the Job Done Who Not Enough People Know.
Developing preachers need more opportunities than we currently provide. My goal learned from Bro. Tenney is to champion up and coming preachers and expand their opportunities. To this end, I find myself regularly inviting developing preachers in to fill our pulpit.
Don’t Waste Words
T. F. Tenney did not have many casual conversations. He did not waste words. TFT did not use 15 words if six words would do the job. His use of words was one reason his preaching and teaching was so effective. He did not chase rabbits.
Words are the currency of communication. Bro. Tenney used that currency wisely.
Seldom did Bro. Tenney make a misstatement. If he used a particular word or words it was intentional. You’d better be listening, the words he used and the words he chose not to use both meant something.
Observing this in Bro. Tenney changed my preaching, speaking, counseling, and writing. My goal became to really communicate what I mean to say.
In communication, the difference between a good word and the perfect word is the difference between a firecracker and dynamite. TFT used dynamite! I want to do the same.
Empower Rather Than Control
Bro. Tenney became Louisiana’s Superintendent in 1978. He followed C.G. Weeks, a strong leader in his own right. When Bro. Tenney became Superintendent, Louisiana had a district board and other leaders who were strong, capable people.
These were people who were aging but not particularly set to move aside from their various leadership roles. The majority of these leaders were older than their new District Superintendent. Part of “TFT’s” role was to transition the district into the future.
After a few years as superintendent, Bro. Tenney developed something called “All Church Training Series” (A.C.T.S.) events. A.C.T.S. brought training to every section. On a Saturday, a broad array of training would be provided. Youth workers, Sunday School teachers, and ministers all had access to targetted teaching. The caveat: no trainer was to provide the training in his or her section.
The Genius of Developing Leaders
Now the TFT genius part. To provide the training for preachers, Bro. Tenney drew together a group of young men in their late 20s and early 30s. The group included men like Rick Marcelli, Donald Bryant, Ronnie Melancon and Ronnie LaCombe. Every person in the group was at least 20 years younger than the still relatively new District Superintendent.
Bro. Tenney sent the young men to various training events. They were commissioned to go and learn. From the events, the young men brought back material on leadership, stewardship, and ministry. These same young men then shared their newly gained insights at the Sectional “A.C.T.S.” events.
“How To” Develop Future Leaders
With the actions he took Bro. Tenney had:
- Validated the arriving generation by drawing them near.
- Given them an opportunity to be equipped.
- Prepared them to be heard.
- Empowered them to serve their fellowship, most of whom were older than they were.
- Introduced these young men’s voices and capabilities to a broader array of their peers.
- Gave them a forum at which to be heard.
He did not control their message. In one year, Bro. Tenney had raised the profile of people who had the potential to be future leaders.
The majority of people involved in the A.C.T.S. endeavor became influential in Louisiana or beyond. Bro. Tenney did not dominate. He chose to influence and facilitate.
No leader can both control and empower. You do one or the other. Boards are the same way. Every board either controls or facilitates. From T.F. Tenney I learned the value of facilitating up and coming leaders. From him, I learned some specific steps toward facilitating others to be influential.
As a pastor, Director of a District Men’s Ministry, a presbyter and as leader of North American Missions it became part of my job to facilitate growth. I wanted to create an environment that encouraged future leaders to develop. I learned how from Tom Fred Tenney.
Get Out From Behind the Desk
As a young bi-vocational pastor I was struggling. My secular employment was enjoyably challenging. I was good at it. At the same time it seemed our church was stuck.
Quite confused I asked for an appointment with Bro. Tenney. With our schedules, it was several weeks before we could connect. When we finally met he surprised me. We didn’t stay in the executive office.
Instead, we moved into a reading and prayer room beside his office. Bro. Tenney sat in the rocking chair he used for prayer. I sat nearby. My frustration was dumped on Bro. Tenney. I said, “This gospel thing works for other people, but it isn’t working for me. I’m a failure at this. I don’t think God even called me to preach.”
Bro. Tenney rocked, watched and listened. When I finished he quietly began, “Bro. Carlton, I know God called you. I’ve watched your ministry unfold. You have made an impact and will make more of an impact. Preachers go through seasons. The discouraging time is a difficult season for you. But every season ends. This season will end and a better season will come. Don’t you dare quit on what God has started in your life.” He then prayed for me and sent me on my way.
I left unconvinced but willing to struggle on, at least for a while. For several months, every second or third week my secretary at Louisiana Business College would ring my office, “Bro. Tenney is on the line for you.” I’d pick up and that unique voice would say, “Bro. Carlton, I had you on my mind today. I prayed for you. How are you doing? Is there anything I can help with?” The call lasted no more than 3 or 4 minutes (remember he didn’t waste words).
Finally, Bro. Tenney called one day. As the conversation was ending I said, “Bro. Tenney, I know your life is full. Thank you for caring about me. Thank you for praying for me. Thank you for calling. With your help and God’s grace, I’m going to make it. My crisis is over. You don’t have to call me quite so often.”
The thing that lingered was TFT intentionally leaving the executive desk to sit close as we talked. I immediately began getting out from behind my desk to converse with people. Later, I would read that a truly effective communicator removes barriers to communication. This includes moving from behind the desk.
In crisis times people don’t need a “desk” leader, they need a “rocking chair” leader. Actually, at all seasons of communication, the rocking chair is more effective than the barrier of an executive desk.
Sad but Oh So Blessed
I’m sad. Not for TFT. I’m sad for myself and so many others who will learn no more lessons from this master teacher.
Of late I’ve found myself wishing for the opportunity to again phone Jesse Williams, C.M. Becton, N.A. Urshan, James Kilgore, W.C. Parkey, J.T. Pugh, James Lumpkin, Stanley Chambers, Jack Yonts, Kenneth Haney, G.A. Mangun, Murrel Ewing, E.L. and Nona Freeman, or Tom Barnes.
I didn’t call any of them often, but I knew I could call. Like Bro. Tenney, they always made themselves available to me. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about them responding when I held a certain position. They were available when I was a “nobody from nowheresville.” I hope to be just as accessible.
Not many of these voices remain. Some time back, my wife had a frightening conversation with another minister’s wife. Norma was mentioning the loss of pillars of the church. She specifically mentioned J.T. Pugh and Jack Yonts because they had served in the office where I was then serving. The sister with whom she spoke said, “Oh Sis. Coon, your husband and others like him are our generations J.T. Pugh.” My response: No . . . no . . . no . . . no . . . no! I and others like me will do our best, but the shoes of these we cannot fill.
Now, yet another phone number I occasionally dialed will receive no answer. I’m sad for me. I still have some questions on my legal pad. Questions I hoped TFT could answer.
Yet, the lessons and memories remain. Thank you Tom Fred Tenney for taking an interest in me. Thank you for believing in me. You did this for so many of us. Often you believed in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves.
This is a blog I wish I’d completed six weeks ago. It was on my mind but life intruded. The night before Bro. Tenney died I sat at my temporary desk and listed the seven things I gained from the elder. It was stunning on the next afternoon to hear of his promotion to glory.
Readers, you will have had other experiences. Things that happened, practices and behavior you observed in T.F. Tenney that shaped your life or ministry. Please share your perspective in the comment section.
- What was it like to be on the Youth Committee when Bro. Tenney was the President of the Conquerors Division?
- What were the experiences of missionaries who were on the field when he led Foreign Missions?
- He pastored some of you in Monroe or Deridder – what of those memories?
- District Board members who served with Bro. Tenney – what was it like?
- Louisiana folks you got a lot of time with T. F. Tenney at every district event what did you gain?
- Fellow General Board members your experiences were unique as well. Share please!
It will enrich me and many others if you will share your stories and what you gained. It will mean a lot to me.