I met Bud Weniger for the first time in August of 1957. He and his new bride Marilyn were honeymooning at the Turner cabin – right next door to our family cabin in northern Wisconsin. I remember that he was a cool guy and we water-skied together some. I was just a scrawny kid, not quite 16, who lived for water-skiing in the summer. I knew he was from the famed Weniger family, because his dad and three uncles were all preacher friends of my dad.
Little did I know at the time that within two months my dad would be taken to heaven in a plane crash. That tragic human event became a big part of my growing up and would result in giving me many mentors. My dad’s reputation, and the respect that was given to him, introduced me to many men in the ministry. The first names of the senior “Weniger boys” – Arno, Archer, Ortiz, and Max – were often spoken in my home. Later several of Bud’s cousins were classmates of mine at Pillsbury College.
When I was a college student, several years later, I would meet Bud again. He became pastor of First Baptist in International Falls, Minnesota, and was visiting our campus in Owatonna, Minnesota, for meetings and to see students from his church. I remember reconnecting with him briefly in the parking lot. I was impressed by his demeanor and the fact that he was a sharp dresser. He had adapted to the northern Minnesota environment and looked the part of an impressive Northwoods man.
About five years later I received a letter from him during my third year in seminary and it caused great excitement and interest. A year before Bud had taken the pastorate of Calvary Baptist in Normal, Illinois, and the growing ministry had prompted him to seek an assistant pastor. He wondered if I would be interested? I was very interested in joining him and the Lord worked it out so that we moved to Normal in the early fall of 1966. (This full story is told in my blog post at The Road to Normal.)
Those were four dynamic and impactful years in my life and ministry. Calvary was an established church congregation that lost its building and had to reorganize as an independent church just four years before Pastor Weniger arrived in late 1964. (A short account of that history is included at A Tale of Two Churches.) The remainder of the 1960s was a phenomenal growth time for that body of believers. Many people came to Christ during our 50 months as an assistant under Bud. In addition, the church was attracting numbers of wonderful Christians who were leaving mainline denominational churches in the area due to a drift toward liberal theology.
When we arrived, the average attendance was about 200. When we left in November of 1970 to take a pastorate, the attendance had mushroomed to regularly over 600. Pastor Weniger led in that growth with hard work, wisdom, and well-rounded communication skills. I learned much from him. When he arrived, there was a division in the church and he carefully pastored both factions and brought them together as the years increased. It didn’t hurt that new people were constantly coming in to take important leadership roles, still he did not lose people and he gave even-handed leadership to heal the wounds of the past.
He was also wise for his relative youth. I remember soon after I came that one day he said, “Come with me,” and we jumped in his car to visit a new couple in the church. His purpose was to apologize to them for repeating something that he had heard, that he learned was not true. He told this couple “I was wrong, will you forgive me?” I never forgot that experience. Not many people knew about it, but it was the right thing to do. That couple became valuable workers and assets in the church for years to come.