What We Believe

A “Faithful Plodder”: John W. Mahaffy

Judith M. Dinsmore

This year, OP pastor John W. Mahaffy will celebrate both his fiftieth wedding anniversary to Sipkje (Sylvia) and the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination to the OPC.

The Mahaffys served first for seven years in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then, in 1977, moved up north for forty-three years and counting at Trinity Presbyterian in Newberg, Oregon. Mahaffy’s many years at Trinity have not been marked by dramatic ministry  or exponential congregational growth. In fact, when emailed about being featured in this magazine for his fifty years of pastoring, Mahaffy responded that there was probably a better candidate. (But thanks to Sipkje, he did agree.) As he reflects over the past five decades, Mahaffy’s self-evaluation is self-effacing: “I am certainly not an earth-shaking preacher. I am not one of the intellectual guiding lights of the OPC,” he said. “I am a faithful plodder.”

He learned that faithfulness early from his parents, OP missionaries to Eritrea from 1945 to 1966. Mahaffy grew up in Senafe, a month’s journey by freighter from New York City. “Eritrea was a slow field,” Mahaffy said. He can remember his father and the other missionaries there asking if the work was worth continuing—whether it was the right use of time, gifts, and money from the church. “One of the things that I learned just by witnessing it was the ability to persevere even when you don’t see a lot of visible fruit.”

From his first month as a pastor, at only twenty-four years old, Mahaffy needed perseverance. The Tulsa congregation, which disbanded a decade later, was small and suffering from a recent split. Trinity was “again a tiny, struggling congregation,” having lost four families in the year and a half preceding the Mahaffys’ arrival. But he didn’t find either situation discouraging. He enjoyed working with the saints, and, like his parents in Eritrea, he paused through the years to ask: Are we doing the right thing? Are there things that need to change? If so, “you change them,” he said. If you are doing what the Bible tells you to do, “you keep doing it.”

Family Life

Newberg is a small city twenty miles to the southwest of Portland. While John pastors, Sylvia has taught Christian school in a variety of settings through the years—he jokes that she is much more likely to be recognized in the grocery story than he is. When their family grew to six children, she homeschooled and ran the household with a thriftiness she learned in her Dutch immigrant upbringing. “Small church and large family—we wouldn’t have survived without her ability to sew and do things for the family,” Mahaffy said.

After one biological son, the Mahaffys lost their second and any chance of future pregnancies in an emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. They began to look at adoption, eventually welcoming to their family five multiracial kids, four of them under four years old. “We went into adoption very naively, knowing adopted kids could have certain challenges, but figuring that love and consistent discipline could work things out,” Mahaffy said. “It was much more complicated than we realized.”

Now, every Christmas, the Mahaffys put up a strand of stockings across the living room with the names of each of their twenty-two grandchildren. Two lived less than a day, though they were able to hold them. Several more were adopted out at birth, and the Mahaffys maintain some contact. Their relationships with their six adult children vary.

As a new parent and pastor, Mahaffy said, he would be tempted to ask parents who were wrestling with parenting problems what they were doing wrong. But now he is slower to make assumptions. “I’ve come to realize existentially that you can have children in exactly the same environment, same discipline, same love, same setting, and have radically different outcomes,” he reflected.

A High Calling

That same humility has characterized his work for the denomination, where he has manned the minute book for dozens of meetings.

After seminary, Mahaffy was poised to go overseas, but the Foreign Missions committee turned down his application—“wisely,” Mahaffy said—and recommended that he get some experience in this country first. So, instead, Mahaffy has served on the Committee for Foreign Missions for almost forty years, most of the time taking the minutes. His congregation, he said, has always supported him in these labors. He has also served frequently as the general assembly’s assistant clerk and for nine years as stated clerk for his own presbytery.

“There’s something tedious about it,” Mahaffy said happily. An undergraduate English major, he may not have the great American novel in the back of his brain, he explained, but he can take careful meeting notes. “I’m not sure why I enjoy it, but I do. I’m probably the only person in general assembly who’s thankful for a long, boring speech because it gives me a chance to catch up on my minutes.”

It’s a demanding job, Richard Gaffin pointed out. “Mahaffy can characterize himself as a faithful plodder, but he is also a very effective plodder,” Gaffin said. He has not only seen Mahaffy’s work at many general assemblies but also served with him since his earliest days on the Foreign Missions committee, becoming his close friend. “I can’t say enough, over many years on the committee, about how effectively efficient he was as a secretary. We would have had a hard time doing without him.”

In our digital age of hot takes and instant feedback, accurately recording meeting details may not seem as useful to the church as, say, tweeting a reaction to the day’s news. But for Mahaffy, the mundane tasks are most important. “Being a servant of the church is a high calling. If you don’t grasp that, you don’t belong in the ministry,” Mahaffy said.

Even while taking copious notes, Mahaffy is able to lend his voice to the business at hand, Gaffin observed. “When he entered into debate, his comments were persuasive. … He has a very good sense of not coming short of what Scripture teaches, but also not going beyond what Scripture teaches. That explains his value as a servant to the church.”

Mahaffy’s denominational tasks have indeed given him an up-close look at debate inside the OPC, which, Mahaffy said, has always had its share of controversy. During the 1980s debate over whether the OPC and PCA should merge, he himself wrote a number of “very long letters” to the Committee on Ecumenicity. But, within the last decade, he thinks there has been a harder edge to disagreements.

One encouraging sign that he has observed is that lately, at general assembly, he can no longer tell who will vote for what. Instead, commissioners are listening to one another and making decisions based on what they hear on the floor rather than on preconceived notions alone.

“We need to consciously work at preserving that ability to communicate,” Mahaffy said.

To Young(er) Pastors

For that reason, from experience and conviction, Mahaffy advises young pastors to keep discussion and argumentation at presbytery in the realm of ideas. “Don’t let it get personal,” he said.

On the other hand, in the local church, let it get very personal. One of the greatest privileges of pastoring, Mahaffy believes, is being with God’s people during hard and intimate times, like facing surgery or experiencing death. He tells young pastors to appreciate that gift. “People are entrusting some of the most difficult parts of their lives into your hands. Take care of them carefully,” he said.

Besides knowing your congregation, he adds, know the Word. After fifty years, Mahaffy is still amazed that he gets paid to study the Word and present it. He loves what he is called to do.

“Be faithful to the Word in your preaching,” he advises. “And remember: you’re a servant of the church.”

The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, October 2020.

New Horizons: October 2020

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