Biblical Lessons from the Life & Ministry of Ron McDonnel
By Tim Cantrell – 6 January 2020
Johannesburg, South Africa
Fatherlessness is a dreadful curse on any home, community, or nation. Absence of fathers explains much of the dire spiritual landscape we face across Africa. Wherever the gospel has gone and taken root, homes are transformed, fathers arise, and societies are transformed as a result.
Last month I lost my spiritual father, Pastor Ron McDonnel, who went home to be with the Lord at age 76. (He was not fond of labels, so I will refer to him as he preferred, simply as “Ron”.) Ron faithfully pastored Katy Bible Church for 36 years, while also maintaining a weekly radio broadcast for over 40 years. To this spiritual father I am deeply, deeply indebted, so I pen this tribute as a tiny effort to begin discharging that debt.
It was under Ron’s ministry that my own call to missions and to pastoral ministry was confirmed. Ron’s wife, Margaret, first told me about The Master’s College and Seminary, where I went to study. It was at Ron’s fishing pond that my wife and I got engaged in 1997. It was Katy Bible that faithfully supported me through Bible school and seminary, and helped send us out to South Africa in 1998, where we have served the Lord ever since. There is not a single aspect of my pastoral ministry that does not have Ron’s fingerprints on it.
This brief article will hardly scratch the surface of such an epic life and spiritual hero. I can only trust that another will take up the worthy task of a full biography. I was glad to hear that in his latter years, Ron had begun recording his own stories as well, and I can’t wait to read them!
In 1 Corinthians 4:14-21 we find the Apostle Paul’s classic text about spiritual fathers, a passage which Ron personified. In remembering the life of a faithful pastor and expository preacher, it only seemed appropriate to frame my tribute to Ron around five marks of spiritual fathering: (a) admonishing; (b) reproducing; (c) modelling; (d) teaching; (e) power.
I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. (1 Cor. 4:14)
One of the first rebukes I earned in my summer pastoral internship under Ron was on my first Sunday that he let me preach. I showed up at church just in time to pray with the elders before the service started. But I had helped with nothing else before that (greeting folk arriving, etc.). Ron pulled me aside and said, “Son, do you want to be a pastor one day, or just a guest speaker?” Ouch. But he had earned that right. I knew he loved me. And he’d modelled true shepherding for decades.
When I came home from my first semester in seminary, I asked Ron, “What’s your philosophy of ministry?” He got that familiar sparkle of holy sarcasm in his eye, smiled at me, and said, “Son, I don’t know. But as soon as Wal-Mart starts carrying ‘em, I’ll go and buy me one!”
Just like Paul with the Corinthians, Ron always knew how to burst my bubble and keep me humble. He knew how to dish out just enough loving admonishment to keep me from boasting in human wisdom and novelty, and point me instead to the superior authority and perfect sufficiency of Christ and His Word. Ron and Margaret’s endless hospitality was a big part of how he won his way into many hearts and could give fatherly admonishment. Through delicious meals, rich fellowship, and plenty of laughter, every visiting preacher or missionary was welcomed into the McDonnel home as one of their own. Your burdens were theirs, your joys too. You truly expected to see your own picture up on that wall with all their kids and grandkids, because they seemed to love and care for you no less. In fact, often your picture was nearby, on their massive wall of missionary prayer cards.
For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. (1 Cor. 4:15)
Ron was a constant evangelist, always sowing the seed of the word. You never found him without gospel tracts, seizing every occasion to proclaim Christ – at the grocery store, restaurant, gas station, hospital, toll booth, and everywhere. Only eternity will reveal the myriads of spiritual offspring God has given Ron through his public and private witness.
Ron genuinely lived each day as if his last, with a holy urgency. He had no idea he would not see Christmas; yet Margaret tells of Ron’s increased zeal over Thanksgiving with each of his grandchildren and with everyone he met, urging them to come to Christ. On the day he died, his daughter Rachel heard him on the phone sharing God’s Word with one of the nurses. Spiritually speaking, Ron lived out the plea of Rachel of old when she cried out to Jacob, “Give me children or I die!” (Gen. 30:1)
It is no surprise then that all three of Ron’s children ended up in global missions – serving in Serbia, Ukraine, and South Africa. God’s heart for the nations was taught and caught from the earliest days in the McDonnel home. You could not be around Ron for long without realising we are ‘blessed to be a blessing’, that God has saved us to be conduits of His grace, not cul-de-sacs (Gen. 12:1-3; Ps. 67).
Like no other church I know, little Katy Bible Church out in the country punched way above its weight in missions, giving a huge amount of its annual budget to missions, and sending out gospel workers to the ends of the earth. When my wife and I were first raising support to come to the mission field, we found far wealthier churches giving less, while blue-collar folk at Katy Bible would dig deep, with glad generosity.
If it were not for that church’s prayerful, outward focus on the harvest, my parents never would have gone to Kenya and I would not be in South Africa. Those tiny, unimpressive Saturday morning men’s prayer meetings have yielded history-altering results and eternal fruit. All because of Ron’s faithful leadership as a spiritual father with a zeal to reproduce.
Therefore I urge you, be imitators of me. (1 Cor. 4:16)
Because my parents moved to Kenya during my varsity years, the McDonnel home became my home away from home. That round, wooden kitchen table on that tile floor became an invaluable and regular classroom for me on Christian life and ministry. Ron and Margaret modelled a prayerful alertness about the needs of the world, of the nation, of the church, and of many lives. I have no idea how they kept track of it all! They read and prayed over more missionary newsletters in a day than most Christians in a year! When we would visit, they would inquire about very recent aspects of our ministry, proving that they’d stayed abreast of all our latest happenings.
Ron was a model husband in many tangible, Christlike ways. He loved and cared for his first wife, Mary Jo, for 27 years, many of those during her chronic illness which became terminal. He then married Margaret and cherished her for another 29 years. He never ceased honouring her and extolling her virtues to anyone who would listen. Margaret writes that Ron, “…was the most grateful, loving, kind, gentle man I have ever known. …I would get so weary of him bragging about my cooking or about anything else I did.” Ron would also welcome Margaret’s wise input and keen knowledge of Scripture.
Ron’s life was clothed with humility. He was quick to confess sin, eager to repent and ask forgiveness. He’d often say, “Some days I don’t feel qualified to open in prayer in the nursery (creche).” He was thoroughly unimpressed with himself, but enamored with Christ. He described his job as simply being “God’s cheerleader”, applauding the Lord at every opportunity!
I watched him endure many a heartbreak from dear folk, into whom he’d poured decades of love and ministry. Yet he would not utter a word of bitterness, only wanting the best for their souls. When his heart condition forced him to retire, he said he’d be happy if the church would allow him still to mow the lawn. And he did! I would often hear Ron praising his successor, Matt, and gladly listening to Matt’s preaching as food for his own soul. “The greatest among you is your servant” (Matt. 23:11). Ron was a truly great man, of whom “the world was not worthy” (Heb. 11:38).
Enjoying life and not taking myself too seriously was something else I learned at Ron’s feet. Amidst this fallen and vain world, Ecclesiastes often commands us to “enjoy” the Creator’s simple gifts; and Ron took that joy seriously. He honoured God’s sabbath principle and knew how to take a day off. He savoured every bite of Texas’ finest Blue Bell ice cream. Part of my pastoral training under him was learning the profoundly theological ‘Fishing Song’:
Did you ever go fishin’ on a bright sunny day,
Sit on the bank and watch the fishes play,
With your hands in your pockets, and your pockets in your pants,
Watch the little fishes do the hula-hula dance!
Ron had suffered enough in life to learn well Prov. 17:22, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.” Ron would often say, “I’m the richest man alive!” He illustrated how “godliness with contentment is great gain”, proving that “the merry heart has a continual feast” (1 Tim. 6:6; Prov. 15:15). He loved and lived Prov. 10:22, “The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and He adds no sorrow to it.”
Ron modelled the life of faith. During Mary Jo’s prolonged illness and hospitalisations, the funds eventually ran out. That very night Ron stopped in at a restaurant where only one seat was available, sitting with a complete stranger. They greeted and began to exchange stories. “Hi, I’m Ronald McDonnel.” “Hi, I’m Charlie Brown.” And the rest was history. In the perfect providence of our amazingly personal and faithful God, Charlie Brown turned out to be the hospital administrator, who then told Ron never to pay another medical bill again, ever! Ron’s life story was one long exhibit to that great promise, “The LORD will provide” (Gen. 22:14). Ron’s life motto was, “Trust Him. You can trust Him!”
Volumes could be written of all the virtues Ron instilled in me and countless others, the very traits most lacking in today’s Church: his godly patriotism, unashamed of his love for God and country; his zeal for the Jews, praying and speaking often about the peace of Israel and her future restoration; his defense of the unborn; his consuming focus on the “blessed hope”, the return of our Lord (Titus 2:13); his heart for the poor, needy, widows, and the forsaken – who always found a warm welcome at his church and his home.
For Part 2, click here.