Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

Rev. Cornelis (Neil) Pronk: Thirty Years in the Ministry

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
Anniversaries are times for reflection and evaluation. From where have we come? What have we accomplished? Where are we going? These are some of the questions one is likely to ask at such times of remembrance. Anniversaries of ministers are different in that only the Lord really knows the answers to such questions. Ministers do not count their "successes" in membership numbers or building programs or publications. These things may be indicators of zeal expended, but such zeal is not necessarily directly related to the only "success" that matters: the blessing of the Lord. And since the degree and extent of that blessing will not be known until the Lord pronounces His "Well done" when the journey is over, no earthly publication will ever detail accurately the impact made by any man's ministry.

Having said this, we may express our gratitude to the Lord for what He has given to the churches in the person of our brother Cornelis (Neil) Pronk. On Wednesday, November 13, 1968, he was inducted into the ministry of the Word and Sacraments as pastor of the Free Christian Reformed churches of Aldergrove and Pitt Meadows, B. C. When you read the December 1968 issue of The Messenger, in which a report of this event is included, you realize how much has changed in our churches. Of the ministers who wrote in that issue, only Rev. Stehouwer is still living, although now in retirement in the Netherlands. Rev. Tamminga, the editor and the one who led the ordination service, is gone. Rev. Noordegraaf's farewell is in this issue; the news of his death was heard by most before they read his own last written words; Revs. G. Bilkes, J. Keuning, J. Overduin have all served and are all now resting from their labours. The very magazine is hardly recognizable.

These changes, in part, give an indication of the nature of the ministry of our brother Pronk. It was a ministry in a time of transition. It was the time when our churches changed from Dutch to English. It was a ministry into a more settled context. The pioneer days were over--but that does not mean that the following days were that much easier.

For the ordination service, Rev. Tamminga preached on 2 Corinthians 13:8: "For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth" and charged the young (and slim and blond) minister to stand for the truth--to maintain and to defend it. This is possible only when, by grace, we have learned that it is the Lord himself who maintains His cause. The King of Truth always remains King.

Rev. Pronk's inaugural sermon was based on Joshua 1:1-9. His theme: "A Gracious Promise to a Servant in Need." This theme was developed along these lines: this promise: 1) delivers from overwhelming fear; 2) inspires to exact obedience; 3) assures of blessed success. "It is only because of this promise that I am able to take up my labours in your midst", said the new pastor.

The report of this event is from the hand of the late Rev. J. Overduin, the previous pastor of these churches, and is so much in his style--in the attention to detail of location and churches you can taste the love which he always had for "the West" and his truly ecumenical spirit which longed for the day when all would be one.

Rev. and Mrs. Pronk laboured in these two congregations until April 1973. During this time, in 1969, a fledgling radio outreach was begun on a local station. Today, the voice of our brother is still heard on the Banner of Truth Broadcast but now over twelve stations. Taped versions and printed messages have circled the globe and positive responses have come in from Aruba to Zimbabwe. Although Rev. H. Overduin is slated to take over more and more of this work, in the minds of many the voice of Rev. Pronk will long be the voice of this broadcast.

The years in Aldergrove and Pitt Meadows, although not without testing and trials, were good years. During this time the Pronks received their two sons, David and Timothy. The congregation of Aldergrove, especially, grew during this time and there was a close bond with its pastor. However, this bond was severed in April 1973 when the Lord led them to Grand Rapids, Michigan. The pain at leaving was sharp; the joy of arriving was sweet.

Grand Rapids was the longest period of their lives in one place: from April 13, 1973 till September 25, 1987. To be the successor to a retired minister who had laboured for a long period (Rev. Tamminga for 12 years) presented some unique challenges. Also here the congregation grew under the preaching of our brother, preaching which was based on sound exegesis and which was delivered with evident compassion for the lot of sinners. Having again been inducted into this service by Rev. Tamminga, Rev. Pronk began his ministry here with the words of Zechariah 4:6. During this time, both Rev. & Mrs. Pronk availed themselves of the educational opportunities offered locally and received, respectively, Master of Theology and Master of Church Education degrees from Calvin Seminary. Together with Rev. Tamminga, he was also charged to provide some additional training to the various theological students at that time, of whom Rev. VanderMeyden and undersigned were allowed to enter the ministry in our churches in 1978.

In the closely knit Reformed community of Grand Rapids, with its many family ties and its wide variety of churches "and choices," the reputation of "the new man on Ball Avenue" quickly spread. The church grew rapidly. External growth is not always easy. Although the sanctuary had to be expanded to accommodate the growing church, some of those who joined later moved on to other churches. Many had come from churches in which they claimed the preaching had become stale or liberal. This influx of new people created some tensions in the church. Some, who felt delivered from a system of man-made traditions, wanted to be free of various other traditions as well, while others, who saw in such traditions a form of stability to safeguard their heritage, became quite vigilant in the defense of what was dear to them. Of course, both appealed to the preacher. It speaks of wisdom, tact and the blessing of the Lord that the congregation came through what could have been a very difficult time in such good condition. Indeed, the Lord proved again that it is only "by His Spirit".

The work in Grand Rapids was brought to an end by a call from St. Thomas. This congregation had gone through a time of deep trial and had lost many of its members in the period immediately preceding. I had the privilege of leading him into this service with the words of Romans 1:5 and he began his ministry with the wish of Paul expressed in the verses 12 and 13 of this chapter. The ministry in St. Thomas was a period of stabilization and growth for the congregation. Often, the development in the congregation is a reflection of the development taking place in the minister's own life. I think this was true in this case.

Almost exactly seven years after taking up the work in St. Thomas, the Pronks, once again, made a new start in the congregation where they currently serve, Brantford. Rev. Procee, pastor of Hamilton under whose auspices the Brantford church had developed, preached the installation sermon on the text, "I will place salvation in Zion for Israel my glory" (Isaiah 46:13b), while the inaugural sermon was based on 1 Corinthians 3:11, "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." This church had been instituted less than a year before and in Rev. Pronk received its first pastor. Those who know the situation in Brantford will agree with me that this also was (and still is) a time of "first love." The Brantford congregation, with its unique history and background, needed the steady, even-handed approach of a seasoned minister. Under the guidance of Rev. Pronk it is becoming established while regularly growing. Here, as well as in all his previous congregations, it is still "not by might, nor by power by my Spirit, saith the Lord."

In this brief overview of the ministry of brother Pronk there is nothing stated which cannot be rather easily found in other sources. As written in the opening lines, we stay away from grandiose statements about accomplishments and special experiences. That does not mean they were not there--but let the Lord publish those later. I have not mentioned his love for and knowledge of the Puritans. His grasp of theology and church history is respected amongst his colleagues.

Also, I have resisted (successfully to this point!) the temptation to show that side of Rev. Pronk which is not so readily visible in his public persona, but which is there (believe me, it is there!). I have done that for two reasons: 1) to surprise him, 2) to spare him.

Finally, although mention has been made in passing of Mrs. Pronk, this will not do to recognize what the Lord has given him in her as a helpmeet. Were we to enumerate her contributions to his work, one might wonder if that would not be detracting from whatever recognition he has (properly) received. Neil will be the first to acknowledge that without his faithful Ricky at his side (where she can usually be found) he would not have been able to do what he did. When you consider only the extra work of the radio ministry and The Messenger as well as the study materials she has developed for Sunday School and VBS curricula, you get some inkling of the prestigious amount of work she can perform. (And, to his delight, she can cook, too!)

May I end on a personal note? I think a friendship of thirty-six years (!) permits that. I remember November 1962--a young man speaking about Elisha at Dothan. How much has happened in our lives since then. How they have run parallel--you ten years ahead of me (although not ten years older). Now we both have been promoted to grandparents. November 13, 1968--November 13, 1998: thirty years. What a puff of air in the annals of man's history. But also, what a tremendously exciting and important time in the history of the western world. Vietnam, globalization, demise of communism, the role of the U. S; Nixon to Clinton. How we have debated these items--in places far away and close to home. But also, how we have spoken of our concerns for the Free Reformed Churches and for the need of preaching which focuses all in Christ, for it is all from Him. How we have probed the truth of the Covenant of Grace and how we have discovered more and more that Christ is not only our justification but also our sanctification. And how we have learned that grace is grace and that ministers are nothing special; they also are sinners who can be saved by grace alone. Dear brother, dear friend--what shall we say at the end?

When Rev. Tamminga reached his fortieth anniversary he preached on Luke 17:10, the "unprofitable servants" passage. It was in 1972 and I had just started my studies at Calvin College. At the time, I thought it was a bit pessimistic and not very encouraging. I am beginning to understand it better. Perhaps you even more so?

We are at an age when we have passed our prime, certainly physically. Younger men will take our places. So it should be. Perhaps you will have a thirty-fifth anniversary; perhaps not. Let this be an opportunity to state publicly that we appreciate you both and we honour you and we thank God for you. "We" being the churches, the colleagues and Margaret and I.

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