In Memoriam: Robert "Bob" Fenn

From a very simple beginning in 1954, amazing things happened when God called a man named Robert Godfrey Fenn, to organize a simple conference to learn more about men and women understanding their faith and finding places of ministry…

I first learned about Lay Renewal when a man named Joe Schluchter came to a church where I was serving as a Youth Director. I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but I began to see how God could be at work in what we were doing. But honestly, I had no idea Joe was from Lay Renewal. Nothing about that event had been about the ministry. It was all about God and His plan for our specific church.

Not long after that, I felt it was time to leave seminary and pursue other work. Tom and Ruth Donner approached me with Trulah Monroe (people I knew from church) and asked if I wanted to interview for a position running the Resource Center bookstore. I knew two things: I needed a job and I liked to eat.

That day, almost 23 years ago, I learned the saying, “God loves you and Bob Fenn has a plan for your life.

The interview was, well, odd. I had my suit and my resume. I had rehearsed questions and answers in my mind. Those things seemed insignificant. What mattered? Bob wanted to tell me how, if I was called to serve through Lay Renewal, I could serve God by using my gifts and talents through the ministry. It wasn’t how qualified I was. It was whether or not God had called me there. I went home and told Diana, my bride, how excited I was! We prayed and God opened the door.   

As I look back, the list of the things I learned from Bob, this mighty man of God, is long. To be honest, I was not very smart. Granted, I knew stuff, but I just wasn’t that smart. Over those next several years, Bob taught me as only a man who is seeking to follow God’s heart can teach and disciple a very immature person. Want to hear some stories?

One day, a truck pulled up and dropped off a pallet of books. I immediately ran back to start unloading it. I was a guy in my late 20s and this was the job for me! Imagine my shock as Bob and his beautiful wife, Delores, told me they would do it. They were both in their 70s. Delores was a very petite woman. I thought, “Are you kidding me?” But, as I observed this dynamic duo, I saw love and grace at work. They worked as one to demolish box after box after box. As I learned over the years, they weren’t perfect, but they were amazing as a couple bonded in Christ and marriage.

And then there was the day I learned that Bob’s desk was made of a door. Not “made” of a door – like someone had cut up pieces artistically and reshaped them as a door. His desk was literally a door on top of a couple of small filing cabinets. There were options but he was simply practical. He needed a workspace – not a fancy desk. The door was available and Viola!

Bob had an incredible gift of encouragement. I came to him one day with a crazy plan to pick up and “180” the counter in the Resource Center. I wanted to create a more inviting entry. On paper, the exact specifics were a bit, well, fuzzy. However, I could see it all in my head and, when I told Bob that I knew that it would work, he told me to go for it. It worked beautifully! (Thank you, Lord!)

LRM stocked Christian books in a secular business on what is called a “racking” program. One day, I remarked how some of the books were “bubble gum” (meaning in a rather derogatory way that they were good for a few sweet minutes of chewing, but then totally lacking anything that lasts). However, Bob gently reminded me that there was always “the right book, at the right time, for the right person”. While he probably should have rebuked my judgmental attitude, he instead reminded me of grace.

And, speaking of those Christian book racks, in yet another refirement (in his 70s), Bob took on the job of caring for those racks himself. He would drive (60+ miles depending on the location) to the thirteen different stores, check inventory, pull old products, and put in new ones. He did this until the chain sold in 1999. He re-fired again in yet another role at LRM with a Turn-Around Church program.  Finally, at 78, he and Delores moved back to Dallas.

Over the years, I tried to call him regularly. He was one of the few people I called when I was asked by a church in St Louis to begin serving bi-vocationally. Honestly, I was hoping he would tell me no. As Executive Director of Lay Renewal, I thought I had no place in pastoral ministry. (You know, the whole “lay”, non-ordained thing!) And yet, his “YES!” was crystal clear. He told me I would learn so much that I could then use in the churches we were serving. I’m still not sure I believed him at the time, but his prognostication has proven so unbelievably accurate. One pastor told me, “It’s easier to talk because you are one of us.” (And I also love the church family I am so blessed to serve!)

The frequency of those calls to Bob decreased over the years, but I still did my best to stay in touch. Last year, on a trip to Houston, I was able to connect through Dallas. I left the airport and drove over to have lunch and catch up. It was a good visit, but I could tell that he was getting tired. Some of our conversation began to repeat. It was challenging, even when we spoke last month, to understand that my mentor, a spiritual father, was struggling so much…

Even in those struggles, I could always hear the smile in his voice. He provided encouragement and a calling to persevere. He continued to ask probing questions and share blessings: Have you tried this? Good idea. Have you tried that? That’s wonderful! Do you still talk to…?

I can still hear the sound of his voice exhorting me to push forward. To keep seeking God’s direction. To be bold and courageous. To keep following the Spirit’s prompting. To keep sharing the beautiful, wonderful, inexplicable – and yet mysteriously simple – Gospel to anyone who will listen.

Over two decades later, I still look back and wonder why he was willing to take a chance on me. I still wonder why he put up with my goofy ideas to move things, invite authors in, to take a risk on a conference, to talk to the GM at a radio station about a program, to not kick me to the curb if an idea flopped, to give me encouragement to try another ridiculous, outlandish, and crazy thing…

<<sigh>>

I’ve written only about how God worked through Bob in my life. Perhaps that is selfish, but as I try to celebrate his Home-going balanced with my personal loss, that’s my focus. I want you to know the heart, soul, and passion of this great man of God as I knew him. I want you to love him too – even if you never met him.

There is so much more that could be shared about Bob and Delores’ family. They were blessed with FIVE daughters and many grandchildren.

There is so much more that could be shared about those they connected with over the years. At the first book conference I attended with Bob, I was in a bit of awe as I heard story after story of things he had done and people with whom he had connected. And yet, he never said anything to brag. It was just a collection of ways God was at work.

There is so much more that could be shared about the lives that he touched as he faithfully walked where God called him. I am frequently hearing from person after person after person who knew him, loved him, and were blessed by him. During a book conference one year, I met Geoff Moore. If you don’t recognize his name, he wrote many Christian songs – including the one that my wife and I danced to at our wedding. It was nice to meet him in person and even more of a blessing when he told me that he received Christ as a result of a lay renewal event. While he had not been there, the church had been so impacted and transformed that he went there and heard the Gospel.

Can you imagine the threads of connection? Can you imagine the grand tapestry of faith because one man answered the Call? Can you imagine how one changed life became dozens of changed lives? And how those dozens became hundreds? Then thousands? Then tens of thousands?

Bob Fenn was an incredible man of God whose legacy will continue. He wasn’t flashy or fancy. He wasn’t in it for “Bob Fenn”. He simply wanted to see God glorified.

He will be greatly missed. But his legacy will live on as long as more men and women continue to answer the Call to step forward in faith. I don’t think Bob would have wanted anything more.

Robert Godfrey Fenn – January 23, 1926 – March 21, 2019

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