Don Follis | 'Unsanitized version' of becoming God's friend

Don Follis | 'Unsanitized version' of becoming God's friend

In almost 40 years in the ministry, I have had many a discussion with pastors about authenticity and transparency. How much should pastors tell their parishioners about themselves, some of whom unwittingly put their pastor on a pedestal? What is appropriate disclosure, especially from, say, the pulpit on Sunday?

In my first months on the job as a young campus pastor at the University of Illinois, I was actually warned by a 60-something pastor about telling people too much about my true feelings. In a teasing voice he said, “Just remember that whatever you say to anyone can and will be used against you.” Over the years, often I have thought of this proverb: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent and discerning if holds his tongue,” (Proverbs 17:28). There are times I have held my cards close to the vest.

A new memoir, just released by pastor and author Jack Deere, sets the bar for pastors to a new level of openness and raw honesty. “Even in our Darkness — A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life” (Zondervan, 2018) is Deere’s authentic, albeit rather dark personal account of his life.

I have read lots of memoirs by pastors, but none as personal and frank as Deere’s. For those thinking they might pretend to be part of evangelical nobility, Deere’s book quickly shows that any such dignity is pocked and flawed. No one, certainly no pastor, is above reproach. From page one, Deere plunges his readers into an intimate and personal account of a disintegrating life heading toward tragedy, even as he hangs on to his faith.

I first got acquainted with Jack Deere 15 years ago when I read “Surprised by the Power of the Spirit.” Deere had been a rising young professor at the popular but conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, a school that took a hard stance against charismatic gifts.

“Surprised by the Power of the Spirit” is Deere’s brilliant explanation of how he went from not believing in the charismatic gifts such as speaking in tongues to believe and widely endorse and teach that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are for today.

In the memoir, Deere explains that changing his stance on spiritual gifts, and especially his friendship back in the late 1980s with the founder of the Vineyard Church movement, John Wimber, got him fired at the seminary.

Getting fired led to an immediate invitation from Wimber for Deere to move from Dallas to Southern California to become his assistant and scholar-in-residence. For a time, Deere and Wimber traveled the world teaching about the miraculous power of God and praying for people to get empowered and healed of any and all infirmities.

But after just a few years, Deere and Wimber got cross-wise with each other. They parted company, and Deere moved his family to rural Montana, where he became a Presbyterian pastor. Once in Montana though, it became evident that Deere’s middle son was seriously addicted to drugs and alcohol. When the young man was just 23, his life tragically ended on Dec. 27, 2000. The grief of losing a son took a huge toll, and Deere moved his family back to Fort Worth, Texas, his hometown. Sadly, it was not long before Deere’s wife Leesa began drinking heavily to cover the pain of losing her son. By then Deere was the pastor of a Fort Worth church he called “a dysfunctional church that was dying,” filled with “people I didn’t want to go to lunch with.”

While trying to pastor this church, Deere’s wife kept drinking more and more. Despite four rounds of rehab between 2005 and 2011, she failed to quit drinking. To make matters harder, during her days of heavy drinking, Leesa Deere revealed to Jack that as a girl, she had been sexually abused by her own father.

It also led to Jack feeling increasingly paralyzed and powerless. For a while, Leesa Deere moved out of their home, not even sure she wanted to stay married. And all this after more than 30 years of marriage to Jack, leaving him a confused, lonely man who was fighting to stay married and trying to love “a fifty-seven-year-old woman who tottered on the abyss of insanity.”

But then one day Leesa quit drinking. She just up and quit, and she’s now been completely sober for nearly seven years. Today Deere says it has taken him nearly 70 years of living, of going through everything he has gone through, to figure out that God’s grace is not conditional on a perfect life.

In this raw, gritty and transparent memoir, Deere says, “The book isn’t about suffering. It’s about becoming a friend of God, feeling his pleasure in you and you enjoying him. I was looking for ultimate happiness in a great church, a great book, and in my wife stopping drinking. But I was really learning about friendship with God.”

Nearing their 70th birthdays, the Deere’s are still married. Now living in Franklin, Tenn., Deere speaks in churches across the country, telling his story and preaching the love of God. He also takes care of his wife Leesa. Though she continues her sobriety, she has had two major strokes, seriously affecting her speech and mobility.

Jack Deere has decided to hang tough, come what may. He has now become an old man now, he says. But he wanted that old man to tell “the unsanitized version” of how he is “becoming a friend of God.”

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):People, Religion