Tom Fillinger, RIP

“But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 3:13

Tom Fillinger was a man marked by urgency. He could have easily been mistaken for a curmudgeon. But if curmudgeons are marked by criticism and inaction, Tom Fillinger was no curmudgeon. Cantankerous for certain, but no curmudgeon.

I first met Tom by reputation. Tales of him from his family were ample, and his influence was made clear in the respect his family had for him. I came to know Tom in the course of his work in helping church leaders to gain a biblical vision of shepherding the flock of God. A retired pastor not content to rest on his laurels, he reached out to me in 2014 to serve on the board of IgniteUs, a ministry he founded to help rekindle leadership in America’s churches.

I remember the first phone call I had with him. His gravely voice was fueled with both frustration and passion at what he saw as a cancerous deficit of leadership in American churches. Tom’s frustration led him not to benign grumbling, but to pointed action. For Tom, hand-wringing was an abuse of the time God has given us. Get moving or get out of the way. In the China shop of American church leadership, Tom Fillinger was a Pamplona bull.

When our own church was suddenly immersed in a leadership crisis, I got to see Tom at work firsthand. He first helped us see that our crisis wasn’t as sudden as we thought, and helped us put the pieces back together in a way that, though difficult, formed a more solid grounding. For a group of elders who were reeling from the trauma of a scandal while still trying to lead a church, Tom’s confident centeredness was a gift from God. He led us though a process that made us better, stronger, and more anchored in the word of God.

Tom’s urgency bled into his prolific correspondence. Oh how I will miss his emails! He sent many ministry updates and prayer requests for things like preaching the gospel at a funeral for someone he didn’t even know — and whose family had no one else to conduct the service. Often he would blind copy me (and who knows how many others?) on correspondence that would be prodding some wayward church leader, urging them to fall back upon the Scriptures.

His final prayer letter — in January — was aptly titled, “Looking Ahead.” After all, that’s where Tom was always pointing us. The last time I preached at our church, little did I know that Tom was watching the stream from his home in Alabama. He sent me a short email that simply said, “Jared, Listened to your message – Well Done.”

Now Tom gets to hear those words for himself as he worships his savior face to face. Well done.