This Lenten discipline of mine has been a fascinating experiment for me thus far. I am writing each day in Lent (except those non-Lenten Sundays) about a person who has been a spiritual guide along my life’s path. In some cases, that person may be more a vocational mentor, or someone who otherwise has had a significant influence on who I am still becoming as a child of God. I have refrained from calling this my personal “Top 40” list, since that might imply a ranking in one direction or the other. No ranking here. Just a daily discernment that brings to mind someone important to me.

Today it is Ed Willingham. Among the commemorative T-shirts I’ve collected through the years are two that carry the logo “NABS WACC.” I wear them to the gym now and then, but no one has ever asked me what the letters stand for. If someone did, I am prepared to sing the first line of the NABS-WACC jingle (the only line I can remember): “NABS-WACC, NABS-WACC, you gotta love a group with a name like that…”

Ed Willingham was the creative and administrative spark of the North American Broadcast Section of the World Association for Christian Communication. The year I was ordained as a Minister of Electronic Media in the Presbyterian Church, a NABS-WACC member who helped open the door to my specialized ministry, Clifton Dixon, encouraged me to attend the annual NABS conference. It was held each year in Fort Lauderdale, the week after Thanksgiving. (It didn’t take much prodding, that’s for sure!)

NABS-WACC brought together U.S. and Canadian church broadcasters, Protestant and Catholic. United around a different theme each year, we heard plenary speakers, learned about new developments in media, attended workshops, and shared our own productions. We learned the art of collegiality.  Most of each afternoon was kept free for beach and sun time, so that the convention afforded us all some r&r in which we engaged without shame.

Ed Willingham was the anchor of the NABS-WACC yacht. He helped scout locations for the conference, guided the annually-elected steering committee, and provided a decades-long continuity of leadership.  Wonderfully personable, earnestly committed to ecumenism, firmly grounded in his Baptist faith (American Baptist Convention), and a talented broadcaster in Detroit — that is Ed Willingham. His many gifts helped make the NABS-WACC conferences occasions for professional continuing education as well as personal spiritual renewal. 

That brings me to the point of my Lenten exercise. I thank Ed for his leadership and inspiration as I look back at how much those annual conferences provided encouragement and professional growth for me and hundreds of others.

Many of us who attended the NABS gatherings were involved with what I call Lone Ranger ministries. We worked alone, but under the auspices of various church agencies. Our media ministries may have been guided by committees, but essentially we wrote scripts, produced, directed, edited, and delivered our programming ourselves, or with a small group of volunteers. There was a time when my “boss” was an Executive Presbyter who told me following my annual evaluation, “Well, Jeff, I’m not quite sure what you do, but it looks as if you are doing a good job.” To go to NABS-WACC each year led us into a broad circle of folk with whom we had much in common. We didn’t feel alone anymore.

(That said, some NABS-WACC members did work with larger agencies and bigger budgets, and some produced programs for major broadcast networks. I always thought of them as the “big steeple” pastors to us rural parish folk. Not all of us wanted to ascend to the heights of their work, more content to remain where we were, knowing that our more modest resources still communicated the Good News and sometimes even worked miracles.)

It is not at all hyperbole to say that every single NABS-WACC conference gave me new ideas, renewed my call to that unique ministry, encouraged my own creativity, enriched my faith, and even affirmed my own modest efforts. It was one thing to hear from my listeners or supporting churches that my ministry was worthwhile and appreciated, but it was also heartening to hear from one’s peers that you had talents God-given and effectively utilized. I will always remember one official of a different denomination saying to me (after an excerpt of my radio program was played in the “Showcase”) “Kellam, why are you hiding your lamp under a bushel?” Not long after that, he made it possible for my program to be nationally distributed.

As I look back on what I’ve written I realize that there is a NABS-WACC conference component I’ve neglected to mention. We worshipped together each day. We were a group of ecumenical Christian broadcasters, and it meant so much for us as we joined together to pray, sing, and encounter the Word in creative worship that the wider Church is only now catching up to!

More than just a conference administrator, Ed was (and remains) a dear friend to us all, even a loving pastor to a very diverse flock. When I look back at my life and ministry, Ed Willingham has a special place as guide and colleague. Thanks be to God!