A tribute to Don Smith

March 23rd, 2018

Presented here are highlights from reflections on the life of Don Smith, originally presented by Paul Cameron and Lynette Leach at the celebration of Don’s life on February 7 at Doncaster church, edited significantly for length.

Paul Cameron: I take this opportunity to reflect about Don from a ‘big picture’ Churches of Christ perspective as a great privilege. I have known Don or—in earlier times, known of Don—since commencing studies at the College of the Bible in 1974. More recently I was his minister at Doncaster church and was then and have since been—in another role—a recipient of his generous support and encouragement.

Don commenced as ‘Secretary’-elect of the Home Missions Department of Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania in 1962, succeeding B.J. Combridge as Secretary in 1963. Along with the appointment of Allan Avery as Field Officer, it was reported at the 1963 Conference that, “This could prove one of the most important turning points in Departmental history… these are both young men…” “gifted, devoted, and zealous”. Combridge, in his 1967 history of the Department, wrote, “Years hence, some future writer may offer an assessment of the contributions… but present indications fully justify the hopes of those who planned the appointments.” We are here today to say yes, it was a most important turning point, and yes, Don’s contribution far exceeded the hopes held at his appointment.

The way I see it, throughout his ministries, in CCVT, federally, and though the Australian Christian, Don helped Churches of Christ focus on the things that really matter. It was a focus on ‘harvest’. Don was a pragmatist—a person who dealt with things sensibly and realistically, based on practice rather than theory—and as such he welcomed and adapted the ‘church growth’ ideas of Disciples of Christ missiologist and former missionary Donald McGavran, popularised by Win Arn. This forms a foundation for all that CCVT has done since, and does today, as it seeks to be a movement of the people of God, gathering in and around the central figure of Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, living out his Way in our neighbourhoods, and inviting others to do the same; and to be building Communities of Hope and Compassion and developing Leaders to lead them.

In the words of Dean Phelan (that I know you will be able to say ‘Amen’ to), looking back I believe Don Smith was one of our most significant leaders of the last century, and I give thanks to God for this great and faithful servant, and for Lois whose lifetime partnership enabled Don.

Lynette Leach: A master strategist, a decisive leader, and a faithful disciple of Jesus. Don leaves a significant legacy. Appointed as a field director by Don, I observed his strategic awareness of present and future needs. He was deeply committed to the ideals of our Movement, yet not bound by rigid adherence to tradition.

He had a heart for encouraging smaller churches, supporting large churches, seizing opportunities for new ministries, overseeing campsites, and always on the lookout for prospective ministers and leaders. He spent hours with local church Boards and ministers, offering advice and utilising resources to respond to needs.

There were humorous moments too. When I was the driver on visits to country churches, after conversation about everyday life, he would produce a folder with the agenda for discussion in the car. Terry McCredden, whom Don recruited for the Department of Mission, Education and Development Board, recalls car trips with Don and their discussions about theology, politics, mission, trains, and history. When Don became excited about a topic, he slowed down and Terry would remind him to speed up or be late for the meeting.

Don was instrumental in promoting pioneering initiatives and leaders. Cheryl Johnson appreciated Don taking a risk to support her establishing the Singles and Divorce Recovery Ministry, which had a national impact. He was an advocate for Asian ministers and their churches, and for the Kensington Christian Network, led by Ian and Curly Corlett in their ministry among residents in the high-rise flats. Ash Barker, who was part of the team that founded Urban Neighbours of Hope, says that “Don opened the door for a generation willing to innovate and try new methods. He took us under his wing, giving us space to experiment and find our own voices.” Don employed Ash as Urban Mission Director and helped to launch UNOH. Someone complained publicly about Ash’s lack of Churches of Christ credentials. Ash said, “I’ll never forget Don standing up for us and saying, ‘What they are actually doing in Springvale is far more in line with our movement’s vision than some of our churches. I am more worried about that.’”

Don’s strength and focused vision stemmed from his faith. I treasure his advice to “never lose the deep abiding joy of the presence of Christ in your life.”

Throughout his ministry, Don was supported wholeheartedly by his wife Lois. She made her unique contribution to Churches of Christ on her own merit, and has been an inspiration in her devoted care for Don through the last difficult years.

I finish with the inscription in Don’s book Harvest. He quotes from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress where Hopeful says to Christian, on crossing the river, “Be of good cheer, my friend, I feel the bottom, and it is good.” May those words be our hope, as though said by Don, having crossed the river. “Be of good cheer, my friends, I feel the bottom, and it is good.”