“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
John Quincy Adams may not have had Dr. Larry Chamberlain in mind when he penned these words, but Chamberlain’s 36-year ministry with the Grace Brethren Investment Foundation and Grace Brethren North American Missions (GBIF/GBNAM) did just that.
When Chamberlain steps down this spring as president and chief executive officer of the GBIF, the church extension fund for the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC), a position he has held since 1989, he will have not only inspired others to dream, he will leave an indelible mark on the Fellowship.
Chamberlain and his wife, Sherlene, arrived in Winona Lake, Ind., in 1977 with their two children, Traci and Travis, so he could fill the accountant’s position at what was then the Grace Brethren Home Missions Council, the church-planting arm of the FGBC. Behind, he left his management career at a regional bank and their ministry involvements at the Grace Brethren Church in Myerstown, Pa.
The decision to leave their native Pennsylvania was rooted in a meeting in the early 60’s on the campus of Bob Jones University with Dr. Lester Pifer, then executive secretary of the Home Missions Council (the predecessor organization to GBNAM) while Larry and Sherlene were students at BJU. When a position opened up at GBIF and Home Missions in 1977, Pifer gave Larry a call.
Chamberlain says that the thought of being involved in church planting really “struck a chord with us.” He was drawn to the “opportunity to serve the Lord in a dynamic environment with committed colleagues” and to see various churches continue to thrive because of the funding and support they received.
Dr. Pifer, who served with Grace Brethren Home Missions for 33 years, remembers that Chamberlain was “a dedicated Christian,” worked well with people, and had a big heart for church planting. After working collectively to help plant more than 200 churches, Pifer, now retired and living in Columbus, Ohio, considers Chamberlain his “dearest friend.” He says that he enjoyed working with Larry and calls him a “great asset to [the] organization.”
“I’ve always sought to treat people with respect and dignity — celebrating and encouraging their strengths and tolerating their idiosyncrasies,” says Chamberlain. “We all have them!”
It is a hallmark of his ministry.
He was treasurer of the FGBC when it became apparent there were no funds for the military chaplains to attend Conference. “There was little to no budget for our endorsing agent and very few of [the chaplain’s] stories were getting written up,” he recalls.
Working with the late Jerry Young, a pastor and member of Fellowship Council who was also a reserve Army chaplain, and the late Bob Thompson, then-executive director of Grace Brethren Home Missions, Chamberlain led the development of a ministry to provide support for the chaplains in the U.S. Armed Forces. The Eagle Commission was kicked off at the 1988 National Conference in Palm Desert, Calif., introducing the 10 active duty chaplains at the time.
Home Missions had agreed to underwrite – through fundraising and its own subsidies – the expenses of the endorsing agent and the chaplaincy ministry. When GBNAM and GBIF split operations in 2004, the Eagle Commission continued under the sponsorship of the Investment Foundation.
Today there are 15 active duty military chaplains, with another five in Veteran’s Affairs and Civil Air Patrol roles. Each is recognized, along with local police and fire department chaplains, at Conference, an event that has become a highlight of the week.
It was also during Chamberlain’s tenure as FGBC treasurer that it became apparent that the Brethren Ministerial Relief Fund, a defined benefit retirement plan for Grace Brethren pastors, was seriously underfunded. “It was fully dependent,” he recalls, “on new people coming in and funding the payments to retiring pastors.” Trouble was, participation was declining rapidly as pastors and churches were looking elsewhere for retirement saving options.
Chamberlain led a year-long committee, appointed by the Fellowship Council, to make recommendations. The result was the defined contribution plan now available to Grace Brethren churches for their pastors and other staff members. It has grown to more than 300 participants and in excess of $9 million in retirement funds invested.
The prior plan was dissolved, but there were still a number of pastors nearing retirement and counting on income from the defunct program. “We considered the participants in the old plan and thought, ‘it’s not fair for a person who has been a part of this to just simply walk away with nothing,’” he remembers.
“We were able to calculate what each pastor had contributed personally over the years,” he says, “and we cut a check returning those funds to the participant. We also initiated the Promise of Honor campaign to ensure that pastors (or their widows) who were within five years of retirement would get the defined benefit that was promised under the prior plan. More then $770,000 has been distributed to 43 retirees and widows over the years through this campaign.” (See “Honor Bound,” in the Winter 2013 issue of GraceConnect magazine.)
As the chief executive of Grace Brethren Investment Foundation since 1989, he has led a faithful staff in providing funding for church planting and church development, experiencing significant growth along the way. The 1990 Grace Brethren Annual, the first that lists Chamberlain as GBNAM/GBIF executive director, details total assets in the Investment Foundation as $19,971,854. At the end of 2012, GBIF assets were reported at $97,140,738. Further, since 1989, more than $10,700,000 has been contributed to church-planting initiatives and Fellowship ministries and for the past several years, GBIF has contributed $7,500 to each new church accepted into the Fellowship at National Conference.
Initially, Chamberlain led both GBIF and GBNAM, separate corporations that functioned under one board. In 2004 a decision was made to formally divide the organizations. Each had each grown considerably. Having distinct boards and leadership made practical sense from an oversight and accountability perspective. The board decided that Chamberlain would continue as the CEO of GBIF. (Tim Boal ultimately was named as CEO of GBNAM.)
For all the successes, Chamberlain counts the most devastating day as the one when, as CEO of GBNAM, he received a letter from claimants alleging abuse by a former employee decades before. The next week, at an already-scheduled meeting, he laid out a plan to the GBNAM board.
“I said, ‘there’s a reason God has brought this to our attention to deal with at this time,’” he recalls. “’We will respond in good faith. If there’s a wrong to be made right, it’s up to us to make it right,’” he remembers.
Within nine months, the situation was agreeably settled. “God allowed us to deal with something that was decades old and we settled it honorably, justly, and, I felt, redemptively,” he says. “Further, God honored our response of good faith, as most of the settlement was recovered through insurance, thanks to a great staff, countless hours of research, and insurance records going back decades.”
The situation remains the most traumatic of his career. He says he is thankful for a supportive board and helpful staff, as well as understanding Fellowship leaders who were kept abreast of developments throughout the nine-month negotiations.
“I was very gratified at the trust and confidence that the Fellowship’s leadership had in our ability to manage the situation,” he says. “I felt good about the fact that no Fellowship assets were at risk, and early on, we were able to exonerate other agencies in our Fellowship.”
“If Larry is guilty of anything, it is his abundant grace and gracious generosity,” says Kurt Miller, who first met Chamberlain in college, then worked with him at GBNAM as the national director of church planting. “Larry is the most forgiving and caring person I have ever met,” he adds. “I have never worked for anyone that I enjoyed more.”
Miller, who will join MetroGrace, Philadelphia, as director of strategic partnerships this summer, says that while Chamberlain was not a pastor, he was completely “aware, in touch, and loving toward pastors, and especially church planters,” one reason why he was so passionate about church planting.
Chamberlain’s journey in the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches began in Johnstown, Pa., where he was saved under the ministry of W.A. Ogden. “Shortly thereafter, our family became involved in the new church at Riverside, on the outskirts of Johnstown, planted by Ralph Hall (who later would be instrumental in developing the Brethren Architectural Service).” In high school, under the ministry of Pastor Don Rough, he made a commitment to full-time Christian service.
At Bob Jones University, he met Sherlene during their freshman year. They will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary this year.
“She has been a cheerleader of my work with GBNAM and GBIF, serving as my closest confidant, spiritual advisor, and encourager,” stresses Chamberlain. “I could always rely on Sherlene to help me tough it out during some challenging experiences. She is a loving wife, mother, grandmother, and a genuine gift from God.”
In Indiana, the Chamberlains joined the Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church, where he served as moderator, treasurer, and elder. Active in the community, he was secretary on the board of Warsaw Community Schools, president of the Warsaw Community Public Library board, funding director for the Committee to Commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inc., flotilla commander of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, chair of the Chamber of Commerce annual Education Summit, and served an appointed term on the Indiana School Boards Legislation Committee. He has presented at numerous professional conferences on the subjects of servant leadership and not-for-profit board governance.
During his tenure at GBIF, he completed a master’s of business education degree through Indiana University and earned a doctor of Strategic Leadership through Regent University.
Their children, Traci and Travis, now married with families of their own, live on the north side of Indianapolis. Several years ago, the Chamberlains sold their home in Warsaw and bought ten acres in LaFontaine, Ind., to be closer to them.
Ted Adomanis, GBIF’s chairman of the board, describes Chamberlain as a “quiet, humble, reserved kind of guy who consults with God regularly. He is a strong, quiet leader who knows what he wants and fights for his people. He manages by example and is very approachable. He is loyal and devoted to his ministry and the Fellowship. Everything he does, he does with excellence.”
“[He’s] still the nicest guy I have ever known,” adds Ken Seyfert, who takes the reins of the GBIF from Chamberlain. “Larry has always demonstrated his faithfulness to God, his family, and his ministry (in that order). It has been a blessing to work with him over the past 16 years.”
Chamberlain says he values the numerous friendships he gained over the years serving the Fellowship, and stresses they will “never be forgotten.” He notes that his career with GBIF and GBNAM has been “most fruitful and gratifying, for the glory of God.”
As for retirement, it will not be without continued ministry. He will serve as an associate professor in the Graduate School of Business and Leadership at Indiana Wesleyan University, a Christian university in north-central Indiana.
“Most of all, however,” he notes, “I look forward to spending much more time with my dearest friend and sweetheart, Sherlene, and our 11 grandchildren.”
(Editor’s Note: Sarah Kraus, a GraceConnect intern in the fall of 2012, contributed to this story. This story first appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of GraceConnect magazine.