The years following World War II brought an explosion of growth to the United States. Demand for housing and manufactured items kept the economy humming. The baby boom was in full swing, producing an abundance of little consumers.
The Grace Brethren church was experiencing its own “boom” during the late 1940s and 1950s. The newly-formed fellowship saw many young men enter the ministry. Missionaries were being sent out overseas, and new congregations were springing up at home.
The Brethren Home Missions Council had been in place for several years, led first by Rev. R. Paul Miller, and then by Dr. L. L. Grubb. The organization’s purpose was to assist, promote, and instruct in the planting of new Grace Brethren churches in the United States and Canada. Home Missions also played a key role in encouraging and supporting its pastors.
In 1953, in the midst of all this growth, a 33-year-old pastor named Lester Pifer joined the staff of Home Missions as the assistant to Dr. Grubb. He had already pastored three churches–in Tennessee; South Bend, Ind. (which he started); and Fremont, Ohio. His heart for evangelism and tireless energy for the ministry were becoming well-known across the Fellowship.
Once in his new position, Pifer worked at his typical energetic pace, which translated into long hours at the office and weeks of travel. That meant time away from his family, which included his wife, Genny, and children Beth, Mark, and Debbie. But they supported his ministry and adjusted to his schedule, which sometimes involved his traveling more than 70,000 miles a year.
He remembers traveling so he could have contact with Home Missions pastors and see first-hand how the Lord was working in their churches. Looking back, Pifer recalls his “greatest joy was to see Grace Brethren churches planted and growing, the salvation of souls, and building new people up in the faith.”
And his efforts were greatly appreciated by the pastors who faced the daily challenges of church planting.
Richard Placeway of Manheim, Pa., pastored two Home Missions churches early in his ministry—Parkersburg, W.Va. (1956-1964), and Elyria, Ohio (1964-1975). He said Pifer’s help to young pastors was especially valuable.
“The two areas that stand out…that were the greatest help to me were the annual meetings with all Home Missions pastors with top-notch speakers and practical workshops,” Placeway says. “The second…was the required monthly reports to the office that reminded us to give our best to the ministry and to keep up-to-date records. (I can still go back 50 years and tell you how many calls I made and what message I worked on for any day of the week, month, year.)
“I also appreciated the fact that he [Pifer] was not hesitant to share both his personal experiences in the ministry, good and bad. That was a help us to me as well as to [my wife] Nancy.”
Bill Smith, pastor of the Brooksville (Fla.) Grace Brethren Church, led a Home Missions church—North Kokomo, Ind.—from 1976-1980.
Smith agrees that Pifer’s annual meetings for Home Missions pastors and wives were a great encouragement.
“This was a brilliant plan, and resulted in Home Missions’ family atmosphere,” says Smith. “Many questions were asked, and answered, about the aspects of how to handle different situations and problems that arose in pastoring small, growing Home Mission churches.
“During my ministry, I have pastored eight Grace Brethren churches, and all of them started as a Home Missions church—including where I am now.”
Smith also served on the home office staff in Winona Lake for six years, recalling “[Pifer’s] passion was to win souls for Christ and keep our churches true to the Word of God. My personal life was greatly enriched by being able to work closely with Dr. Pifer and the Home Missions team.”
Chip Heim, senior pastor of the East Side Grace Brethren Church in Blacklick, Ohio, adds, “The thing that stands out about Lester was his passion for Home Missions and the pastors of Home Missions churches. For him, the sun rose and set on church planting. I remember sitting in his office as a senior at Grace Seminary talking about a church that needed a pastor. I told Lester that I was too young to think about being a pastor (I was only 24 at the time). ‘That’s not a problem,’ he said. ‘Yes, it is,’ I replied. ‘Son,’ he answered, ‘You can do it.’
“I resisted him then. But three years later I landed in a Home Mission church [Lima, Ohio, 1981-1984]. Lester made me feel, as a Home Missions pastor, that I was the most important person. He knew from experience what it was like to pastor a small church. He knew the men who served with Home Missions churches were not John MacArthur types, looking to downsize. Lester inspired the men who worked for him and led us to believe we were on the front lines of ministry. We could use more men like him, for sure.”
During Pifer’s 33 years with Home Missions, he assisted or directed in the planting of more than 200 Grace Brethren churches. His former co-worker, Dr. Larry Chamberlain (now president/CEO of the Grace Brethren Investment Foundation), says, “Dr. Pifer was the quintessential road warrior in his service for Christ and the planting of new congregations in the Fellowship. Actually, an ‘air’ warrior as well, as he piloted planes to visit sites and meet with people across the United States.
“He hired me in 1977 and it was my privilege to work alongside this amazing servant of Christ up until his retirement. His schedule would bury most men. He served at a level of determination and energy that could only come from a Spirit-filled zeal to reach people for Christ and see them grow in a Bible-believing church.
“A true hero of our Fellowship, Dr. Pifer’s influence is lived out every week as thousands of men and women and boys and girls throughout the United States worship in a church established during his tenure.”
That zeal for reaching people did not end with Pifer’s retirement from Home Missions in 1985. He and Genny then spent 12 years in Florida, where he helped to start new churches in Bradenton, North Port, and Tampa, as well as a Bible class (later called Land of Lakes).
In 1997, after Genny was diagnosed with cancer, the Pifers moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he joined the staff of the Grace Brethren Church of Greater Columbus in the suburb of Worthington, a church he had helped to found in the 1960s.
After Genny’s death in 1998, Pifer helped to start a cancer support group. Through this ministry, he met Bonnie Howard, who had also lost her spouse to cancer. The two are now married, and she is an integral part of his work at the church.
At the age of 90, after spending 70 years in the ministry, Lester Pifer is still serving with characteristic enthusiasm. He is seniors’ pastor at the Columbus church and leads the cancer support group and a men’s prayer group. His passion for evangelism has not diminished. He advises young pastors who feel called to church-planting to seek support from their district and national mission organizations.
“Depend deeply upon the Lord [and] the Holy Spirit for direction and passion for lost people,” he adds. “Pray much and be willing to start with little response.”
Sound advice from someone who knows church-planting inside out.
Judy Daniels was the editor of Grace Magazine for 11 years. She lives with her husband, Denny, in Winona Lake, Ind.