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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Belz and Case: the Mandate years

Joel Belz

Joel Belz turns 70 in August.

This provides an occasion to reflect on my early relationship with Master Belz. Much can be said about Joel’s later years at God’s World Publications, the PCA, Asheville Christian Academy, Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church, his being a family man, etc., etc. However, I worked with JB before all this began because I worked with him in the days of Mandate! Here’s the story as my memory and files recollect.

In May, 1974, at the 152nd General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, I was “elected” (read “volunteered”) to the Magazine Committee of the RPC, ES, and shortly thereafter appointed chairman of the committee. I had graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary in May, 1973. During my seminary days I had done a promotional brochure for the seminary with Louie Barnes and I had restarted and then edited a CTS student publication called “Salt.” I also had been a radio announcer in Seattle (KGDN/KBIQ) and St. Louis (KFUO) for a couple of years. So I was fair game to be on the denomination’s publication committee.

Thinking I was elected to a position comparable to the publisher of Time magazine, I soon realized that the RPC, ES Magazine Committee  had oversight for the denominational occasional newspaper called Mandate designed, written, edited, distributed, promoted and heavily funded by one person – Joel Belz. Joel had been publishing Mandate as a labor of love out of his home on Lookout Mountain, Tenn. since he was working full time for Covenant College at the time. Mandate’s mission statement read: “Exploring God’s Commands for the People of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, in the 20th Century.” This was good stuff, even if it wasn’t appreciated by the RPC, ES at the time. This mission statement was remarkable in tone to the mission statement of WORLD magazine founded by Joel in the mid-80s.

Max Belz

Joel’s father, Max Belz, had been on the seminary board during my time on campus and published the Bulletin News Supplement for RPC, ES church bulletins from his home in Cono, Iowa. Every RP pastor wanted to be noted in the Belz BS. (I got FIVE mentions in l974!) Joel even noted me in the April, 1973, issue of Mandate, which started in the early 1970s. The Bulletin Supplement was the most important publication in the RPC, ES during those years. Joel’s brother, Mark, was appointed to the board of Covenant College in l974.  I had met Joel in l971 when I was a student at Covenant Seminary and he was in the development department with Allen Duble at Covenant College. So the Belz name was well known.

My tenure on the powerful Magazine Committee did not start well, for in my first report to the denomination a year later, in l974, I stated, “we on the Magazine Committee have let you down and we apologize for that. We have put the burden for the chronicling of the activities, ministries and thinking of the RPC, ES primarily on the shoulders of one man – Joel Belz – and we apologize to him. . . Now we know there is a degree of skepticism about Mandate’s publishing frequency. That failure is solely the committee’s. Because this is the case, we believe we need to prove ourselves to you.” Finally, “we on the committee, by name, promise to produce for you an issue of Mandate every three weeks this next year. We also will have a complete editorial policy, advertising policy and subscription policy completed by this autumn (1974).” So we pleaded with the denomination to support Mandate.

By January 1975, our frustration with the publication of Mandate was showing because I wrote a letter to all the RPC, ES pastors imploring them to help us out by financially supporting a denominational magazine with a spotty publication record. Five options were given from which to choose. Option one being leave the publication as it was and let Joel fund it out of his own pocket to option five which would be to cease publication and join another publication, such as the Presbyterian Guardian (house organ of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) or the Presbyterian Journal.

In May, 1975, Joel and I gave gloomy Mandate reports to the General Synod in Colorado Springs. Joel asked the denomination to consider “a modest” contribution of $1 per family throughout the denomination to provide for the “circulation on a free basis to everyone requesting” the newspaper.

In November, 1975, I wrote all the pastors of the RPC, ES reiterating Joel’s request for a contribution of $1 per family receiving Mandate. In subsequent months, Joel and I received communications from pastors indicating that the support for the newspaper was lukewarm in the denomination. Other RPC, ES elders on the Magazine Committee during my tenure as chairman were John Buswell, Paul Gilchrist, Jack Buckley, J. Barton Payne, Nick Barker, Bob Edmiston, Dave Hoover and Tom Troxell.

A year later, in the fall of 1976, I left the RPC, ES pastorate and resigned from the Magazine Committee to become the first Executive Director of the Christian Action Council. In early 1977 Mandate folded its tent and quietly stole away. I suspect Joel got tired of carrying the load for the denominational publication. He joined the Presbyterian Journal as managing editor later that year. During the 70s I wrote several articles and book reviews for the Journal, but I usually worked with William Barker and Aiken Taylor, and only occasionally with Joel.

With the joining of the RPC, ES to the new southern denomination, Presbyterian Church in America, the subsequent growth of the PCA in the early l980s and the declining need for the Presbyterian Journal, Joel led the effort to form a new magazine, WORLD, which would report the news of the world from a Christian perspective. Mandate redux.

Belz was a glutton for punishment because 13 years later, in 1989, he invited me to join the board of directors for God’s World Publications, Inc, no doubt hoping that I would bring my magic touch of success to his pioneering efforts in Christian news magazine publishing. In 1998, Joel invited me to begin a journalism training program for God’s World Publications. We called the program the World Journalism Institute.

I was 55 years old when the Belz invitation came and I jumped at the opportunity for a new challenge since I had thought that I would spend the rest of my working life languishing in Central Washington. Our spiritual life was withering on the vine.

I was looking for a way to be involved on a broader scale and the Lord, through Joel, gave me the opportunity to do that. One more shot at the brass ring was being offered to me.

The move from Ellensburg to Asheville, N.C. was a great blessing and the early years in North Carolina were the most refreshing of my life: New friends and community and a completely engaging call to raise up Christian journalists for the mainstream media. Besides all this, I got to eat popcorn in a glass of milk on Sunday evenings at the Belz home.

Perhaps most important of all, the invitation to move to Asheville carried with it the encouragement to be a part of Joel’s church, Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church pastored by Robert Russell Drake. I had never heard preaching like this on a consistent basis and it was like fresh water to a man dying of thirst. After years in the desert, the Gospel was being preached to me day in and day out in an engaging manner which moved me to tears on many occasions. Kathy and I sat on the front row so as not to miss anything. The greatest gift of the Belz Asheville invitation to the Cases was the spiritual rejuvenation the Holy Spirit caused through the ministrations of Joel’s pastor: “That’s why we call it the Good News.”

On a professional basis, the vision that Joel embraced was worldwide and miles deep – to engage the news media culture first in the United States and then in the world. His trusting me with part of that vision was his great gift to me. In the first couple of years of existence, I was grateful for the addition to the small WJI staff (Kathy and I) of Elizabeth Belz (Odegard), one of the five daughters of Joel and Carol. I hired her before I notified Boss Belz because I needed Elizabeth specifically, and I was nervous that dad wouldn’t approve of a daughter being hired by WJI. Many of the innovations that Elizabeth and I came up with in those early years are still in place over a decade later.

Over 600 young journalists have gone through the WJI program since 1998, all because Joel Belz endorsed, embraced and enabled the mission to go forward. The job he gave me was bigger than I ever imagined and the people his vision brought me into contact with were some of the most interesting and influential journalists and writers in America.

It is not too much to say that without the initial invitation and then support from Joel, my life would be substantially more paltry and mean. This country boy from Kittitas County would never have lived in New York and Asheville, worked in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, met and dined with some of the great American journalists and thinkers of the late 20th century, and been gratified to see young journalists go forth first into multiple newsrooms of America and then to Africa and Latin America through the Belz International Media Fellows program.

What started as a mere acquaintance in a small, unaccredited Presbyterian seminary in America’s heartland almost 40 years ago blossomed into a huge blessing for the Case family when God brought Joel Belz and Bob Case together for Mandate.

Joel Belz turns 70 in August. Happy Birthday, Boss.

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