Throughout the week leading up to Saturday, July 27, 2013, we were following Chad’s Tweets and Facebook updates about his first camp trip at Camp Co Be Ac as Youth Pastor at Colonial Hills Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Late Saturday afternoon, while washing my car, I received a text message at 5:08pm with news that there had been a very bad bus accident.
Having been a youth pastor for nine years, and knowing that a vehicle accident on a youth activity was nearly our worst fear, I could only imagine what Chad was going through. So we immediately prayed for Chad and the youth group and I sent him this text:
“Oh, Chad! We are in constant prayer for you right now.” My smart phone signaled that the message had been “delivered.” Having also heard from a later text that there were fatalities, my initial thinking was that Chad was in the midst of the most trying moment of his life as he sought to minister to the teens and parents in such a crisis. About fifteen minutes later I received word that Chad, Courtney, their unborn daughter, and an adult sponsor, were killed in the bus crash.
I am grateful to the Lord for having known Chad and I’m very thankful that I had the privilege of being his youth pastor for six years. I was very blessed to be his friend. I miss Chad very much.
At the year anniversary of Chad’s death, I want to share some of why I miss Chad so much. I also want to preserve for those who didn’t know him in the capacity I was able to, some of these treasured memories.
Chad’s family has served all of us who loved Chad so much by their Fanning the Flames posts. But I wanted to add three thoughts about Chad that I miss painfully. He was funny; he had a great sense of humor. He was a loyal friend. I miss that very much. And, he was a preacher that I really enjoyed listening to.
Chad, was a lot of fun to be with. Chad began joking with me when I was a pastoral intern in 1997. That summer he was a short, third-grade prankster. He found out that I was paranoid about house sitting for his parents. On more than one occasion, he hid himself in the garage or closets and jumped out suddenly with a shrill junior-age scream. He would scare the heebie-jeebies out of me and almost cry with laughter as he observed my fright. Chad was witty, and could use sarcasm in an entertaining way. As his youth pastor, if I mispronounced a word, he was always the first to “catch” it. On one mission trip, I couldn’t find my pajama shorts (my “boxers”). After looking everywhere for them, I returned to the room where all of us guys were sleeping, and Chad had his body illuminated by a flashlight that he was holding over his head. The spotlight revealed that he was wearing my shorts! He said, “Are you looking for these?!” I loved getting together with Chad because I always knew we would laugh, a lot. Chad didn’t take life or himself so seriously that he couldn’t enjoy living and see the humor in almost every situation. I was recently reviewing my last few months of text messaging with Chad and I found this one that he sent me while I was on a mission trip to Haiti: “Hey, you butt-dialed me from Haiti. Left me a nice long voicemail of some good French preaching.” I miss all the fun that I enjoyed with Chad.
Chad Phelps was a loyal friend. Chad was a great kid in youth group. Given that he was the pastor’s son, he was refreshingly “normal.” He struggled with the same stuff that the other teens struggled with. He ended up “in trouble” every now and then like any typical teen working out his salvation. I hope my boys are like Chad as they both go through their youth-group years—normal, growing Christians. Most youth pastors would agree that you don't develop lifelong friendships with every teenage guy that comes through your youth group. Chad was different though. Even in the last three years of high school, Chad became a young man who interacted with me as a godly friend, not just a teen in the youth group. We enjoyed talking about sports (a lot!), preaching, politics, ministry, colleges, and even his dating interests. Chad was a loyal friend. “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). When his family moved to Watertown, Wisconsin, and then later on to Indianapolis, Chad always kept in touch. He would always break up any season of silence between the two of us with a short text, Facebook message, email, or a call. (He would often leave me “professional” voicemail messages! I miss those.) When Chad was being considered to serve with his dad as the next Youth Pastor at Colonial Hills Baptist Church, Chad privileged me with multiple phone calls as well as a lunch together to discuss the possibility. I told him that the best nine years of my life were the ones that I was able to serve with his dad as youth pastor at Trinity. And I reminded him that as friends, we had discussed and partnered in youth ministry together for years already! Here are a few text messages Chad sent me as he was transitioning during his first year as Youth Pastor.
“Deacons voted 24-2 in favor of recommending us to the church, PTL” (July 22, 2012).
“Accepted the vote tonight! Very thankful to the Lord!” (August 12, 2012)
“First Sunday is September 16. Very excited” (August 12, 2012).
“First day as YP today. Foremost in my mind was the incredible impact you had in my life as my YP. Very grateful for your impact, and the opportunity to ‘mimic’ you” (September 16, 2012).
“Prayed for you this morning. Your impact on my life is evident every day that I minister here. Love you and thankful for you” (January 25, 2013).
“7th grader preaching in Bible today. . . . Remind you of anyone? Like a Twilight Zone experience J” (April 19, 2013).
“Heading out on Saturday for my first teen mission trip. Printed off trip notebooks last week. Could probably get arrested for plagiarizing your trip books. ‘This isn’t Burger King. . . .’ J” (June 13, 2013).
Chad was a preacher that I loved listening to. I remember the first sermon I ever heard Chad preach in the seventh grade. You could barely see his little head over the pulpit. His voice hadn’t “changed” yet, so he was pretty squeaky. But what a sermon came from that little, junior-high stature! That summer I took him to Toronto, Canada, on a mission trip. He was the preacher on a couple of occasions. The first was at a large nursing home. There were at least 50 senior adults at the service. The team ministered with a few songs prior to Chad preaching. The chaplain was a retired Lutheran pastor. The pulpit was over on the far left-hand side of the chapel. Chad, even as a seventh-grader, was definitely the son of a Baptist pastor and he couldn’t handle that! He said, “Pastor Brian, can you move that pulpit to the center of the room before I preach? I can’t preach from a pulpit that isn’t in the center.” We moved it! Following Chad’s sermon, the Lutheran pastor, after hearing a more undiluted Gospel sermon than he had probably ever heard, said to Chad in a smug tone, “Very good homily, young fellow. But, you have a lot to learn.” Actually, Chad had just delivered the best sermon that I had ever heard a seventh grader preach. “Who had a lot to learn?” I always loved hearing Chad preach. He possessed his dad’s passion, but he was his own preacher. He was always so careful with the text, passionate in his proclamation, and empathetic in application. I would listen to his sermons that he would post on his youth-group page. Grateful.