Jeremy Stopford has been producing meaningful devotionals for this website for several years.A few days ago he received his diploma as a Doctor of Theology. I asked him to tell the story of how, at age 70, he finally earned his doctorate. Here’s his story, in his own words.
— Pastor Frank Becker
July 26,1971. Near midnight. A month earlier I had graduated from a private high school in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. My focus that summer was to play a lot of golf, and to prepare my bags to leave in late August for Canton, New York. Upstate. Freshman, St. Lawrence University. Liberal arts college.
July 26. I was reading a book entitled, “Now That I Believe” by Robert Cook, former president of Kings College in New York State. The book had been given to me the previous summer by a fellow counselor at a boys’ camp in New Hampshire. The book had been set aside until that eventful night. As I reflect back even now, there was an overwhelming conviction while I was reading! Even though the title was “Now That I Believe,” it wasn’t long for me to realize, “but I DON’T believe.” It was at that moment I had that wonderful conviction: Jesus didn’t just die on a cross. That’s history. I knew that! But He died for ME – that’s MYSTERY! At that moment, I received Him as my personal Lord and Savior. My life immediately changed.
Within the month I went off to St. Lawrence, not only as a new freshman but also as a new believer in Christ. I soon became involved in the campus Christian fellowship as well as in a local church in downtown Canton. Within the year the next conviction tugged at my heart: God wanted me to go to Bible College.
The following summer I transferred to a Christian college in Canada. Day #1 I met a girl from central New York, and the rest is history. We were married the following July, and presently we are in the midst of our 49th year of wedded bliss.
After graduation from Bible School (where only certificates, not degrees, were issued), we returned to my wife’s hometown. We got extremely involved in her home church. It wasn’t long before we were youth leaders. I was teaching the young adult Sunday school class. And then…
I was hired by the local police department as a “special officer” – a position I would hold for well over 27 years. I always described my employment as a “gopher” job. I would have to do this and “gopher” [“GO FOR] that! The job description included two part time jobs combined: parking enforcement and the New York State mandated dog control. In addition, the Chief of Police included various other “gopher” positions, like directing traffic and other police assisting helps. Yet the Lord hadn’t forgot my spiritual training…
Three years after beginning my work with the City Police, the Lord called me to pastor my first charge, Beaver Meadow (NY) Christian Church. The position of pastor there was described as a “full time job but with part time benefits”, meaning my job with the police department would not only be a financial boon to my pastoral duties. It would also be a continuance of my church ministry. I’ve always introduced the church as “the only fundamental, Bible believing, Gospel preaching church in Beaver Meadow…[dramatic pause, please]…well, actually, it is the only church in Beaver Meadow!” What an amazing fellowship! The church ministered to several dozen “members and friends” within the church; yet the opportunity for outreach was – and is still – amazing. Being the only church in town, it is often asked to be a part of local weddings and, yes, funerals. My wife and I had the privilege to serve there for just over 20 years.
In 2007 we moved back to her home town of Norwich. I never realized how much mental and spiritual refreshing we were in need of. Yet in a most wonderful way, after 2 1/2 years, the Lord called us to First Baptist Church in Earlville, New York – located about 5 miles from Colgate University. It would not be long after I began the ministry in Earlville that my spinal fusion surgery would necessitate my retirement from my police employ at age 58.
However, one of the things that caught my attention in my Earlville church ministry was the “pastoral package” – I had never seen one before. And the last item in the package was “books for education” along with a dollar amount budgeted.
It was then that the hunger to complete my education began in earnest. Not long after my Dad passed away, I received an inheritance which a portion would enable me to pay in full for any education. The Lord gave me a passage which was both a promise and a challenge. It is found in Ecclesiastes 5:4-5:
“When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it;
For He has no pleasure in fools.
Pay what you have vowed—
5 Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.”
In memory of my Dad and before the Lord, I vowed to finish what I had begun at St. Lawrence University in 1971. The Lord led me to Andersonville Theological Seminary in Camilla, Georgia. The school specializes in remote learning – and we sure were remote! In addition to the vow I made, our loving Heavenly Father gave me a promise, found in Psalm 20:4:
“May He grant you according to your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your purpose.”
With God’s grace, on June 17, 2012 – my 60th birthday – I received my Bachelor of Religious Education degree. Well, actually, my beloved spouse gave me my diploma! That year my birthday fell on a Sunday, Father’s Day Sunday! As I was preparing to walk up to the pulpit to begin the morning service, my wife told me, “Please sit down”. Well, she did say it kindly, as I remember. She then took over the morning service – it was my birthday after all. And just before turning the service over to me, she announced, “Pastor Jeremy has been looking for this in the mail all this past week – and I was able to retrieve it on a day when fortunately for me he was not home.” Then she added, “Jeremy, please come forward and receive your Bachelor of Religious Education diploma.” I was in tears, and the congregation was pretty excited as well.
The Vow. It was soon after that that I began my Master of Theology degree work, and shortly after my 63rd birthday my degree work was complete. 2015. When I received that diploma, I took it up to the local hospital and showed it to one of my biggest supporters, my wife’s mother who was soon to go Home to Glory. She was pretty excited for me. Her words “oh my!” still resonate with me! The vow was 2/3 complete.
In late 2015 I began the work for the degree, Doctor of Theology (Pastoral Theology), a degree the school specifically designed for those of us who are/were in the pastoral ministry. But then the delays. In 2016 my wife was diagnosed with leukemia, and my world – hey, OUR worlds – came to a screeching halt. The church was kind to give me much time off as we traveled 3 hours each way to her oncologist. Fortunately within one year her “team” found a matching bone marrow donor – in Brazil! – which transplant she underwent in late 2017. We give much thanks that she is considered “cancer free”. She is still regularly seen by her oncologist, now more often by “Zoom” online rather than in person.
Shortly after that, we knew – we just knew – that it was time to retire from the pastorate. So at the end of 2018, 32 years after beginning in my first charge in Beaver Meadow, we left our second and final charge. We moved back to her home town, and within the year I began in earnest my final 5 courses of degree work. (Actually that “within a year” was another delay! It took almost a year to unpack all the boxes and locate my educational materials!). By God’s grace, that work was completed in late summer 2022, and I received my Doctor of Theology degree the last day of September 2022.
This time I took the diploma to my 99 year old father-in-law, a resident at one of our local nursing homes. Like his late wife before him, he was pretty excited for me. He had been an encouragement throughout the whole process. This time, his words were loudly, “you did it!”. I assured him the Good Lord had a big hand in the process!
The degree work began around 2009 when I was age 57 and was completed in 2022 at age 70 years and 3 months. 13 years total. God is faithful!
My vow to the Lord – as well as to my Dad – was fulfilled. More importantly, God’s promise to me was fulfilled as well. What God promised He completed. He proved Himself once again worthy of my trust. I like the words of Psalm 21:2:
“You have given him his heart’s desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah”. “Selah” – “pause, think about that!”.
This article is my “Selah” moment. What God has done!
To God be the glory!
Rev. Dr. Jeremy Stopford, ThD