Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 4
Broward County Deputy Sheriff John Kuebler (RTS ’87) sat in the Ranch House Restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, having supper with the department’s helicopter pilot. Through the window he could see traffic whizzing by on busy Powerline Road outside. Glancing upward, his eyes rested for a moment on a small airplane flying low — too low, thought John and his colleague — over the crowded I-95 area. It was going to crash! Leaving meals unfinished, the two raced out to John’s squad car, placing a distress call as they tore over to the exit ramp where the plane went down. When they arrived, flames were already engulfing the cockpit, and the pilot was on fire. While his friend hauled the pilot out of wreckage, John emptied a fire extinguisher on both the man and the cockpit, putting out the blaze. Though badly hurt, the pilot lived to say “Thanks!”
Keen observation and quick wits — it’s part of what made John an excellent law enforcement officer for seventeen years. But police work also requires bravery and compassion, two qualities which were never more evident than on a summer day in 1982. John and his fellow officers had chased a crazed gunman through three Ft. Lauderdale suburbs before the madman barricaded himself behind his car with an arsenal of heavy artillery and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Two deputies had already been wounded trying to reach the man when a third officer attempted to capture him. As the deputy prepared to get out of his car, the gunman shot through the front windshield, hurling a shower of glass shards in the officer’s face. Stunned, he slumped in the front seat. John knew the man’s life was in danger if he was not removed from the line of fire. So, risking his own life with bullets flying everywhere, John crept beside the car and pulled the deputy to the ground. A second later, the gunman blew the windshield to bits.
Today, John isn’t in uniform any longer, but as Associate Minister of Pastoral Care at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, he is “rescuing” people in crisis just the same. In addition to a heavy counselling schedule, John has been instrumental in implementing a new program to train lay care-givers and has developed numerous support groups within the church to reach out to those who are hurting. With both the Master of Divinity and Marriage/Family Therapy degrees from RTS, he is making marriage and family therapy an exciting new venture at Trinity. (see inset)
THE CALL TO MINISTRY
John loved the action of police work and his position of leadership — supervising a squad of ten men and training many younger officers. He believes his experience in law enforcement is a real asset as a therapist.
“My years as a policeman have helped me gain insight into people’s actions,” says John. “Absolutely nothing they tell me can shock me. My real strength is in crisis situations — attempted suicides, severe eating disorders, marriages about to go under.”
But police work was not without its drawbacks. The cocky, self-centered, egotistical attitude needed to survive in high-crime areas did not work well at home. Consequently, relationships with his wife, Mary Beth, and their children were strained; in fact, by 1979, the marriage was showing the stress.
About this time, John and Mary Beth began attending First Presbyterian Church of Coral Springs. Through the loving kindness of their son’s preschool teachers and through the ministry of Jack Basie (RTS’78), Mary Beth became a Christian. At the same time, John was slowly being discipled by a fellow officer; about a week later he also accepted Christ.
Shortly after his conversion, John began investigating child abuse for the Broward County Sheriff’s Department and developed an interest in counselling.
“After arresting people for child abuse, I began to see that putting the abuser in jail did not provide real rehabilitation,” explains John. “Second, I knew that the marriages of several police officers were going under; so, I really thought God was calling me to be a police chaplain. I felt I would be in a strategic position to help my fellow officers with their marriages and also counsel arrested child abusers and their families.”
John knew he would have to go to seminary, but he fought the idea fiercely, even though his church had agreed to support him financially.
“I was scared,” reflected John with a smile. “I had a good job and a nice home, but I knew God was calling me — I thought to be a police chaplain. I really fought it and kept giving God one stipulation after another. Finally, I said I would not leave unless the department granted me a leave of absence, which happens very seldom. But they gave me a one-year leave of absence, and a fellow bought our house for cash. What else could I say?”
A FEAR OF FAILURE
Much of John’s fear concerning seminary stemmed from his memories of high school. Born and raised Roman Catholic in the Buffalo, New York area, he was no scholar; in fact, he and his friends could have been models for the popular sitcom, “Welcome Back Kotter.”
“We had a total disregard for learning,” remembers John. “In our school there were four groups — most likely to succeed, average, least likely to succeed, and learning disabled. I was in the least likely to succeed group; I took no college prep work. During my freshman year, my class went through three math teachers; two left with nervous breakdowns.”
For kicks, John and his friends raced cars with chopped-off roofs on the ice of Lake Erie, enjoying the thrill of jumping out when a car would occasionally fall through the ice.
But God’s hand was on John even then. Despite his poor academic record, he showed an early interest in the ministry, particularly missions. In high school he begged to go to seminary to study for the priesthood, but his parents felt he was too young. After high school, the desire to go to seminary was still strong, and John entered The Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Newburg, New York. They accepted him on academic probation, but he made good grades the first year and was invited back. However, during the second year, officials informed him that he probably would not be able to handle the work in a major seminary (equivalent of graduate school), but he could stay another year if he wished. The news crushed him, his grades dropped, and he left in the middle of his second year.
And now, he thought, fifteen years later, why attempt seminary again? However, his minister convinced John to finish his undergraduate degree, and he reluctantly agreed, earning a B.S. degree in community service administration at Nova University in Ft. Lauderdale. He finished with a 3.2 average –a far cry from his grades in high school — all the while working full time in the sheriff’s office and owning a successful part-time carpet cleaning business!
BUT I WANT TO LEAVE!
However, even after making excellent grades at Nova, the fear of academic failure –along with other pressures — dogged John at seminary. He entered RTS in the summer of 1984, and after five weeks of Greek had not passed one test –even with tutors and twelve hours of study a day.
“I was very frustrated,” John confesses candidly. “I figured I had sold my house, given up a great job, and come here to flunk Greek. I dropped twenty-five pounds, and within ten weeks of entering seminary I was trying to get out. By God’s grace, the second semester I did better in Greek and eventually passed.”
But things were still not right. Studies were not the only pressure; John himself was in the middle of an identity crisis–a situation that put great strain on his marriage.
John recalls, “I went from a self-confident fulfilled street cop to Mr. Mom –cleaning toilets and doing laundry — since my wife got a full-time position as an x-ray technician to help put me through school. The stress was tremendous.”
In September John quit seminary and would have given up altogether were it not for the compassionate counseling he received from many at RTS. Encouraged, he came back to school in November.
But the road was rocky. Two more times he tried to quit, but God would not let him. In 1986 he ran for police chief in Clinton, Mississippi, and lost by one vote. A year later he applied for a job at an exterminating company in Jackson, but –you guessed it — they weren’t hiring.
“Seminary was God’s boot camp for me,” John laughs. “For three years, I tried everything to get out. Every time I tried to quit, our house wouldn’t sell — even though we were taking a loss on it, and all the other houses in the neighborhood were selling. One year sixty people looked at it. But when we finally left Jackson, it sold in two hours without a realtor.”
For a man who was trying to escape the ministry, John certainly packed a great deal of compassionate caring into his Jackson years. In addition to serving for a time as Assistant Chaplain for the Jackson Police Department, he became Assistant Minister of Pastoral Care and Counselling at Alta Woods Presbyterian Church in Jackson — even acting as senior pastor of the church for six months during the year following seminary graduation.
One of his main projects at Alta Woods was the development of Christian Addicts Anonymous, a twelve step program to spiritual growth for people with compulsive behaviors such as substance abuse and eating disorders. Through his loving, biblical counseling with alcoholics, in two years over fifty people came to know the Lord. In therapy, John uses therapeutic skills and evangelistic techniques. “I am an evangelist first and a therapist second,” he says. “Everyone hears the gospel before they leave one of my therapy sessions, because therapy really starts when someone who is hurting realizes what Jesus has done for him. I can help them change behavior patterns, but God must change their hearts. Real therapy begins when hearts are changed.”
Also close to his heart is the Family Resource Center, a Jackson counseling group he co-founded with fellow therapist Cindy Christian (RTS ’88). From a small beginning at Alta Woods, the group now has an office in the Jackson suburb of Ridgeland and one planned for Hattiesburg, Mississippi. John sees the Center as a model for presbyteries and smaller churches who want to ensure sound biblical therapy at low cost to their congregations. He envisions a presbytery overseeing the non-profit corporation and financing it with the help of interested churches –a relationship similar to that of FRC and Alta Woods, whose session supports the work financially and donates office space.
Even though he was involved in creative ventures like FRC, as his seminary days drew to a close, John was ready to leave once more. His ministry at Alta Woods was full and rewarding, but he felt the Lord calling him to develop a counselling center within the church, rather than alongside it.
Shortly thereafter he felt God’s call to Trinity and now sees the Lord using him to do what he always wanted to do –help hurting people. And he marvels that God has given him such a privilege. “I think I’m like a first century fisherman,” John reflects. “In the old days, the Lord used ignorant street fishermen, the dregs of society; now he’s using just a plain old street cop, and that amazes me.”
Kuebler Keeps Busy at Trinity
When John Kuebler arrived Monday for his first day of work as Associate Minister of Pastoral Care at Trinity Presbyterian, Skip Ryan, the pastor, was soon leaving on vacation.
“So,” queried John, “what do you want me to do while you are gone?”
Ryan gazed back, a knowing smile playing around his lips. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I think you’ll keep busy.”
Truer words were never spoken. By Wednesday of that week John had his first client, and by the following Wednesday his schedule was full. The Wednesday after that he had a waiting list. He now counsels members some 21-25 hours a week and has seen over 200 people (fourteen per cent of an 800-member congregation) since he arrived.
With a reputation for innovative, visionary ministry, Trinity has allowed John to put his creative talents to good use in other areas related to counseling and encouragement. Shortly after he arrived he established an internship program in marriage and family therapy for University of Virginia students and later initiated a Christian Addicts Anonymous support group similar to one he had developed years earlier in Jackson. (see main article)
Other support groups under John’s direction –at times as many as sixteen — include:
One of John’s main responsibilities is the supervision of the Friendship Ministry, a dynamic, new in-depth program of care and encouragement training for Trinity members who feel they have spiritual gifts in this area. Level One training (offered twice a year) provides participants with fifty hours of instruction on a host of topics, including listening skills, caring evangelism, and crisis intervention. After training, the friendship minister is assigned to one or more individuals either in or out of the church who are experiencing just about any type of stress in life — those who are lonely or grieving, strangers, new parents, the sick, or even divorced parents who need male or female role models for their children. While ministering, they receive ongoing supervision and education in counseling.
“I am merely a facilitator,” John explains. “In fact, three lay people help me supervise the work. The ministry belongs to the people who are in it as they glorify God with their gifts and help build a Christ-centered, sharing community at Trinity. I really see myself as a counselling-therapist planter, training lay people to deal with the “lighter” cases and freeing the therapist to take the more difficult ones.”
Under John’s capable leadership, Trinity hopes to develop a lay counselling center next year, staffed with those friendship ministers who have excelled in counselling skills and are willing to make another two-year commitment. By 1995, the church hopes to have a full counselling center staffed by both professional and lay counselors.
John’s real dream is for Trinity to become a model for other large churches with financial resources to hire their own therapists. But the battle is uphill.
“Perhaps more large churches don’t have staff therapists because their leaders feel that therapy and the Bible don’t mix,” reflects John. “Many Christian counselors may present the Gospel only if the opportunity arises, feeling that the client is entitled to his own map of the world. I disagree. I see myself as an evangelist first; the most important thing I can do for my client is to present the Gospel.”
“Believers are all spiritual soldiers in Christ’s army,” he concludes with feeling. “The pastor interprets the Bible and gives us our marching orders. Therapists are the field medics who patch up the psychologically wounded–and all churches have walking wounded — to get them back into the battle.”