In Memoriam: Rev Dr Derke P. Bergsma (1927–2020)

A Faithful Pastor

On November 17, 2020 my friend and professor the Rev Dr Derke Bergsma went to be with the Lord. You may not know who Derke was but you should. He influenced a generations of parishioners, college students, and future pastors. I met him in the fall of 1984, at Westminster Seminary California, where he was my professor. He was also my academic advisor and prayer group leader. It was a smaller seminary then (approx. 75 students) and fairly intimate. I had Derke for all my preaching courses (except one with Bob Godfrey) and for most of my practical theology courses. He was a workhorse, who carried an exceptionally large course load. When I returned as a faculty member (and Academic Dean) in 1997, we became  colleagues and sometime golfing partners. He was the sort of golfer who did not hit many balls into the weeds but when he did he was relentless in finding them. He feared no rattlesnake as he waded in where other golfers refused to go. He was also the faculty advisor regarding all things automotive. Until I met Derke I thought that no man traded cars as often or with as much joy as my late father-in-law but Derke loved cars and was a great source of wisdom about them. Derke was raised in Wisconsin, a son of the Christian Reformed Church.

As a young man he entered the service during World War II where he was seriously injured on Guam. He would spend most of a year in hospital in Hawaii recovering. As a pastor, he entered the Naval Reserves and served for 33 years as a chaplain, retiring with the rank of captain. He looked terrific in his dress whites. He served all over the USA and beyond. The chaplaincy was a rich source of pastoral experience which he shared with us readily. I am in a better position now to appreciate the sacrifices made by servicemen and women and how valuable it must of been to the men and women to have a faithful minister of God’s Word to whom they could turn during basic or after deployment. Derke had been through it as an enlisted man and as a veteran and he understood their experience and their greatest need: the Savior.

In his early ministry he served CRC pastorates in Colton, SD (1954–58) and Warren Park, IL (1958–62). After a period of graduate studies in the Netherlands he returned to the USA and served as pastor of the East Muskegon, MI CRC (1965–67). He also served as associate minister in the Escondido CRC and later in the Escondido URC, where his membership remained in his retirement.

A Cheerful Presence

He was, in my experience, relentlessly cheerful. He had a ready smile and an encouraging word. A midwesterner, who earned his spurs on the Plains, he was an endless fount of stories. This was a source of irritation to some of my fellow students but on the Plains, stories are a part of life. I am sure that I learned as much about pastoral ministry from Derke’s stories about ministry as I did from his lectures. I suppose not a day went by in my first years of ministry that I did not think of some maxim or story of Derke’s which helped me somehow. The stories were not mere filler. They were wisdom, hard won during years of experience in working with the sheep. It was he who warned us about turning off the battery on the microphone when leaving the pulpit, to use a (metaphorical) rifle “and not a shotgun!” when heresy hunting. From Derke I learned how important the pastor was on the Plains. He was so central to the life of the community so that when someone died families would not move the body from the house until the pastor had come to pray with them. From his stories I learned how to love the flock and how to communicate with them.

From Derke I learned that God has ordained to work through ordinary means: the preaching of the gospel but I also learned God is free to work as he will, even through irregular means. Among his many projects in the Chicago metro was to help with a Billy Graham Crusade in the 1960s. As a confessionally Reformed pastor he had his doubts but as a chaplain and a student of world religions he had learned to talk to and even work with people with whom he disagreed. It was his great hope and fervent prayer that people would come to new life and true faith through Graham’s preaching.

He was loyal to the Christian Reformed Church—he not only served as a pastor but he also taught at Calvin College and produced a large Christian education program for them—until he could no longer support the direction of the denomination in the wake of their decision, in 1995, to permit the ordination of females. In 1996, he left the CRC to become a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America but he did not do so angrily but cheerfully. His ministry in the Escondido United Reformed Church was much appreciated, whether it was in the pulpit, speaking to a Bible study, or working with the consistory on a difficult pastoral issue.

I only saw his countenance darken once: when I playfully addressed him as “Dominee.” The smile left his face and he warned me not to call him that again. I do not suppose that he would remember that moment, but I do. I meant it as a term of respect for a senior minister but he carried the connotation of a domineering minister. He rejected that idea of ministry. In his view, the minister is a servant, not a master. He had a point.

A Christ-Centered Professor

Derke spent a good bit of his ministry in the academy. He earned his A.B. at Calvin College and his B.D. at Calvin Seminary. He earned an M.A. at Northwestern University. He completed coursework (Drs) for a PhD in the Free University of Amsterdam and earned a D. Rel., in Chicago Theological Seminary in urban ministry. From 1968–82 he served as Professor of Theology at Trinity Christian College (Palos Heights, IL). He not only gave the first lecture in the college but he also served as interim president. In 1982 he accepted the call of Westminster Seminary California to become Professor of Practical Theology, where he served in both full-time (1982–97) and adjunct (2003–14) capacities until he finally retired once for all.

Some of the bromides he gave us he probably learned from R. B. Kuiper: “Men, there are three points to every sermon: the text, the text, the text” and “preach the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text so help you God” but beyond pushing us constantly to preach this text in its redemptive-historical context he was passionate that we should preach Christ. It is a truism in Reformed ministry but I first heard it from Derke: if you could preach that sermon in a mosque or a synagogue, it is not a Christian sermon. One of his opening lectures in the Ministry of the Word course was to illustrate for us three types of sermons: moralistic, doctrinalist, and redemptive-historical. He would give a brief example of each. Derke was much influenced by Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) and other proponents of a redemptive-historical reading of Scripture. Unlike some redemptive-historical approaches to Scripture, however, Derke understood the value of the proper, textually-driven, application of the text to the congregation. He taught us Samuel Volbeda’s “reconstructive” (not to be confused with reconstructionist) method of sermon preparation.

He was committed to the principle that practical theology did not mean pragmatic theology. He knew that Reformed theology, as our Reformed forebears taught us, is partly theoretical and partly practical. He worked diligently to work out a theory of ministry upon which to base his practice. There are many opportunities in ministry to compromise one’s principles but Derke taught us to ground our principles in the Word (and the catechism, the confession, and the canons) and to stand on principle rather than to be blown about by every wind of doctrine.

Derke is missed and beloved (probably more than he knew) but as we miss him we should remember what he tried to model for us and to teach us and we should look where he looked, and trust the Savior whom he trusted and in whom he found his only comfort in life and in death.

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  1. Thank you for the post, Dr. Clark. I knew some of Dr. Bergsma’s extended family members though I lost contact years ago. My condolences to those of his family who may be reading this.

    I’ve had conversations similar to this one: “I only saw his countenance darken once: when I playfully addressed him as ‘Dominee.’ The smile left his face and he warned me not to call him that again. I do not suppose that he would remember that moment, but I do. I meant it as a term of respect for a senior minister but he carried the connotation of a domineering minister. He rejected that idea of ministry. In his view, the minister is a servant, not a master. He had a point.”

    Something I have found useful to remember — current, former, and retired military personnel are often the ones who most strongly oppose use terms such as “Dominee” and equivalents for themselves, and typically remain quiet in public when others use them, though perhaps discussing it in private with ordained men who use such terms. It confused me at first since I’m used to seeing an insistence on respect for office and ordination as being a key difference between Reformed pastors and broadly evangelical pastors.

    Living outside Fort Leonard Wood, I’ve had the opportunity to ask that question to numerous chaplains as well as to former/retired military personnel who entered the civilian pastorate after their time in non-ordained military service.

    The answer I get is one that makes sense. People who understand **REAL** command-and-control authority in a chain of command, and who have borne on their shoulders the responsibility for issuing orders that may very well lead to people’s deaths or permanent injury, recognize that no person ordained to office in Christ’s church has that authority by virtue of office, and often believe that those ordained men who pretend to have such authority either don’t understand the Bible or are weak men who are demanding respect they need to earn rather than demand.

    The military requires that kind of authority to function. It also involves tremendous responsibility on the part of the person giving orders. Rank may have privileges but it carries tremendous responsibility, and people who like having lots of brass on the shoulders of their dress uniforms are often those who haven’t yet earned many ribbons on their chests. There are reasons why, as you mentioned with Dr. Bergsma, the best officers are those who are prior service enlisted personnel.

    It is also of relevance that American military chaplains do not have command authority in the sense of ordinary commissioned offices. That gets complicated, and details aren’t relevant, but the principle is. Even the military recognizes that the role of a chaplain is fundamentally different from that of other military officers.

    If those principles apply in the military, which **DOES** require command authority to function, how much more should they apply in the church?

    Ordained men called to preach the Word are called pastors (i.e., “shepherds”) and ministers (i.e., servants) for a reason.

    Of course, an ordained pastor is also an elder with authority, and that authority is real. He’s not a paid motivational speaker who can be ordered around willy-nilly, and told what to do by his elders, and even less by his members. Too many churches outside the Reformed world, and some inside the Reformed world, do treat their ministers that way, and I think that’s why some Reformed ministers are so insistent on the use of terms like “Dominee” and equivalent titles of respect.

    But a man who has served in uniform before being ordained will often understand just how different the authority is that comes from ordination is from the authority that comes from being a commissioned officer or warrant officer or NCO or (in the case of the Navy) a petty officer.

    A military commission or NCO stripes is fundamentally different in nature from the ordination. Christ taught as much.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    A great tribute to Dr. Bergsma. I had the pleasure of having him for a few classes. Sad to hear of his passing. His was always an encouraging presence, much like Dan Wagner.

  3. Grateful for this obit.
    The anecdote regarding the titular use of Dominie was quite profound.
    The LORD is kind.

  4. I remember fondly Dr. Bergsma as an advisor and Greek teacher at Trinity Christian College in the mid-seventies. It was his insightful comments from sermons and conversations that are still remembered. He will be missed.

  5. This is a great tribute to Dr. Bergsma. Thank you for writing it, Dr. Clark.

    He was my professor for Preaching and Congregational Analysis in 2008. It was a privilege and blessing to learn from him.

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