Father, son share more than family name at Soldotna church

Ties that bind

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2001

Son and father duos fill the world. U.S. President George W. and his father, George H.W. Fox Television's Bart Simpson and his father Homer. Actor Peter Fonda and his father Henry. Musician Arlo Guthrie and his father Woodie. Legendary race car driver Dale Earnhardt and his father, Ralph.

Moments between son and father often were the focus of artist Norman Rockwell's paintings. Fishing, hunting, doing homework. In "Easter," Rockwell captured a son kneeling in prayer next to his father, joined also by mother and daughter. The artist could have named the picture "Thornton," in tribute to the relationship between Daniel "Dan" Thornton and his father, Charles "Chuck" Thornton, of Soldotna.

The Thorntons are pastors at Peninsula Grace Brethren Church on Kalifornsky Beach Road.

Their relationship is unique. The younger Thornton is the senior pastor and the senior Thornton is the associate pastor.

"For the majority, a father and son working together wouldn't work," Dan said.

He credits his father for the success of their partnership.

"Dad is very confident in who he is. He doesn't have to be calling the shots. It requires a mutual amount of respect, and I fully respect who he is and what he does."

Chuck, on the other hand, bows to his son's capabilities.

"Dan is very easy to work with," he said. "He's the senior pastor, but there's almost never that boss-underling thing. We are co-workers. We each have different gifts and unique abilities."

Janice Thornton, Chuck's wife and Dan's mother, believes working together was a dream the two men shared.

"I don't know that they ever spoke it, but I sensed there was a closeness and an openness that if it would work out in God's will, it would be a good thing," she said.

Chuck's friends weren't so certain.

"When Dan presented Chuck with the possibility, Chuck was told by his pastor friends and close friends that it would never work and not to do it," Janice said. "They just thought that a father working for a son wouldn't work. And yet it has worked very well."

One reason it has worked is because the responsibilities and demands of ministering are nothing new in the Thornton family.

Chuck was born to missionary parents in Japan. He graduated from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana in 1959 and has been serving as a pastor since 1960. He and Janice were careful not to let the demands of his calling detract from the attention needed by their six children -- three boys and three girls.

"We didn't want them to be angry or bitter toward the church," Janice said. "There are a lot of stories about preachers' kids, but we tried to make home a really fun place to be."

Their oldest son, David, of Kenai, recalled how he, Dan and their brother Jon, also of Kenai, shared a paper route.

"That was just something we did on our own," David said.

The three boys delivered the Washington Star to some 160 homes in their Maryland neighborhood.

"We never had Mom or Dad drive us around on rainy days. That is an incredible example of the good work ethic instilled in us by our dad."

The children also were treated with respect and trust.

"We trusted them a lot," Janice said. "To know they displeased us was the worst punishment they could take."

Like kids everywhere, the Thornton children occasionally were known to keep some details to themselves. The frozen pond in the woods near the family's home was a good example.

"We didn't have skates, because we couldn't afford them, so we'd just slide on the ice," Jon said. "One time I busted through the ice and David pulled me out."

Looking back on her sons' adventures, Janice laughed.

"They could have drowned, and I couldn't have even found them," she said. "Thankfully, they were responsible and they looked out for each other."

Chuck and Janice also were honest with their children about the challenges they faced. David recalled his father's ability to put family incidents into words and turn them into opportunities to learn and grow. In one poem, Chuck questioned God about where the money would come from to pay bills and buy the shoes his children needed. It read, in part:

"But, God, my soul is in turmoil.

My peace, my joy begun to spoil.

Some bills are due -- my pocket's bare;

The children need new shoes to wear."

With such a foundation, Dan knew by the time he was in the seventh grade that he wanted to go into full-time Christian service. In 1986, he graduated from Grace Seminary and came to Peninsula Grace Brethren as an associate pastor. In 1989, he became senior pastor.

Chuck, in the meantime, was working with a church in Ohio.

"I was getting ready to step out of the administrative responsibilities so I would be more free to focus on the ministry I love -- teaching Bible, helping people in their lives, ministering to people who are hurting," he said.

When Dan presented his father with the opportunity to become the associate pastor at Peninsula Grace Brethren, Chuck accepted.

"It's has become common for older pastors to take on the assistant role," Dan said. "But it is not common for them to be an associate to their sons. It requires wisdom and experience."

Those are qualities from which Dan draws.

"He knows what he's doing, and I don't second guess that," Dan said. "He's real helpful with theological questions and he has brought a stability to the ministry."

For Chuck's part, the relationship also impacts the father-son bond.

"It's a sheer delight to be here and watch and listen as Dan has developed a depth in his preaching," Chuck said. "It's neat to see him become warmer and more personable."

The senior pastor and associate pastor relationship also has had an effect on Janice's interaction with Dan's wife, Sue.

"The biggest challenge to me is that I'm the mother and I'm the wife, but my daughter-in-law is the senior pastor's wife," she said. "I need to honor that. I don't ever want to give my opinions and hear later that the mother figure, the matriarch, said that's the way it should be."

Before her mother-in-law moved to Alaska, Sue felt like she didn't know Janice.

"I wanted to become her friend and nurture a relationship with her," Sue said. The result is exactly what Sue was looking for.

"She used to teach children and I teach children. She loves music and I love music. I love my mother-in-law to pieces. It's a joy to call her my friend."

Sue also has witnessed the deepening bond between her husband and father-in-law.

"It's really neat to see them working side by side," she said. "Dan grew up watching his dad. To see them working together is really fulfilling for me as Dan's wife and as a daughter-in-law."

And what does the congregation make of all the Thorntons?

Jeannie McNutt, the administrative assistant at Peninsula Grace Brethren, said there is an equal blend of family closeness and professionalism.

"Chuck and Dan and great to work for," McNutt said. "We always think of them as a father-and-son team, but it doesn't get confusing. They separate it out really well. Dan's the boss and Chuck respects that."

Scott Stobbard, the youth pastor, sees the pair as good role models.

"They're great guys," he said. "It's good to see that a father and son can work together. It gives me hope that when I have a son, I can work with him."

Carmen Franchino, who organizes the Sunday morning services, has known the Thornton family since the 1980s. She described Dan is a "take-charge kind of guy, a teacher that looks at things in a cut-and-dried manner."

"Chuck is more about people and relationships," she said.

"The thing that amazes me about Chuck and Dan is that, even though they're father and son, they're very different," Franchino said. "They bring a balance to our staff. Dan's respect for his dad has always inspired me. And the way they treat each other is a good example to me."

The Thornton family's love of music also is inspiring to Franchino. Dan directs the choir. Jon plays in the church band, Kingdom. David is the sound person. Janice and Sue play the piano. And everybody sings.

"It's kind of like the Von Trapp family," she said, referring to the Austrian family upon whom "The Sound of Music" is based. "We just call them the Von Thorntons."

But can too much family be a bad thing?

At last count, according to Janice, the number of Thorntons on the peninsula included 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Other family members live in Anchorage and Washington state.

David said the biggest drawback is not having enough time together.

"We all live right here and we see each other every Sunday at church, but we don't get together a lot," he said.

Sue agreed.

"We're separate more than we're together. I think that's what makes the time together special. You'd think having this much family together, we'd be at each other's houses all the time, but that's just not true. When we come together for family times, it's treasured times."

"Memorable" might be a better word. One caribou hunt that Chuck and his sons went on is a trip none of them want to repeat.

"My dad fell through the ice and got soaking wet and it was snowing and the weather turned really cold," Jon said. "We got him set up with an emergency blanket and hunkered down where he was out of the wind. I ran back to camp and got the tent and sleeping bag and food, and we spent the night right where Dad was. It was a pretty rough time. We were scared."

Since then, Jon said Chuck has hunted with David, "but he won't go with me."

Then there's the hike Dan and Sue took across Crow Pass. It was Dan's way of introducing Sue to an activity of which he is very fond. Being a novice, Sue borrowed equipment from David -- just in case the weather turned against them, which it did.

"We got stuck in some rain and wind and it was pretty nasty," she said.

And sooner or later, like most families, differences are bound to arise. What happens then?

"We really haven't had any conflicts," Dan said.

Then he laughed and added, "We always say that if we disagree, Mom's trump."

Chuck also recognized the one in authority.

"I always say I'll tell his mother on him," he said.

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