Today, Kay and I are grieving the loss of our dear friend and mentor, Ernie Fitzpatrick. Moments like this call for great words, but it’s at precisely these times when words fail to convey all that is in our heart. So this post is my feeble attempt to share just how much this extraordinary man has impacted my life, my work, and my family.
We’ve been incredibly fortunate to make many new friends over the past several years, so many of you may not know that Kay and I were once employed in the ministry at a local church here in Houston.
Nearly 20 years ago, we walked into this particular church, our expectations at a minimum, completely disillusioned by our recent experiences with other churches and the trappings of organized religion. So we were caught completely off guard by the warmth and genuine concern with which we were greeted by the pastors, Ernie and Lyn Fitzpatrick.
Over lunch, we shared our recent experiences while they listened attentively, nodding in agreement, and sharing their own story of how they came to found this church specifically for folks like us who had been burned out on religion. Over the next several weeks, we met dozens of folks with similar stories and experiences as our own, and we soon felt comfortable calling this “church for non-church people” our home. Ernie and Lyn had truly built something remarkable, bringing people like us together around a simple message of freedom and genuine love for those around us.
In the months that followed, I volunteered to run sound, which seemed a safe distance from my previous roles on music teams at previous churches we had attended. It wasn’t long, however, before we found ourselves leading music, working with the youth group, and helping out wherever needed.
Ernie’s background was that of a businessman and entrepreneur, rather than a formal religious education, which afforded him a unique perspective that differed from pastors we had known until then. He was dedicated to serving the local community, and continually looking for ways to have a positive impact on our city, an ambitious goal in the fourth-largest city in the United States. But Ernie’s infectious energy created a “reality distortion field” like that of Apple’s charismatic founder, Steve Jobs, and it empowered us to think outside of ourselves and dream big.
So when I approached him with a harebrained idea to start a city-wide art contest for Houston area high school students, he didn’t dismiss it out of hand, despite the monumental challenges involved. Rather, he went to work making the idea a reality, and in 2000, the Culture Shapers art contest was born. Since then, with generous financial support from corporate partners, the contest has awarded more than a million dollars to hundreds of high school student artists, enabling many of them to attend art schools and pursue their dreams.
No one will ever accuse Ernie Fitzpatrick of thinking small.
In the years that followed, Kay and I worked full-time alongside Ernie, serving as music leaders, youth pastors, and coordinators of our growing art contest. But Ernie also insisted that I continue my freelance design business, giving me time off to meet with clients, providing generous office space, and even offering his invaluable business insights. It was clear that he was far more interested in my success than any agenda of his own, and as our relationship deepened, he became a trusted mentor, advising me in every area of my life… business, family, and spirituality.
Working in the ministry is hard.
It’s no wonder one of the highest mortality rates is among pastors. But Ernie taught me to step away from work and make time to enjoy the finer things of life… music, movies, fine wine, cigars.
(I know what you’re thinking, and yes, to say that Ernie was not your typical pastor would be a huge understatement.)
He hosted monthly wine tastings that were responsible for much of my knowledge and appreciation of wine today.
He absolutely loved music, often sharing his latest finds with me. We’d sit in his office with the speakers cranked up to 11, taking in every note like it was meant just for our ears. We attended epic concerts together with our wives, which now rank among my all-time favorite memories.
But Ernie gave me something far more significant.
When I first met him, I was a wounded and insecure 20-something, full of rejection and a damaged ego. Over the next two decades, Ernie carefully and patiently helped me get over my wounds, both real and perceived, discover my true identity, and learn to think bigger than myself.
In short, he helped me transition from a boy into the man I am today.
If you’ve done business with me over the years — Ernie taught me to conduct myself with that integrity and diligent work ethic you found refreshing.
If I’ve helped mentor you in any way — many of those principles and mantras came from my own mentor, Ernie.
If we’ve enjoyed a thought-provoking, late-night conversation over a cigar and a glass of wine — Ernie showed me how to exchange ideas in a respectful dialogue.
He taught me how to handle criticism without becoming defensive, and that confrontation — when handled properly — is the gateway to deeper friendship.
He taught me to embrace the power of the question, which has become a formidable tool for this introvert, but has also guided me in my spirituality… a far cry from the dogmatic, “ours is not to reason why” approach of my earlier Christian upbringing.
When Kay and I found ourselves completely burned out as a result of all that we had committed to take on, Ernie and Lyn graciously accepted our resignation, but refused to let go of our friendship.
And in the years since we “left the ministry,” we’ve continued to enjoy a glass of wine together as often as our schedules permit, sharing a laugh, talking about our kids, and just generally enjoying each others’ company.
Ernie taught us the value of friendship — and demonstrated it. He and Lyn taught us that relationship is more important than the work.
Of course, I hold on to many great memories…
Ernie performed our wedding ceremony, a privilege very few couples share with us. (Again, he was *not* a typical pastor.) During our first premarital counseling session, he asked, “Do you want the 20-, 30-, or 40-minute wedding?” We went for the 20-minute version, still the best 20 minutes of my life.
When our first daughter, Kate, was just a few months old, we began taking her to the office with us. Ernie would come to the office, lay down on the ground near her blanket and play with her, making cooing sounds and talking to her. It was the first time I’d seen this softer, gentler side of him, and I still smile, knowing that those moments were his most true self.
When a prenatal ultrasound of our youngest daughter, Karis, indicated that she might have Down syndrome, Ernie fasted from food, and told me that in his meditation time he heard that, “It would be alright.”
Those words brought me great peace, and as it turned out, Karis was not born with Down syndrome. It was only later that I realized that those words would have been true no matter the outcome… and because Ernie was prepared to walk the journey alongside us, it would have been “alright.”
Ernie’s life has impacted hundreds — if not thousands — of people, and it’s been incredible to read the notes and posts written in tribute to him throughout the morning.
But perhaps most fitting are the words he chose as the title for what he could not know would be his final blog post yesterday afternoon…
“Keep it simple. Just love.”
I think everyone who had the privilege of knowing Ernie would agree that there are no better words to describe how he lived, his approach to life and to others. So in this case, the words do not fail. These are the words I will choose to remember him for.
Thank you for simply loving me, Ernie.