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Bruce BickelBruce Bickel

JS: Hi, this is John Stanko back once again for one of our Urban Heroes interviews. As we’ve said at the beginning of every session, an urban hero is someone who is serving with distinction in the community. If we’re not careful, however, we may miss the full impact of what he or she is doing because they act in a low-key way or in a capacity that may not get public attention. Today I’d like to welcome to our program Mr. Bruce Bickle. Bruce, welcome to Urban Heroes.

Bruce Bickel: Thanks, John. Nice to be with you, sir.

JS: Thank you. We certainly appreciate all that you do. And let’s start off by just letting our readers and listeners know a little bit about what your current capacity is in the community.

BB: Well, currently John, I serve as senior vice president and managing director of private foundation management services, a PNC financial services corporation here in Pittsburgh. And in that capacity, when people ask me what I do, John, I don’t mean to be facetious, but I essentially say I’m in the heart business.

I’m not a banker by background. I just have the privilege of working at one and serving the community through a banking organization. I help families give their money away through their family private foundations. And so my role really is to find out the hearts of the people who have this wealth and to put them in a position to meet their heart’s desire by giving the grants away through their foundation to those organizations around the country that really capture their heart’s interest. And so, I really tell people I’m in the heart business and help people have their fun in philanthropy while maintaining the joy in giving.

JS: How long have you been doing this?

BB: I’ve been doing this now for 10 years at PNC. But prior to that, I was managing the charitable trust department here at PNC in the Pittsburgh region. I’m now serving at the national level, including the Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania region. But I’ve been in this capacity for the last 10 years. And prior to that, the previous 10 years I was also in Pittsburgh serving as the manager of the charitable trust department at PNC in Pittsburgh.

JS: So how long have you been with PNC total?

BB: 20 years. I came here in 1988, John.

JS: And the whole time it’s been about those heart matters of helping people give away their money?

BB: That’s correct. Yes sir.

JS: What have you learned in those 20 years? In working with people who have money, what are some of the lessons you can distill for us in the work you’ve done?

BB: Well. I think the biggest lesson is: the Scripture says the root of all evil is money but it’s really [the attitude of] ownership. Ownership is what kills. And what I’m finding is when you help people understand the difference between ownership and stewardship, there’s a great deal of freedom. And so, I try to help my families understand that they are stewards of their wealth, not owners. As a result of that, they can do some terrific things and impact the quality of life of people where their heart is. By recognizing that they are stewards of something, not owners of something. So that’s one of the big lessons, I think.

JS: So it seems like a lot of what you do is education, counsel, teaching and values clarification for the people with whom you work.

BB: Absolutely, That’s why I define it, John, as the heart business, because I want to try to find out where their heart interest is and then educate them to see how they can fulfill that. So you’re right, there’s a great deal of education, a lot of teaching, a lot of mentoring and a lot of handholding. It’s a lot of fun for me because I have very, very intimate and close relationships with these families.

JS: So is it fair to say that there is a lot of overlap between what you’re doing for your job and a ministry approach to life?

BB: Oh, absolutely. That’s the great thing about it. You know I was a pastor of a church prior to coming to Pittsburgh in 1988. I was pastor of a church in Chicago and for me this is a wonderful extension of a different kind of ministry. Ministry really is giving away to someone else what God has given you. And that is not defined by your profession, it’s defined by your person. And so, ministry is who you are, where you are. And I just thoroughly enjoy the ministry I’ve had in working with these families – not only in their lives personally but also in helping them impact other organizations that in turn impact a multiplicity of lives. And so, it’s a very interesting and different ministry but its one that’s been very exciting because I see the quality of life improvement.

JS: So you in some way are still a pastor?

BB: Absolutely, John, some of my pastor friends say, “Why did you leave the ministry?” and my response is, “I didn’t know I did.” Ministry is who you are, where you are. So I do a lot of pastoring with these families just to help them understand that they are stewards of something and therefore have a responsibility. I think another lesson that I’ve learned is: with wealth comes either a blessing or a burden. And it can be a blessing when you recognize you’re a steward. It’s a burden when you think you own it. And so, I try to help people go from ownership to stewardship and that is a ministry in itself.

JS: So it is. So what was it like in 1988? Here you are pastoring a church and you have an opportunity to make a transition into the corporate world. Was it a tough decision and was it a tough transition?

BB: Well, it was not a tough transition at all. Because I’m not doing anything differently now than I did when I was pastoring. Leadership is leadership wherever you are. My background is the military, the ministry, and the marketplace, and leadership and management is the same wherever you are. I’m applying the same principles of management here in my capacity at PNC that I did when I was the senior pastor of a church. The information is different but human relationships are the same. And so, I still have the service mentality I had when I was pastoring.

I came back to this region to take care of my parents. I grew up in northern West Virginia, about 90 miles south of Pittsburgh in Fairmont. Back in 1987, I began to realize that my parents were beginning to have symptoms of severe Alzheimer’s and dementia. I just felt a strong leading of the Lord, John, that I needed to come back and honor my mother and father in their remaining years. The Lord was pleased to permit me to be reared in a Christian family and the greatest gift I’ve had is the family in which I was given life. But I just felt that the Scripture says to honor your mother and father. That doesn’t stop when you’re forty or when you’re fifty. I felt that I needed to come back in their remaining years and let them see my gratitude for the life that they gave me.

I came to saving faith and to the ministry with my mom and dad. And so, they left me with a great temporal heritage as well as an eternal one. I just felt I needed to honor them and I came back. There were not many opportunities in the Pittsburgh region, so I had to be open to doing something else to meet my responsibilities. The Lord was pleased in His providence to open up a position at the bank. PNB, now PNC, was looking for someone to work for the bank on behalf of charities and I did some networking and I came out for the interview. They said, “You have the background of the charitable arena, the non-profit sector that we’re looking for. We can surround you with financiers and economic people and bankers. We need somebody to give leadership in this totally new area, working with charities.” And I think that’s why I was a natural fit.

JS: So the transition really wasn’t, if I’m hearing you correctly, wasn’t really job-related. It was the value you had of taking care of your parents.

BB: Absolutely. It wasn’t a job issue at all. It was something higher than that. That was my continuing life’s ministry of honoring my mother and father and that season changed for me. That was okay. And so, the Lord was very pleased to work something out and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But my real intent was to honor my mother and father.

JS: And so, you come back and God opened the doors and you’ve been at PNC for 20 years?

BB: Yes sir.

JS: Can you tell me about the Church that you were pastoring in Chicago? What was that experience like?

BB: After I got out of the Navy, I went to work for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I was with them for about seven years and I went on to get my Master of Divinity, pastored a church in the Kansas City area and was there for a couple of years. then I went to Chicago in the western suburbs and began to get involved in a church plant, Grace Church of DuPage. I was there for several years, then I came here to Pittsburgh. It was at that time at Grace Church that I got my doctorate in Theology and studied the great Puritan preachers. And then, since I’ve come here to Pittsburgh, the Lord has been pleased to permit me to be involved in a lot of preaching and teaching. Quite honestly, I’ve probably done more of that now than I did when I was a pastor.

JS: Where did you get your M Div.? Where did you get your doctorate?

BB: I got my Masters of Divinity. at Luther Rice Seminary in Atlanta, GA. And I also got my doctorate at Luther Rice. But I was in an exchange program at Oxford University in England.

JS: Now you say that you are today still doing a lot of preaching and teaching. How do those opportunities come about?

BB: You know, John. Ministry is who you are, where you are. And the real key to my understanding of the Scripture is to be an ‘aggressive responder’ to what you see the Lord doing around you.

JS: An aggressive responder?

BB: Yes sir.

JS: I like that phrase.

BB: In other words, Jesus says in John 5: “I do nothing on my own initiative. I only do things I see the Father do.” Well, that hit me one day like a ton of bricks. And I thought, you know He didn’t get up and start something. He just was so sensitive and discerning to what his Father was doing around him that he became an aggressive responder. And so that’s what I’ve tried to do here. We have a Bible study here in downtown Pittsburgh that came as a result of years ago when a young woman came into my office and said, “Can I ask you a question?” It turned out it was a spiritual issue. I responded as an aggressive responder and answered her question. And she said, “I have some friends who’d like to talk about that.” So we’ve been meeting for twenty years.

And then there’s a men’s group that I teach on Fridays out at Christ Church in Grove Farm and we’ve been meeting now for fourteen years. I do a lot of pulpit supply, too. For two years, I was the interim preaching pastor at Memorial Park and another year at Bellefield in Oakland. I’m probably in a different church two Sundays a month, John, where a pastor will call and say, “Bruce, can you just come in for me. I’m on vacation,” or something like that. “Can you cover for me?” And so, the Lord has been very, very gracious to permit opportunities for me to do what I love to do, and that’s preach and teach the Scriptures.

JS: While you’ve been an aggressive responder, you’ve probably haven’t sought those opportunities. Is it correct to say that they have pursued you?

BB: Yes. There are keys as I understand it, John, to just look around you and the most important question I think any person can ask is: “Lord, what are you doing around me? I want to join that.” Rather than saying, “I’m going to figure out what I need to do. Will you bless it?”

There’s a big difference in joining what he’s already doing and or trying to construct something. And so, my approach is to be an aggressive responder. And everyday I come into the office and say, “Alright, Lord, give me the discernment to see what You’re doing around me in the lives of the people with whom I will come into contact. Give me the wisdom to know how to respond in a way that’s going to give your life away.”

Therefore, I never work to look for anything. I’m just an aggressive responder as things come up and it’s been very, very freeing and much more effective.

JS: You’ve mentioned your family and being raised in northern West Virginia. Go back a little bit, if you don’t mind, and talk to us about what it was like in your family: how they impacted you spiritually and practically.

BB: Well, I grew up in Fairmont, West Virginia. I have an older brother. My father was the chief federal probation officer for the state of West Virginia and my mother was our church organist and choir director, and so I grew up in a home that was really centered on Christ as a way of life just not an activity on the Lord’s Day. And it was through the Ministry of my parents that I really came to saving faith.

They really nurtured that I think. There are several things my father really taught me. He was a great role model, very, very masculine but very sensitive. I refer to him as “steel in velvet.” You know, you’d run into him and find his strength but you never got bruised. He was a great role model of masculinity for one. And one of the things he taught me, John, was this: Don’t gripe. Don’t complain. And don’t blame. He said that’s how you come to be responsible. And responsibility is the ability to respond. It's response-ability.

One has the ability to respond and the thing that prevents you from being responsible would be griping, complaining, or blaming, and he taught me that at a very, very young age, which has been a wonderful, wonderful gift to me over the years.

JS: And you can probably consider that aggressive responding, the value you talk about. So what church were you raised in?

BB: It was Essential Methodist Church in Fairmont, West Virginia.

JS: So you got from you dad the "don’t gripe, don’t complain, don’t blame."

BB: In other words, you’ve not a victim.

JS: And what about from your mom?

BB: My mom gave me the great sensibility of being a servant, to just do things and expect nothing in return. My mom was a great model of that. And at a very young age she said, “Don’t do this for the accolades. You do this for the act of love and obedience.” And so, you want to have a love response and obedience to the Lord and you don’t want to be guilt-motivated. You want to be gratitude-motivated. I think I learned from my mom, John, to have the loving attitude of gratitude.

JS: So your parents deeply impacted you, along with your church. But you also mentioned the Navy.

BB: Yes my father’s office in Fairmont was right next door to the Navy recruiters. When I went to visit my dad’s office, I got to see all the pictures of the Navy and meet the Navy recruiters. That was probably the genesis of my interest in wanting to become an admiral. And so, I wanted to go to the Naval Academy, and I had a drive to do that.

I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1966. And I had the privilege of playing varsity basketball and baseball there, and enjoyed that immensely. Quite honestly, John, that was a spiritual Mecca for me. The Naval Academy was not necessarily a spiritual entity [like a church]. But the day I became a midshipmen, there was a white line. When I became a midshipmen and I crossed that white line I was no longer a civilian but a midshipmen in the United States Navy.

Before I crossed that white line where the upperclassmen were waiting for me, I turned to my father and I said, “What’s the last piece of advice you’re going to give me?” He just grabbed both my hands and said, “Wherever you go, ask the Lord to give you one brother to hold you spiritually accountable.”

That was probably the best advice he ever gave me, because at that moment, I said that before I stepped across the white line. I went through my plebe summer and it was there that the Lord was pleased to honor that. It was there that I developed a great hunger for the Scriptures. I found some Christian brothers who would hold me spiritually accountable and I’ve applied that principle throughout my life, even when I was flying in the Navy when I was in Vietnam.

I said, “Look, Lord. Give me one brother to hold me spiritually accountable,” and that’s happened every year. I have people here in Pittsburgh who do that for me. There’s one brother who I meet with once a month. We continue to get together for about three to four hours once a month and have dinner. And we just check in with each other to hold each other spiritually accountable. So, that was another great lesson I learned from my dad that has put me in a position to try to be an aggressive responder.

JS: So you graduate from the Naval Academy and then you go into active duty?

BB: Yes sir.

JS: Where does that take you from there?

BB: To Pensacola and flight school.

JS: I thought you were going to maybe say Pensacola. I lived in Mobile for fourteen years.

BB: Oh yeah. Lovely area.

JS: I used to go over to Pensacola all the time.

BB: Most of my flying was in Southeast Asia. I was a forward air controller, running air strikes from naval-based aircraft.. I was essentially a naval officer assigned to two army divisions. It was there during the Tet Offensive of 1968 and ’69 that I got involved, after the Battle of Hieu. in helping build an orphanage, with the Tin Lan Church, an evangelical church of Hue. I got involved with helping build that orphanage and in the next eighteen months.

I stayed over there for a second tour to help finish the orphanage and that was a wonderful experience for me. So even though I was shot down and wounded later, my memories of Vietnam are of working with the church and the orphans. So I’ve been very, very fortunate to have memories that are no longer plaguing my mind and I think that’s just a function of God’s grace. My memories are those of the kids and the church and that was healthy.

JS: How long were you there total?

BB: I was there thirty months.

JS: And what was the experience like where you were injured?

BB: Well, that’s a whole other issue really. I think for me when I was injured and made it back to the country and the surgeries I’ve had since then, the pain in my life since 1970 has really been pain management as a result of the injury and a multiplicity of surgeries. But those things really had become trophies of grace because every time I had pain in my foot, leg, arm, back, wrist, or shoulder, I just say, “Lord, thank you for the memory that you spared my life.”

So the pain has really become a trophy of grace and mercy. And it’s not something to complain about. I’m not a victim. I’m just a vessel. And so as a result of that I don’t see myself as a victim of the Vietnam War. I see myself as a vessel from the Vietnam War. And that attitude really frees me to be very, very grateful for the experience. So I look back and say, “Thank you for the constant reminder that you were merciful and spared my life.”

JS: Do you have a chance to minister to people who have had trauma in situations that could have undone them?

BB: Absolutely, John. I think, as I understand the Scripture, all of life is preparation for future ministry. I look back on those years and say, “Have you equipped me to teach any group of people who maybe other people couldn’t?” I do a lot of one-on-one counseling with people who have gone through trauma to help them realize that we’re really not victims, we’re vessels and that transforms the way you think as Paul tells in Romans 12. You’re set free by how you think. And so taking people to the Scripture and letting people see that they’re not victims but just vessels really is very freeing and liberates anyone from their past.

JS: Tell us about your family today.

BB: My wife, Becky, is a pediatrician here in Pittsburgh. I have two stepchildren. No natural children. My son, Bill is a professor in Charlotte and my stepdaughter, Amy, is married in Los Angeles. Becky has a wonderful practice here in the Pittsburgh region. We are members of the Mt. Lebanon Presbyterian Church. I do a lot of preaching and teaching there as well as at other churches when the Lord is pleased to open those doors.

JS: And I’m sure you’ll preach and teach whatever God is needing you to preach at that time. But what themes, or you’ve probably already mentioned some, but what themes seem to repeat and be recurring in your ministry?

BB: I think first of all the nature, character and attributes of God. One of the series I did for both the men’s group and the Bile study in Pittsburgh is the “Twenty-eight Attributes of God. That takes about three to four years to go through. I think what certainly comes up in my particular teaching style, John, is the theme of “What God do you believe in: the God of human imagination or the God of biblical revelation?” Of course there’s a huge difference. Most people have created a God of their human imagination. And I think most of my emphasis is to let’s go back and see what God has chosen to reveal about himself to us. And so the theme of the nature, character, and attributes of God is very predominant.

I think another would be the whole New Covenant – how God relates to us through the accomplishments of the Cross where he achieved for us our salvation. We don’t earn that or work for that. We receive that. And understanding what it means to be justified by faith alone and so I think the Five Solas: by grace alone, through faith alone, through Christ alone, through the Scripture alone, and for the glory of God alone. That would be my primary theme.

JS: You mentioned that you do a lot of work with the families who have wealth, who are giving some of that wealth away. How do you work with the recipients? Do you do that at all and, if you do, what do you try to instill in or impart to them?

BB: One of my responsibilities in this regard, John, is that when one of the families makes a grant to a particular organization, we have a responsibility to follow up and to see how the money was used. Was it used to the way the family intended? So I’m pretty much to be a bridge between the family’s heart and the organizational need and to try to make those two things match and to make sure they’re consistent. There’s a high level of communication with both sides, the family and the receiving organization, to make sure that the need they’re proposing is actually what the heart desires. When that happens, everybody benefits, including the people who are served by the contribution and, for me, that’s a great joy.

JS: So you’re bridging the groups all the time, the givers and the receivers. Obviously, the Lord Jesus has impacted your life and your family played a big role. Any other characters in history, any other instructors, or anybody else that had a significant impact on making you who you are today?

BB: Well, I think certainly my older brother. He’s five years older than I and he was always a role model of consistent masculinity. Now’s there’s a difference between maleness and masculinity. Maleness is a physical issue and masculinity is a spiritual one. And my brother was always a good model of the latter. He’s very much a quiet servant. He is not the preacher teacher I am. He’s now retired in the D.C. area and he’s now making 500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches 3 nights a week and distributing them to the poor in the city of Washington. He is a such wonderful model of being a man’s man but has a servant‘s heart. So I would say my brother has impacted me.

But then, I think there was a group when I was working on my doctorate in England. I studied the great Puritan preachers and I read about 3,000 Puritan sermons, looking at my information for my doctorate. My dissertation was “Light and Heat and the Puritan View of the Pulpit.” I would have to say by just reading those 3,000 to 4,000 sermons, the great Puritan preachers really were my mentors too. Even though they have gone on to be with the Lord, they’re still alive and impacting people. They certainly impacted me. My whole style of expository preaching has come out of that. The principle of being God-centered and my understanding of the sovereignty of God, both of those things really came from those men who I just studied and read their sermons and their theological works and I would have to say as a group that was the group that impacted me the most.

JS: Let’s go back now and obviously the Lord is the foundation and center of your life. What do you think your most significant accomplishment is that he’s permitted you to be a part of?

BB: That’s a wonderful question, John. I would have to say, honestly, that it is proclamation of the Scripture. I would have to say the highlight of my life is that I have the privilege of teaching or preaching the Scripture. When it’s over, I sit back and say “You really allowed me to do this.” To me, I can’t think of any higher honor than that, the responsibility that comes with that. And so I think to me that’s very, very humbling and certainly would be my greatest accomplishment. I was hopefully able to do that consistently and do it well, and to proclaim truth.

JS: What are you reading now? Anything impacting you? What do you read regularly? What are you reading habits in general?

BB: Well, I still do a great deal of studying. I try to read a Puritan sermon daily. I’m going back and re-reading some of the ones I’ve read before. But I’ve got some other one’s I’ve come across. Some things we’ve published through Sola de Gloria. I’m now reading a wonderful book stimulating all sorts of things called, “The Church Impotent,” about the feminization of Christianity. That’s been a very thought-provoking book for me to read and to really digest because it’s basically asking what it is that I can do to help get men back involved in the Church. And I have real concern about the feminization of Christianity.

JS: What do you see for your future? Where, Lord willing, in the next five or ten years? What would you like to achieve that you still haven’t? What vision do you have for the future?

BB: I just want to be an aggressive responder to what is going on today and tomorrow. I really don’t have a longterm plan. My wife and I have talked about our future with our children gone, and we’re very, very content to continue where we are and see what the Lord might be pleased to do. Our attitude is “we’re going to be obedient today and that will lead us to what we need to do tomorrow.” And so, I really don’t have a long-term goal or something I’d like to achieve. I just want to be an aggressive responder to what’s happening today and that will take care of itself.

JS: I know you preach the counsel of God as best you can. But is there a verse or verses or a passage or books or chapters that speak to you on a regular basis?

BB: Well, I think the most important verse in the Bible is Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God…” If you don’t understand that, then John 3:16 doesn’t make any sense. So, my favorite verse is the first book, the first verse in the Bible, Genesis 1:1.

I would have to say a passage that constantly speaks to me is Ezekiel 36: 22-27. The prophet Ezekiel is speaking words on behalf of God and talking about the New Covenant. “That I will demonstrate the fact that I am holy when I demonstrate my holiness through to the world to which you have profaned.” When I look at that, I see the purpose for every person in Christ is the same. It’s not your vocation. It’s not your personality. It’s your position and we all have the same purpose, and that is to be the means by which God demonstrates the fact that he’s holy. So that passage constantly plays into my heart and into my mind as I think about that the Lord calls us to himself. He cleanses us form ourselves, he creates a new heart within us. He completes us with the Holy Spirit and he causes us to be obedient. And that’s the means by which we give his life away. That’s always a strong emphasis in my life.

Then, I think in the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 4:7, “We had this treasure in earthen vessels to show the all surpassing power comes from God and not from us.” And that’s the verse that continues to remind me that I’m not a victim. I’m just a vessel. And the whole purpose of my life, even the difficult things like the injuries in Vietnam, all have a sovereign design behind them. And that is you’re a vessel to show that all surpassing power. To survive comes from Him and not from you. So I think those two passages are related.

JS: Bruce, as we wrap up you’ve already said so many powerful things that many people reading or listening can benefit from. But if someone is saying you don’t understand or how can I make my life meaningful or make a difference or the needs are so great, how can I invest my life? As final words, what would you say to someone who asks these kinds of questions?

BB: Well, I would say this: Its kind of a repeat of what I’ve already alluded to, John. And that would be this: just ask yourself the question, “What is the Lord doing around me today?” And when you see that, be an aggressive responder. That takes the pressure off of my trying to figure out what I need to do and it puts the emphasis or what I need to be. And I would try to counsel that person, don’t so much worry about what you’re doing. Put more emphasis on what you’re being because the real emphasis is when you are being the right person. Then you will be doing the thing you will need to do. So I think they all fit together.

JS: Bruce, thank you so much. You’ve always been so generous, your time and help for the Center of Urban Biblical Ministry. We appreciate that certainly. You have been generous throughout the community, giving of yourself, and we are honored to have you as a part of the initial Urban Heroes program. We know that your story will impact many and we look forward to many updates for our readers and listeners of the good things God is doing in your life..

BB: Well, thanks, John. You are very gracious. And I’m honored to be a part of it and Lord bless you, my friend, and let’s both be aggressive responders.

JS: That sounds good. Thanks, Bruce. God bless.

BB: Thanks John.

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