ministry

The Funeral I Most Dreaded

July 27, 2015

This morning I will preach my father-in-law's funeral. 

For 32 years of our marriage, I dreaded this terrible task because he was not a believer. He wanted no part of Christ or his gospel. We prayed for him, witnessed to him, sent others to talk to him, and five years ago even took him to Manaus, Brazil to go fishing for tucunaré (peacock bass), but with the real intention of sharing Christ on the entire trip. We colluded, cooperated and conspired for his soul. 

While in Manaus we attended the Nova Igreja Batista, where our close friends David and Pennie Hatcher serve and we stayed in their home. They and all the members of Nova became co-conspirators in our redemptive plot. 

I will never forget sitting on the front row of their massive sanctuary surrounded by thousands of bouncing Brazilians worshiping and praising their Savior, smiles beaming from their brown faces. Gene could only recognize one word that they sang over and over--Jesus. He looked at Tanya and said, "These people really believe what they are singing." She took the opportunity to drive home the point that He had changed their lives and that is why they sang so fervently. 

When we got back to Kentucky, our niece met us at the airport and drove her grandfather home. She later told us that he did not stop talking—about the church and about David and Pennie. The three days of fishing the Rio Uatumã or seeing freshwater dolphins, caiman, howler monkeys or any of the things that he went to Brazil to see did not even merit a mention. Instead he was fixated on the obvious deep, meaningful belief in the gospel now so evident to him in so many people. 

A few months later his body failed him. One night his legs refused to work for him anymore and he never walked again. Too big and with too many medical needs for any of us to care for at home, the man whose life was as big as the great outdoors suddenly found himself limited to the four walls of a single room and flat on his back in a nursing home. 

For the first four or five days we had to go through red tape to get him a television and, coupled with his near deafness, he had nothing to watch or hear when we weren't there. The strange providence of God had twisted and brought him into the last place on earth he wanted to be but precisely where he needed to be and there, in the silence of that room, God brought to his mind all the times someone had shared the gospel with him, the simple message that Jesus saves by grace through faith. The effect in the lives of his children and grandchildren and his deceased wife and so many others that he knew was undeniable. 

The next day Tanya and I came to see him and were amazed by his attitude. Frankly, we had anticipated that he would hate the nursing home and might be terribly uncooperative. Instead he was positive, focused, and met this challenge with the same spirit that helped him survive World War II. We were, to be candid, stunned. 

As we got up to leave, Gene put out his hand and said something strange to me. "Preach to me, Hershey." He had never said that before. I thought he was confused or that asking me to pray for him was so unusual that he just didn't know how to do it. In 32 years, until this episode, he had never asked me to pray for him or with him about anything. A few days earlier he had held out his hand and said, "Say some good words for me," and I had taken that to mean pray for him and I had. Now I was trying to interpret, "Preach to me" and thought surely he meant for me to pray. 

So Tanya took one hand and I the other, and I prayed. I asked God to strengthen and heal him according to His will, but then I prayed for God to save him. I begged God to help him see that Jesus was the only way. I told God that Gene had had his way for far too long, and I pleaded with him to overwhelm him with His love and to overrule his stubborn heart and grant him repentance and faith in Christ alone. 

When I said, "Amen,” Gene patted my hand and looked me in the eye and said, “I've done that.” Tanya and I shot each other a skeptical and confused glance, both of us worried that he might say such a thing too lightly--though he certainly never had before. “What?” I asked. “I've done that!” “You're telling me that you have repented of your sins and you are trusting in Christ alone for eternal life?” “Yes,” he answered. "I have.” “Now, Gene,” I pleaded, “I really need to be sure about this because more than anything I want to spend eternity with you.” “Well you will,” he said, “because I have done that.” 

I wish I could tell you how sweet these last three years of his life have been, even in difficult circumstances none of us would ever choose. We saw God's grace at work in his life even as it had a profound effect on us as well. So today, I am not preaching the funeral I dreaded. I am preaching the funeral that I could preach for a Rahab, or a Ruth, or the thief on the cross. It's the story of redemption, of God's love extended to one whom many thought beyond His reach. It's the story of the five o'clock worker who gets the same reward as the one who's labored since dawn. It's the story of grace. It's the story of Jesus.

Ten Unique Challenges of Ministry

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In an earlier post I wrote that seminary cannot prepare anyone to be a pastor. Only a church, guided by the Holy Spirit, can truly qualify a man for ministry. By its very nature, the field of pastoral leadership is fraught with such incredible difficulties that we must say with the Apostle Paul, "Who is sufficient for these things?" Leading God’s people is unlike any other task in the world--which is why it requires a calling of the Spirit, and not merely training for a job. While I am sure there are others, I have identified a matrix of ten challenges specific to the church that make pastoring unlike anything else.

1) A pastor or church leader deals with the eternal and spiritual nature of things. Medical doctors have a stressful job of being guardians of life. Their decisions can mean life or death in some cases. A pastor, however, has the awesome responsibility of dealing with the immortal soul of man. His leadership and decisions have the potential of affecting eternity, and that is an infinitely greater burden.

2) The second challenge is that a pastor’s role is prophetic in nature. In other words, he has to look people in the eye and confront them with the uneasy subject of their sinful actions and attitudes--and no one likes that. Though he finds himself a great sinner in need of God’s grace, God holds him no less responsible to deal with the sin of others. Furthermore, the people he usually confronts are the very ones whose offerings pay his salary.

3) The pastor leads an army of volunteers. If a businessman has to correct a worker’s performance he has the leverage of a paycheck whose necessity powerfully motivates employees to do what they are asked. Workers in the church, however, do not need the job they perform in order to put food on the table and, may even have easier lives without it. How does a pastor lead a volunteer to change when she doesn't want to? A volunteer army also means that they can unvolunteer.

4) In most churches the pastor has an unclear identity. Most congregations, as well as the pastors themselves, have never actually defined what role they want the pastor to have. They want him to lead, but they don’t want to be told what to do. In addition to that, successive pastors have different sets of gifts, which clouds the issue because it affects his style of leadership. Each member may have a different expectation of the pastor. Some want him to be a great preacher, while others demand someone who will be at the hospital bedside for every tonsillectomy. Is the pastor primarily a leader, prophet, visionary, equipper, motivator, fund-raiser or teacher? Five church members may answer that question five different ways.

5) Compounding this problem is an increasing uncertainty about church polity. Some churches see the deacons as the leaders of the church, while others see the pastor as the leader and the deacons as servants. More and more churches are turning to a plurality of elders — one of whom is the pastor- teacher — who have the oversight of the congregation. Even in a plurality of elders, whoever serves as pastor-teacher has the de facto leadership, but how does he relate to the others? 

6) The church expects the pastor’s family to be involved in his work. I don’t know of any other private sector jobs that require so much family involvement. The school board doesn’t demand that the high school principal’s wife help decorate the hallways or attend all basketball games, for instance. But churches have expectations for the pastor’s wife and children that are rarely voiced in the interview with the pastor search committee even though that perception may indeed affect the pastor’s ability to lead. Many leaders in the church have lost their effectiveness because the congregation became disenchanted with his family, whether their disappointments were real or imagined.

7) Another challenge of ministry that results from the expectations of the congregation is the belief that the pastor should be the initiative taker. Church members don’t demand their doctor show up on the doorstep when they don’t feel well, but they expect the pastor to take the initiative to discover why they haven’t been around. In fact, some folks will get mad about something in the church and quit attending, but later they have forgotten what upset them originally. Their complaint then becomes that the preacher never came to see them when they quit coming.

8) The demand for originality is an especially burdensome and constant pressure. If a pastor preached just two sermons a week for fifty weeks in a year, he would write the equivalent of nine novels. With that much productivity required, church members ought to forgive a dull chapter every now and then! Though the Scriptures are an inexhaustible well of subject matter, saying biblical truths in an interesting way with fresh illustrations that connect with and engage a congregation is no small feat. The pastor who cannot preach well often finds his leadership itself threatened. His pulpit ministry is his broadest stroke of contact and leadership, and if he is perceived as dull or repetitive, he loses his most influential method of leading.

9) One of the most frustrating challenges of leadership in the church is that churches often give the pastor or other leaders responsibility without authority. For instance, the congregation usually assumes that the pastor is supposed to help meet the needs of his congregation. If a family has a legitimate financial emergency, they may turn to the pastor for immediate help, but he often has no way to provide it. And if he does, some committee may later rebuke him for overspending the benevolence budget. Churches often have a “get it done” attitude toward the pastor, but then complain about the way he did it.

10) Simmering below the surface of all leadership is the pastor’s friendship development difficulty. Most pastors and their families have great difficulties making and maintaining close relationships. A church leader often finds it impossible to walk the tightrope between leadership and friendship with the same people. Leaders and their families may be afraid to confide in others, are often burned if they do, and sometimes become the victims of jealousy or resentment if they try. Because of egos larger than they should be, pastors even find it difficult to establish relationships with other ministers because they can never break out of the thought pattern of comparing churches and problems.

So how do we meet those challenges? That's the subject of the next post!

Why Seminary Can Never Qualify Anyone for Ministry

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“I do not have the authority to expel you, so I’m asking you, please withdraw and leave the seminary.” I realized the weight of my words and fully appreciated their potential effect. Only after several lengthy attempts to correct him, learning that he was not plugged into any local church, and then subsequently conferring with the dean did I let them fall so profoundly and heavily on his stunned ears. The young man had preached several sermons in my preaching practicum, each one more disturbing and irresponsible than the last. Finally he crossed the line from unbalanced to untrue and promoted something that I judged to be egregiously wrong, contrary to the gospel, and antithetical to everything Southern Seminary stands for. When he remained resolute in his position and belligerent at my attempts to reprove, I knew that the tragedy of his departure from the truth would be exponentially compounded with a seminary degree. So I asked him to leave, and he did.

While I still grieve that student’s departure from sound doctrine, I have never regretted the severity of my words to him. I could not stop him from preaching error, but it would be far worse if he did it with a degree from Southern. 

My primary concern was not that someone would think he received his doctrine from my colleagues or me—though I certainly found that thought disquieting. My greater anxiety was that some church would mistakenly think him qualified to serve as pastor and would welcome him and embrace his false doctrine, simply because he had a degree from a seminary. 

When it comes to qualification for ministry, ordination should carry much more weight and provide much greater evidence of a man’s readiness for service in the church than any seminary degree.  A seminary alone is not sufficient to qualify anyone for ministry, no matter how faithful the faculty or how hard it tries. A seminary is a rigorous academic program, but that is very different from being a church in which the student can serve and demonstrate his gifts and calling while he is under its teaching, authority, and discipline.

A large portion of my life has been devoted to seminary education, both my own and that of thousands of others. I am committed to quality theological education in the seminary and believe it to be a marvelous way to learn the Scriptures from brilliant and devoted men and women of God whom he has raised up for this purpose. I love seminary and would encourage every young minister of the gospel who has the opportunity to enroll in seminary—especially in a residential program, but that is a subject for another time. I love and believe in seminary education, to be sure. Even so, something important needs to be said.

A seminary is not the church. Jesus made teaching and training part of the Great Commission given to his church. He loved the church and gave himself for it. Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages. He has set some in the church. The Scriptures don’t say a single word about seminaries, not only because they did not yet exist, but also because they aren’t integral to God’s plan for making his name great among the nations. The church, on the other hand, is God’s plan for global evangelism and discipleship.

To be clear, seminaries—at least Southern Baptist seminaries—operate on behalf of the churches and are, in fact, owned by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. The seminaries, therefore, hold a sacred and binding trust to train ministers of the gospel on behalf of the local churches in which they will one day serve. Seminaries make it possible for churches to offer a depth of theological training in multiple disciplines to those who have surrendered to ministry that they would not have otherwise. Churches have the right to delegate a portion of that training to a seminary and expect that their sons and daughters will be taught by great men and women of God and equipped in numerous ways, but churches cannot and must not abdicate their primary responsibility to train ministers of the gospel and to declare them ready for ministry when the time comes.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with the system, unless, of course, by wrong we mean unbiblical or, at the very least, extrabiblical. To the degree that any seminary circumvents and ignores the very body for which Christ died, forgetting that it exists to serve churches, that seminary has become unbiblical and will produce men and women more committed to a denomination or to a theological persuasion than to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Dry orthodoxy disconnected from local churches leads to death as certainly as a liberal denial of the veracity of the Scriptures.

Since the seminary is an academic institution and not a church, it cannot really observe the student adequately to know if he demonstrates a true sense of calling, and most definitely does not have the right to declare him a God-called minister. That calling will be found at the intersection of desire, gifting, opportunity, and the testimony of the church. I can certainly gauge the gifting and, to a large degree, the desire of a student to fulfill a call to preach, for example, but in the three hours a week he spends with me I will not know anything about the opportunities that he seeks or that the Lord provides for him, and still less will I have the daily opportunity to observe his steadfast perseverance, the “fire in his bones” that testifies of his calling. I cannot gauge his true effectiveness in real life situations. I do not know how he treats his wife, or parents his children, or how generous he is with his resources, or whether or not he struggles with pride or lust. Only a church can do that and only over a significant period of time.

That is why ordination, taken seriously and done rightly, should mean much more than any seminary degree. When a church ordains a man for ministry, the members are testifying that they have observed his calling and they have found evidence of its reality. He has consistently and persistently expressed the desire to fulfill that calling and has also shown that God has provided him the basic skills to do it. In all candor, God is not going to call someone to do something that he just can’t cut no matter how long he persists nor how hard he tries. With the calling comes an enabling, and only the church can observe him closely enough to verify that God has provided what the young minister needs to fulfill the calling he claims.

In addition, the church can provide opportunities in order to bear witness whether or not the young minister will avail himself of and perform those with a seriousness that testifies of his calling. I can make assignments in my class and force him to preach or to perform certain ministries because I hold the power of a grade over him. When he has done those assignments, even if he has done them well, I cannot be sure that he would take the same care and careful deliberation if he were not needing a grade. The church, on the other hand, sees the novice minister in real-life situations and can much more realistically determine his genuine level of commitment.

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A seminary is an academic institution and awards an academic degree because a student completed a prescribed course of study. Though we do everything possible to make it a spiritual pursuit and to tie it to a knowledge of Christ and a commitment to the local church, an intelligent Buddhist could fake his way through and graduate from a Baptist seminary. If a student chooses to go through the seminary and do only what is required of him academically, he may perform very well in classes and even graduate at the top of his class. Without true connection and accountability to a local body, however, that student is not qualified as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ and would not be qualified to lead a church until he has been faithful in serving a church and submitting to the elders (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5). My prediction for such a student would be that he would wipe out in the real world of church life and ministry. 

The success of ministry depends on the strength of calling. Academic training cannot ever bestow on a student the dogged persistence and the love for God’s people that he must have in the inevitable beat-down that ministry brings. Low pay, long hours, lost church members, and very little affirmation will often be a pastor’s lot, and at such times his rigorous academic training might actually work against him, contributing to feelings of entitlement and inflated self-worth that tempt him to cut and run. In those dark moments of opposition and spiritual dryness, he had better have something more significant than a seminary degree to keep him faithfully engaged and committed. He needs a fire in his bones, not a diploma on his wall.

On the other hand, I have seen many godly men who never made it to seminary lead vibrant and productive lives for Christ in the local church. As pastors, worship leaders, student ministers, or associate pastors, they exhibit a sense of calling, the skill set that demonstrates that anointing of God, and a passion that drives them to seek opportunities and to improve in their calling.

Put another way, the church can exist without the seminary. It has done so before and could do so again. The seminary, on the other hand, cannot and should not exist apart from the churches. The seminary has been tasked with giving young ministers a theological education on behalf of the churches, and we had better not ever forget that, but a theological education is only part of qualification for ministry. 

A little over a year ago I spent a week in Cuba and I saw God moving in ways I had never seen before. Hundreds of thousands a year are coming to Christ and churches are multiplying with incredible speed. Under tremendous deprivation, oppression, and persecution, the gospel is preached and the Spirit is moving mightily. Almost none of the pastors there have a seminary education, but I noted with great interest that almost all of them want one. Even though they are experiencing a revival that is perhaps more significant than any other place in the world right now, they feel that the depth and breadth of knowledge that a seminary education affords could make them even more effective and productive in the ministry.

Can we have both? Can we have a robust, full-orbed, theological education coupled with a passionate, Holy Spirit-anointed commitment to evangelism and church planting? Can we produce ministers who have an intelligent, thoughtful understanding of theology and a heart to walk through the hurts and sorrows of life with a congregation? We can, when the churches accept the primary responsibility for the spiritual formation of ministers and when those whom God has called understand that seminary training can enhance and enrich their service to the church but never supplant it.