Pastor John, here’s a question for you about academics and pastoral ministry. More than once, you have said God seems to give special help and insight into the Bible to pressured pastors because they are preparing meals for his bride — the church. Did that have anything to do with your leaving academics, and did this ultimately prove true for you in the thirty-plus years pastoring Bethlehem?
One of my fears in leaving academia was losing the relative leisure to study. What I mean by that is once you have taught the same courses several times, it is easier. You have more time, and you have summers, and so the academic life seemed to offer a kind of leisure to study.
One of my fears was that in losing that leisure, I would lose the joy of discovery in biblical texts, because I knew that for me those discoveries required a lot of looking at the text, a lot of time. But in retrospect, it didn’t turn out that way. There are other factors besides time in the pastoral ministry there. There is not as much freedom to study. That is true. But there are two other, more than compensating, factors.
Pressured to Preach
One is the relentless pressure to preach and teach and give devotions and write newsletters and speak to classes and youth events and senior events and marriages and funerals and on and on. And at least for me, the pastoral life was a never-ending pressure to feed a group of people with a meal from the Scriptures.
And I suppose I could have viewed it differently than that. I could have collected stories and told all kinds of things, but for me, almost every time I had a chance to speak to any group, it seemed my job was to take the Bible and dig in and find something nourishing — find a meal for the people and feed them the meal.
Two Effects of Preparing Daily Spiritual Meals
And the continual pressure to get those meals ready for the people had two effects on me:
1. I needed to daily refill the tank with God’s word.
One was the need for me to be in the word daily with prayerful desperation — to find treasures and food for my soul. You can’t run your pastoral car on yesterday’s gas. You might fill it with the same text every day for five days, but you have got to fill it. You have got to put that text in there consciously and by faith. I really felt that the continual danger of drying up spiritually was huge — of waking up some morning and being bored with the Bible and wanting to watch sports on TV instead of studying my Bible. And fortunately, by God’s amazing grace, that never happened. But the fear of it happening — “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away” (Hebrews 3:12) — kept me praying over the word with tremendous pleas for light: Lord, please don’t let that happen to me. Give me light. So that is one effect of that pressure. It forced me over the text into it every day for my soul.
2. I was constantly on the hunt for another tasty, nourishing meal.
And the other effect of all that pressure to find nourishment for the flock was to keep me looking at the book in preparation for all those events, and specifically looking with a view to find tasty, nourishing food for the people. It had to be nourishing for their faith that they would grow, and it needed to be tasty because it is a sin to be dull with the Bible.
It is a sin to be insipid and boring, and you just drive people away. And that pressure is, in my mind, a golden gift to me. It more than compensated for the more extended times of study in academia.
God Will Feed His Flock
And there was one other compensating factor, it seems to me, that has made all the difference for the loss of leisurely study in academia. All my preparations felt less like academic discovery for a guild to assess than like finding rations for hungry troops who will not survive the battle if I don’t feed them well. This pastoral orientation of finding food for the troops in all those sermons and devotions and homilies for marriages and funerals and commencements and retreats and all kinds of things gave me a huge sense that God was for me in this study. He loves his flock. He wants to feed them. And I felt that was what I was doing.
I have been bedeviled all my life by second-guessing my motives. So, it was a great help to me to say to the Lord in my preparations,
Father, as much as it lies within me to know my own heart and to put to death selfish motives, I renounce the desire to be thought wise or clever or smart. And I set my face now to find wonderful food for your people, for their joy and their faith and their hope and their boldness and their healing and their perseverance and their holiness and their worship.
And to the degree that God gave me the love to actually feel that, my confidence level that God would give me something for them increased. He would open this text and make things obvious to me that I couldn’t see any other way.
So for me, leaving academia was, I think, a great gift. And I want to be sure to say here — because I have a lot of friends in academia — that I don’t mean that if you stay in academia, you can’t have these insights pastorally. You can. But for me, I believe with all my heart that I owe most of what I have spoken and written for the good of people to the fact that God has loved his church and helped me feed them with wonderful food because of a pressured life of going to the pantry and looking in and saying, “Where is it, Lord? Where is the food that you have got prepared for this particular people on this particular night where I am supposed to give this devotion at this seniors’ gathering?” God has opened things to me I don’t think would have been opened any other way.