Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Killed the Preacher Training Schools?

I love higher Christian education. My Bible College years as a student were some of the best of my life. I had great professors who both challenged me as well as made a personal impact on my life. It was while I was in Bible College that I began to aspire to actually teach in one at some point in my life. Little did I know at that time that such an opportunity was not that far off. And in the intervening years as a Bible College, now University Professor I hope that in some small way I’ve been an encouragement to my students and that things they learned from me they are now entrusting to faithful men who will teach others also (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). But for the past several years I’ve become increasingly concerned that challenging and preparing preachers, while still given a lot of lip-service to donating churches and individuals, is becoming less and less a focus of schools that once began with the stated purpose and goal of preparing a faithful pulpit ministry.

It’s a dangerous thing to dare to challenge the motives of schools that used to produce preachers but no longer produce that many. You might as well look at your friend and tell them their momma is a rotten cook! One has to tread lightly when challenging the grand Alma Mater. Yet when each year’s graduating classes produces fewer men ready to go and preach than the year before, the questions need to be asked. Sadly, very few will ask the questions outside a quiet conversation with a preacher friend. Many lament the scarcity of those who desire to preach full-time, but few would dare to ask the hard questions of the institutions or their trustees who claim to be in existence to produce them. Even fewer would dare suggest that their future financial support depends on the commitment made to producing preachers first and foremost. It is near heresy to challenge a BibleCollege/Christian University administrator in such a way.

So, with no fear of not being asked to preach in their chapels again I am going to share a few of my own thoughts about why schools (be they called Institutes, Bible Colleges, or Universities) are no longer producing preachers as they perhaps could and should. I doubt that those who would be most shocked and personally offended will be reading this blog anyways, so I feel safe!

Most preacher training schools began as a single-focus institution. They came into existence for the sole purpose of preparing preachers. Many of these “Mom & Pop” Bible Colleges began on a prayer, a shoestring and a dime. But their earnest intentions took root and produced the very thing they wanted to produce, namely preachers.

My son went to Culinary School. He didn’t go to the Culinary Institute of America to learn architecture, or auto repair, or accounting. He chose a school that has one purpose: to prepare chefs. I’m thankful and proud that he is now very successful in his chosen career as a chef. My oldest step-daughter went to a Medical College to learn to become a physician. She now serves our nation as a pediatrician in the Navy. Single-focus schools are plentiful and do a very good job of producing the thing they are in business to produce!

Bible Colleges seem to think that expanding majors, career choices, etc. is the natural progression. So more majors are added – each requiring greater resources and placing more demands on the school, i.e. qualified faculty, library, and other infrastructure. They are still training preachers, and make sure those who send the monthly gifts know that, but they are also expanding their offerings and the “preacher training” becomes just one of the many career choices that a school seeks to offer. It no doubt helps young ladies who will never be full-time preachers. And we often hear of the value of a Christian education to those who may not serve in full-time ministry, but want that good solid Christian foundation for whatever careers they do eventually pursue.

I continue to see the value of a single-focus institution that exists for the express purpose of training preachers. These schools would exist to produce preachers - not nurses, not public school teachers, not auto mechanics,etc. There are plenty of community colleges, trade schools, or even Christian Liberal Arts colleges that can do a fine job in preparing people for those careers. It is a sad thing that graduates of Bible Colleges end up thousands of dollars in debt because of the high price that schools must charge to fund all of the infrastructure associated with multiplying majors. How can a young preacher afford to pay back his student loans, perhaps support a family, when he starts out in a ministry at a small congregation that can barely pay him enough to meet his monthly obligations? Discouragement and frustration often set in, and another preacher is forced to seek secular employment, and perhaps leave the ministry altogether. The skyrocketing cost of training a preacher is a dilemma that must be urgently addressed.

When a school leaves its single-focus purpose of training preachers and begins adding other majors and career choices, the next step for many of these schools has been Regional Accreditation. The reasons for this are repeated ad nauseum. It helps those who transfer to state schools to have their credits transfer. It gives the school more standing and prestige in the academic world. It may qualify the school for additional grants, federal aid, etc. Most promise their donors that it will greatly increase their enrollmentand allow them to do even more in the future. Oh yeah, and they’ll still be training preachers.

I’ve seen numerous schools go down the road of Regional Accreditation. Thousands of dollars are spent annually on the fees of membership. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent on hiring academically qualified professors {as determined by the agency} to teach the courses that need to be taught. Woe to that faculty member who doesn’t have the right degree as they may find a way to get rid of them to bring that next guy on board. Let me just take an aside for a moment and say that some of the very best, biblically sound, conservative, excellent examples of a preacher/professor that I had did not have very advanced degrees. Now if someone is a great teacher, biblically sound, conservative, excellent preacher/teacher who has an advanced degree, I’m all for it. But just having the right degree in no way guarantees that he is biblically sound, or even a halfway gifted teacher. But they make the regional accrediting team happy, so that becomes the deciding factor. So maybe the quality of professor has something to do with the qualityof the graduate, or even the number of them in any given program.

Each year the Directory of the ministry as well as the Christian Standard publishes a list of the Bible College/Christian Universities in the brotherhood. You will not find one who has exponentially increased their enrollment since they went the route of Regional Accreditation. Some struggleto maintain the same numbers they had before they got it. But you will see schools that have steadily increased their tuition and fees, and whose number of graduates who desire to go in the preaching ministry either remain stagnant or decline. Regional Accreditation may help those who want to go into a career field other than ministry, but I contend it is not necessary for those who would preach Jesus. I once got scolded for daring to preach in a Bible College chapel that our accreditation [approval] should be from God rather than man. Such is life. I was right then. And I’m rightnow! Having secular associations, secular accrediting teams pass judgment on a Christian endeavor such as preparing preachers seems counter-productive at best, and just plain wrong atworst. Yet that is the price that is paid, along with thousands of dollars, for the prestige of being able topublish a logo on your letterhead and website from the accrediting body. I don’t buy the necessity of regional accreditation for the purpose of training preachers.

So whatever did happen to the “Bible College”? Cincinnati Bible College; Minnesota Bible College; Great Lakes Bible College; Johnson Bible College; Roanoke Bible College (among a host of others) have all changed their name. Notice that Johnson is now called Johnson University (without respect to Bible or Christian). This is no isolated incident! There is something going on that speaks to the outcomes these institutions want to achieve, and I contend it has precious little to do with training preachers. My Alma Mater used to have a large banner on the wall in the front of the Chapel which read, “God, Give Us Preachers.” It was later changed to, “God, Give Us Servant Leaders.” Whether they have anything there any more or not, I don’t know. I’ve scratched my head at some of the rationales for the name change to“University” that I’ve heard. The most consistently used one has something to do with the idea that foreign students associate “College” with High School. So the term “university” then assists foreign students in knowing what level of education they will receive at a US school. I’m waiting to see statistics that (a) show a marked increase in the number of foreign students at an institution that was a former “Bible College”; and (b) that these foreign students are coming to learn how to preach when they go back home. I’ve seen great foreign nationals come and learn in a non-accredited Bible College who are doing amazing things back in their home countries. And they did it all without the benefit of a “University”education. I don’t buy the necessity of a name change.

Finally, I put a lot of responsibility at the feet of alumni, Church leaders, and Christians who are unwilling to speak up about these disturbing trends in schools that purport to exist to train preachers. Earlier I said something about the fear of not being invited to speak in a Chapel, or ending up on some supposed “Black List”. Trust me, they actually do have those lists although they may not be in written form! Dare to question these people and you probably will tick them off, but that’s ok. I’ve found you can still sleep at night!

Administrators and fund raisers will give the “right”answers. When they come into a church looking for students and especially for money, they will play to their audience. This sounds calloused of me I know, but I once raised money for a Bible College, and I know what they want to sell. I’ve seen the outside consultants come in to train staff on how to effectively solicit money. You will get the canned, focus-group driven responses about the importance of preacher training, regardless of how many are actually trained. Or if you send more money and students, more will be trained! Ask to see the numbers sometime of graduates in preaching programs. That will tell the story in a very objective way.

At Liberty University, Professor Elmer Towns used to say that the acid test of a leader is “nickels and noses.” You have to be able to raise money and bring in people to be successful. If there’s any truth in the adage that “money talks,” church leaders need to do a lot more talking with their Missions budgets. If we don’t like the food we get at one restaurant we’ll go to another. If one car dealer jerks us around we’ll find another one. Why is it any different to say to a school, “We don’t like the way you’re going”? Kindly inform them that that your future support is not guaranteed! Tell them “We’d like to see some changes made or we will take our support elsewhere!”

One radical idea is to go over the heads of the school’s administration. Go to the trustees. Voice your concerns directly to them. Don’t be so naïve to think that concerns you raise to administrators will be shared with the trustees. Most complaints to administrators get immediately filed in the trash bin, or the recycle bin if you email! Trustees may be more apt to discuss and then act upon the concerns of alumni and supporting churches when they know what is at stake, i.e. their ability to stay in existence. There is no more need to fear these people than the manager of a McDonalds you complain to when your fries are stale.

Ask yourself, “Is the church being effectively served by the new model of Christian Colleges and universities?” Is the staggering cost of tuition justified by what these schools are producing? Obviously, I have my doubts. I believe a new paradigm for training preachers needs to be implemented. Actually, it’s the old paradigm. Perhaps it will be churches that train up their own men to faithfully preach the Gospel. Or maybe it will be the return to the single-focus Bible Institute.

My heart’s desire is to preach and help prepare other preachers. It may be time to think “out of the box” to borrow a cliché, and find new ways to effectively recruit and train a faithful ministry. The current way just isn’t getting it done. The job is too big and urgent, and the needs of the Church, as well as a world lost in sin too great. I’d like to see a dialogue started that will address these concerns. The collective wisdom of those who share a similar goal, by God’s grace and provisions, could achieve amazing things in preparing preachers for the generations to come.

C’mon, Murphy, let’s go outside!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hundred Dollar Sermons

A preacher friend asked me to fill in for him in a month or so, which I was very glad to accept. He mentioned the honorarium and asked if it would be acceptable. I told him the amount was fine and I was looking forward to being at the Church to preach.

The email exchange reminded me of when "back in the day" I was filling-in every Sunday at a different church. This went on for a lot of years. And it always seemed that things just had a way of working out. One church would pay very little - sometimes not enough to pay for the gas to get there, let alone actually being enough to help supplement an income. But the following week I'd be somewhere else and they'd hand me a check (or occasionally cash!) which not only was generous for that day, but also made up for what I didn't get the week before.

I've had to learn this lesson the hard way. Back in the mid 80's I had 2 children who were in diapers. I remember one day having to literally count pennies to take to the store to buy the diapers, and I ended up being about 4 cents short due to the taxes on them! The clerk was nice and said not to worry about it, and I left with plenty of Pampers! But I was mad. Steaming actually. All the way home I grumbled about my lousy salary, how I could be making a lot more doing something other than teaching, and how it all wasn't fair. I had a pretty good pity party all the way home. When I pulled into my driveway I was surprised to see two brown sacks on my porch, filled to capacity with fresh corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc. There was no note or any indication who left them there, and to this day I don't know who gave them to us. But I knew I felt like the biggest jerk in the world, and about 2 inches tall! All the way home I expressed my doubt in God, and He already had me covered! I did some repenting and confessing that night for sure. And there have probably been some other failures on my part, but through it all God was teaching me that trust in Him is never a waste of time.

People occasionally call and ask, "How much do you charge to do a wedding?" My answer is always the same. I don't charge to do a wedding, but if people want to pay me for services rendered that is fine. Most often they'll ask what others have done, and I'll give them the range and that usually is all that needs to be said. Same thing for funerals, etc.

As I look back at nearly 30 years in ministry I can say I've never been late on my rent or mortgage or missed a car payment. God has always been faithful to me and has met my family's needs without fail. We've been blessed immeasurably more, I believe, because we chose to trust Him to provide. My desire to preach without written stipulations ahead of time has been met with God blessing us far above what I could ever ask.

During my brief stint as a Correctional Chaplain for the State of North Carolina I recall a meeting of all the Chaplains where an event was being planned. The conversation turned to the remuneration for paying the speaker. One Chaplain surprised me a bit when she stated very matter-of-factly, "I don't have no hundred dollar sermons." I bit my tongue and didn't say that I thought that for her that $100 would be over-charging a congregation.

But what it did do was remind me of Paul's views on being paid for ministry. He often talked about his right {and that of other Gospel workers} to be paid for preaching, i.e. 1 Cor. 9:4-11. Yet he often did not exercise his right because of the situation of the church, or their poor attitude about giving in general, i.e. 1 Cor. 9:14, 15. He knew he could have "charged" but chose to volunteer instead. Paul trusted that other churches would make up for the stingy attitude of churches that would not provide monetary support. See 2 Cor. 11:7, 8 where he says, "Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you without charge? I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to serve you" (NASB).

Paul knew, like most preachers, some pretty 'lean' days. And yet he also knew of those times when the blessings, including material ones, were just off the charts. And through it all he learned to be content. His comments in Philippians 4:10-19 tell the story of going through some hard times and also being richly blessed. And in all of this Paul learned the lesson of contentment. I'm guessing Paul had his version of "Ramen Noodles" on many occasions, but then there were times when he had an "Outback" kind of night too. And either was fine with him! He said he needed "food and covering" and when he had them then he was content (I Tim. 6:8).

So I'm looking forward to preaching at this church coming up. It may not pay as much as the last one, or it may pay more than the next one! But either way I'm confident that God will meet my needs. And for that I will be thankful.

C'mon, Murphy, let's go outside!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pretentious Pastors and Pharisees

"Lead," "Senior," "Executive." Put these adjectives in front of Minister or Pastor and you have a pretty important person! And think just how important a title like this is when the congregation they are called to serve may - on a good Sunday - reach as many as 100 people! Those people will need to be reminded who's really in charge, and a great title like that will do the job!

A previous blog of mine summarizes my thoughts on the rush to appropriate the title of Pastor. No doubt the denominations can be pleased they've impacted the Church of Christ/Christian Churches to such an extent. Perhaps it should be the other way around, but in an effort to fit in and be palatable, the mindset of "you got to go along to get along" seems to be working well for the pastors in today's church. Now when the proper descriptive term that indicates the kind of pastor he's going to be is added, everything is then in place for unfathomable growth to occur.

Or is it? What are we really communicating with those impressive titles of "Lead," "Senior," or "Executive"? Is it really following a Biblical model, or is it yet another example of setting aside the commandment of God in order to follow the tradition of men (see Mk. 7:6-8)?

I searched the word "leader" on www.biblegateway.org. It lists approximately 150 places where the word is used. Obviously, it's a good biblical word. Yet there is a passage that I keyed in on in my thoughts today. It's found in Mt. 23:10:

"And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ" (NASB).

The verse is straight-forward, and in its context makes perfect sense. Let's examine it. The occasion for this teaching is Tuesday of Christ's final week before the crucifixion. Jesus has been challenged by the religious leaders on issues such as His authority to teach; His views on paying taxes; His understanding of the concept of resurrection; and what He considered to be the greatest commandment. In each case the Lord confounded his accusers, and taught great lessons with hard to miss applications. After that, in Mt. 22:46 we read, "And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question" (NASB).

They may have not wanted to ask Jesus anything further, but He was far from done speaking to them, and to the crowds who gathered around to listen to the debate! Matthew 23 is a stinging rebuke of the attitudes and actions of the Scribes and Pharisees. For some 3 1/2 years Jesus had refrained from a lengthy rebuke of their hypocrisy, but on this occasion - really the last possible occasion for it - He launches into a 'no holds barred' assault upon these pretentious, hypocritical leaders.

Leading up to verse 10 where Christ says, "do not be called leaders" here's what He's mentioned so far:

1. The Pharisees like to be in a position of control and power (i.e. the seat of Moses). But they do not do as they instruct others to do - vss. 2-4.

2. They enjoy being viewed and perceived as scholarly and very pious. They exuded sanctimony from their every pore! Yet what they did was only for show and accolades (vs. 5). Even their manner of dress was to set them apart from the crowds, or laity, or the ignorant, non-spiritual people (vs. 5, 6).

3. They wanted to be acknowledged and rewarded for their position of prominence! They liked their TITLES! (vss. 7-10). So Jesus tells them to lay off titles such as "Rabbi" (teacher); "Father," and "Leader."

What's the problem with titles? They are by definition descriptive, and should be helpful. Yet sometimes titles don't match up too well with function! Sometimes you can have a title without doing the job that it describes. Some of the old preachers used to say, "I have elders who won't eld, and deacons who won't deak!" They had a Biblical title, but didn't do the work that went along with it.

Years ago, in another life, I used to get mail addressed to me as "Director of Academic Computing." Now that is indeed an impressive title. No doubt much prestige, not to mention a much higher salary (!) should have been mine for having that most impressive designation. The only problem was, there was no position at that institution called "Director of Academic Computing." At that time the people I worked for had barely figured out how to use an abacus, let alone know anything about what academic computing would turn out to be! It was a great title, but there was no job, no function to it. It looked good, and would have been impressive on a business card, but meant nothing. To this day I have no idea how my name got put on a list with that title.

But to go on in the text, Jesus very pointedly notes what the mindset of these self-professed important religious leaders should have been. He says "But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted" (Mt. 23:11, 12).

Great titles will never replace servanthood! Jesus - the greatest Leader the world has ever seen - also became a servant of all. Contrast the Pharisees who wanted the titles, the respect, and the power, with Jesus who said, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:45 NASB). Jesus cared more for the ministry than the monikers! Think of the titles He earned and deserves, yet remember the Suffering Servant who washed the feet, touched the leper, and ministered to the distressed and downcast. Greatness in the eyes of God is not measured by grandiose titles, rather by serving others.

James and John once sought for prominence and greatness from Jesus (Mk. 10:35-37). Jesus, however, taught them, the other disciples, and us that "whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all" (Mk. 10:43, 44 NASB).

Titles are here to stay. Yet servants of God should be less concerned about grand titles for their business cards and Church Bulletins than they are for the needs of the people they are called to serve. The titles may impress fellow pastors, and perhaps some of the congregation where they do their "Senior Executive Leading." But in the final analysis, impressive titles don't really do much to gain the notice of God. Well, at least not in a good way!

C'mon, Murphy. Let's go outside!

Monday, May 2, 2011

When God's Ultimate Justice is Meted Out, How Will We Respond?

The posts & status updates I'm seeing on Facebook today raise a good discussion. Should Christians rejoice at the death of UBL? Is there reason to praise God that a wicked man is no more, or should we instead pity a poor lost soul (one responsible for the deaths of thousands of people)? I'm not sure I want to join the chorus of the 'hand-wringers' just yet.

Things I've been contemplating today. They may not, in every way, apply to UBL, but I'm seeing some principles to consider as I think through these momentous events.

Pharaoh could have obeyed God's command, but opted not to. And God hardened his heart. Pharaoh met his doom.

Judas acted wickedly and betrayed the Lord. Jesus said, "It would have been good for that man if he had not been born." Think about what that means in terms of Judas' eternity.

Three times in Romans 1 the phrase, "God gave them over" is used. Why? Because they were wicked, evil, and deserving of this punishment.

Paul tells us that there will be those who "perish because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. And for this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false" (2 Thess. 2:10, 11 NASB).

Is God to be reprimanded or criticized for his actions, i.e. judgment on these poor souls who are lost? Was he not at first gracious to them, and his graciousness was rebuffed for that which was evil and false? Do we dare to object to what God deems to be right and just?

And then I looked at Revelation 19:1-3 which pictures not just the death/judgment of 1 wicked individual, but rather that which has caused suffering, bloodshed, and death upon God's people.

"After these things I heard, as it were, a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,

'Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God;

Because His judgments are true and righteous; for He has judged the great harlot who was corrupting the earth with her immorality, and He has avenged the blood of His bond-servants on her.'

And a second time they said, 'Hallelujah! Her smoke rises up forever and ever'."

Four times in Rev. 19:1-6 a shout of Hallelujah goes up. God is praised for His justice, and for avenging the blood of His people.

A far bigger day of judgment is coming than what the "Mastermind of 9/11" experienced yesterday. His actions killed thousands of people. How many of them were ready for judgment, who might have been had they been given another day? I feel no more pity for him than I did for Saddam Hussein when he met his justice at the gallows. Their free-will actions led them to their ultimate fate.

If anything, the presence of evil in the world reminds me that I need to be ready should my life be taken, and that I need to help others be ready as well. I'll grieve for the innocent who are taken; work hard to preach and teach that others might be saved; but for those who choose wickedness and evil over what is righteous and good, I will say Hallelujah for God's justice - however He chooses to distribute it.

"How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (Rev. 6:10).

Inquiring minds want to know!

C'mon, Murphy! Let's go outside!