by Joe McKeever
If you are foolish-and you do not want to be-you will see your spiritual leadership as one thing and the way you live your life in private as something entirely unrelated. In doing so, you will make a grievous mistake.
In his book, See You at the Finish Line, Don Wilton, now pastor of Spartanburg's First Baptist Church, tells of an incident when he was a professor of preaching at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The class was Preaching 101. Don would lecture about preaching, assign books to read and sermons to write, and at some point in the semester, the students each brought a short sermon to the class. Professor Don sat on the back row, listening to each one, making notes, trying to think of ways to correct, stimulate, and motivate these young prophets without overwhelming or devastating them. Not any easy task.
When Henry stood to preach to the class that day, no one had reason to expect they were going to hear anything other than the usual nervous stutterings of a 22-year-old trying to get his ministerial bearings. To the surprise of the class, Henry was eloquent. Don Wilton calls him "probably the most gifted young preacher I had ever heard." Soon the class was caught up in his message and was responding enthusiastically. When Henry sat down, his classmates erupted in verbal approval and encouragement.
Two days later, Henry came by the professor's office. He was concerned about the grade Don had awarded him for that sermon. "I got the impression in the class you thought I did a good job on the sermon," he said. "That's right. I did," said Don. "Well," Henry said, "I'm not asking for a high grade, but an F? And you gave me an F on the entire course. I don't understand that. I thought I might have made an A even."
Don said, "That's right. You have flunked this course and will have to take it over. You might not even graduate this May."
"But why?" the student insisted.
Don said, "Because you failed the most important part of the course. To explain, I'll need to tell you a story:
"A few days ago, I was outside Blockbuster on Elysian Fields Avenue, which turns left onto Gentilly Boulevard close to the seminary. It just so happened that I was in my car at the traffic light right there at that intersection, waiting to make a left-hand turn. Directly in front of me was a seminary student also waiting to make a left turn.
"In front of the student was a car driven by an elderly lady. Now, when the light turned green, the woman's reflexes were slow, and she could not get going. That seminary student honked his horn loud enough for everyone around him to hear. Then, that same seminary student rolled down his window, stuck his head out of the window, and let her have it. He did not curse, but he certainly let her know exactly what he thought about her inabilities.
"To make matters worse, this same student used his car as a tool to show her just how angry he was. He shot around the right side of her and then barreled back into the left-hand lane. She was still half out in the middle of the road and he looked back, shaking his fist, continuing to yell at her.
"A few days later," Don continued, "that same seminary student came to my class, stood up, and preached to us about the love of God. My friend, you are exactly correct. You flunked the course, and it has nothing to do with your preaching ability."
Don Wilton gave an invaluable gift to the student that day: a lesson on love and graciousness he would remember the rest of his life.
The preacher who fails to see the connection between his Sunday ministry and the life he leads during the week when he thinks no one sees him will bring great shame upon His Lord, embarrassment to his church, and disappointment to all who believe in him. He will, most certainly, end up as a great failure in the pastorate.
When Harold Bryson taught preaching in the same institution, he had an experience of a somewhat similar nature, one he handled in another, rather creative way. The student in question had been assigned to write a doctrinal sermon and turn it in by a certain day. "Louis" (not his real name) handed in a fine sermon, one of the best Professor Harold had ever seen. He gave "Louis" a C on it. That earned him a visit from the upset student.
"Wasn't it a good sermon?" "Oh, it was a fine sermon. Not a thing wrong with it."
"Then why didn't it merit an A?" "Oh, it did. That was an A sermon if I ever saw one."
"I don't understand."
Dr. Bryson said to his young protege: "Well, here's how it is. You copied that sermon verbatim out of the Abingdon Preacher's Annual. That's plagiarism and that's bad enough. But it gets worse. The reason I happen to know that is because I wrote it. You copied my sermon."
"Louis" sat there stunned at his own stupidity. Harold continued, "I ought to have given you an F. The only reason I gave you a C is that you have such good taste in the sermons you steal."
Harold Bryson told me that story and we both laughed. "Louis" is a friend to us both and a very capable pastor. My impression is that he learned his lesson from this experience. I do think, however, that by this bit of plagiarism he earned an F and a personal meeting with the dean, but no one asked me. Besides, I never want to fault a teacher for showing mercy to a young sinner.
An effective pastor will realize that what he is in the pulpit and out of it is a whole. He does not adopt one persona when he steps onto the platform and shed it like a ministerial robe when he exits the church.
Two of the most effective and beloved pastors to my knowledge personify the point I'm attempting to get across here. Don Davidson pastors the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, and Jay Wolf leads the First Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. For my money, they may be the best pastors on the planet. Here's why I think so.
Both men are effective in the pulpit, and that must never be underestimated. But what they are on Sunday morning is a seamless unity with what they have been all week. Both are men of the highest integrity who would die before they would cut corners on quality, do a harsh unloving thing to any soul, or cheat a person out of a dollar. They love people, and each can make you feel that there is nothing on the planet he would rather do than sit with you and enjoy your company. That is an attribute that cannot be taught in seminaries, but must be cultivated within one's own soul
My point in calling attention to them here is to encourage young ministers to erect high personal standards of behavior, and to find themselves worthy role models. I'm a good deal older than both Jay and Don, but I say here and now that I want to be like them when I grow up!
Joe McKeever is director of missions for the New Orleans Baptist Association.
He is also a talented cartoonist whose creations have long been displayed in Pulpit Helps.
This article is Lesson #54, from Dr. McKeever's on-going series of Leadership Lessons.