Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Back to School

Neither of my parents went to college. I don’t think that my mother wanted to do so; I never heard her say. My father, on the other hand, always kicked himself for not taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to school after he was discharged from the Navy in 1946. They both thought that it was important and even necessary that I go, though. In fact, sometimes I think that they must have started whispering “You’re going to college” in my ear from the moment I was born; I never remember having even the slightest question about whether I would attend. The only question was where, which turned out to be Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. I started classes there in the fall of 1975.

Before I went to college, though, I went to church. I had attended Midway Baptist Church, a rural church some four miles outside of my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, with my parents for my entire life. I was saved and baptized in that church. I surrendered to the call to preach in that church. I was heavily influenced by the deep Christian faith of many people in that church. I was also introduced to the kind of conflict that can tear a congregation apart in that church. It was Midway Baptist Church that sent me off to get my “preacher boy” education at Mercer. I learned to appreciate the church for what it was when it was at its best, to appreciate it despite what it was when it was at its worst, and to appreciate it for what it was when it was what it was most of the time—kind of ordinary, kind of faithful, kind of interesting, and kind of dull. I loved that church and I loved church in general.

At Mercer, though, I found another, albeit related, love: university education offered with a Christian worldview. I fell in love with the atmosphere of learning, with the camaraderie of scholars, with the feel and smell and contents of books, and with the thrill of discovery. My professors, particularly the ones in the Department of Christianity who modeled a combination of deep piety and committed scholarship for me, had a greater impact on me than they could possibly have realized. I went to Mercer bearing a call to preach. I left Mercer still bearing a call to preach but wondering if I might also have a call to teach. During the seven years that I studied at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, whenever I was asked what I wanted to do when I finished, I replied, “Either pastor a Baptist church or teach in a Baptist college.” I did both while I was at Southern. I had a student pastorate at Beech Grove Baptist Church in Owen County, Kentucky. I taught at Simmons Bible College in Louisville.

And I’ve been blessed to do both since I graduated from Southern in 1986. Over the past twenty years I’ve had some wonderful experiences in both areas of ministry. I served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia, a fine congregation in the deep south-central part of the state. While I was there I taught as an adjunct for Brewton-Parker College and for Mercer at a center they operated in Perry, Georgia. I think that I enjoyed a third teaching experience the most, though. One Saturday I saw an ad in the Valdosta Daily Times seeking teachers for a degree program that was being started at Moody Air Force Base outside Valdosta by St. Leo College in Lakeland, Florida. I figured that there was a very, very small chance that a Roman Catholic school offering classes on a U.S. Air Force base might hire a Baptist preacher with a Ph.D. from a Baptist seminary to teach religion courses. But they did! I spent a year teaching Introduction to Religion and Old Testament Survey to a group of Air Force non-commissioned officers. They were good students and it was great fun.

Then I reversed my priorities for a while. I became a professor in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. During those seven years I taught full-time and pastored part-time. After a few years of doing interim and supply work I became the part-time pastor of the Fosterville (TN) Baptist Church and greatly enjoyed those good people. Then I went back to the full-time pastorate. I have been blessed to serve for the last four years as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church, a wonderful fellowship of believers in Augusta, Georgia. It has been several years since I’ve done any college teaching.

That changes today. I’m going back to school. On Tuesday nights this semester I’ll be teaching an “Introduction to the Bible” course at Anderson University, an institution in Anderson, South Carolina that is affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention. I’m grateful that the good folks at The Hill are allowing me to do so. I’m looking forward to it. As I’ve been getting ready I’ve been remembering what I like about working with college students. They have much fresher eyes than I have so they see things I’ve not seen before. They have much different experiences than I’ve had so they bring an interesting perspective to our discussions. They tend not to accept cut and dried answers so they push me to think very carefully about what I believe and about how I express those beliefs. And I still get to preach, to visit the sick, to plan for the future of the church, and to develop those close relationships that make church so wonderful.

So I’m going back to school. But I’m still in the church. God is good.


Joshua Ruffin said...

Good luck...honestly, no cynicism here. If I could give one piece of advice from a student's point of view, it would be to not take any mess from any student who thinks he knows more than you and tries to show it. I've had professors who frustrated me to no end because they simply didn't deal with these kids in a firm enough manner. You'll do a good job.

Anonymous said...

This is a very nice accounting of one's life and work, and desire to follow Christ. If you are back in the area, folks at Brewton-Parker would love to hear from you.

Lee Cheek
Chair, Social Sciences
Brewton-Parker College