The Secret Life of a Seminary President: Reflections on Ash Wednesday

22575123.jpgIntroduction to the ReadingYou have heard the old adage, “I must catch up with the others for I am their leader. Well that is the way that I feel. I sat at my desk yesterday and thought, “Well I am the president…so, now what do I do…” I doubt that is what George Bush did on his first day as president.But here is my situation, if you could live in my skin for a moment, “Since I am nothing but a preacher of the Gospel, what in the world do I do as the president of this great seminary?” To answer that question I go to 1 Thessalonians 2.17-20. The answer is not just the answer to my inner life, my secret life, if you will, it is the answer of all minister of the Gospel, and, I think, of all true believers.Let us read the inerrant and infallible Word of the Living God.1 Thess. 2.17-20 17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?20 For you are our glory and joy. Let us pray:Our Father, let my preach as if never to preach again and as a dying man to dying men. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Introduction to the Message

Miroslav Volf has written eloquently on the matter of “Remembering.”[1] For him to recall the atrocities of the Bosnian-Serbian, the people and places and times, became a motif for what we are instructed to also do in the Scriptures: to remember, to reflect rightly about God and His saving grace in our lives.I dare say that technology has robbed us of much time for remembering and reflecting. Volf would argue that a vacuum of memory is a recipe for failure.Transitions are a time for remembering. There can be no other way. You are straddled between two worlds: in our case, the life of the pastorate and the role of the seminary president. And I took my reflecting and remembering of late to a passage that has been important to me in my ministry: 1 Thessalonians 2.17-20. I used it each spring and fall when we would have new members over to our home, after the Pastor’s Welcome Class as we called it. And there I unpacked my thoughts on pastoral vision. I thought I would do that today with you.In the case before us today, Paul, “The Apostle of the Heart Set Free” as F.F. Bruce called him, reflected. Paul reflected with a congregation where he had planted a church after leaving Philippi in the capital of Macedonia. His reflections on ministry became for me a guide to thinking about where ministry takes you.  And finding God and His grace in the midst of it all.As I sat thinking about our lives together, as would journey from this day into God’s future together, I was drawn to this passage.  And here is what I was reminded of by the reflections of Paul:

There is a pain in ministry

One kind of pain that Paul speaks of is a pain from pastoral love.

You can’t do ministry without being face to face. Paul longed to see them. He had them in his heart. He prayed for them always, giving thanks, he says in 1.2. He reflected on what ministry was like with them in chapter two. But he was not with them. And this hurt.My beloved, one thing you need to know is that there is in fact a pain in ministry. And part of the pain is being torn apart. I have known extraordinary pain in my separation from my flock in Chattanooga. But can it be any other way? If we love, do we not hurt when we are torn asunder?This is what Dr. John Fawcett wrote in 1772 when he was called to another church. His small church at Wainsgate, England gathered around him and his wife as their carriage was packed to move and they all began to weep. And so the pastor could not take it. He told to unpack the wagon. And he stayed on there, sensing God’s will. And he wrote:Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love; 
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.And verse four is so poignant:When we asunder part, 
It gives us inward pain; 
But we shall still be joined in heart, 
And hope to meet again.Of course sometimes you don’t unpack. Paul didn’t. And neither did Spurgeon when he was called from the little congregation of Cambridgeshire to the great New Park Street Church, which became Metropolitan Tabernacle. Sometimes you don’t unpack. We didn’t. But you always feel the pain. Because love is like that. And the love of a pastor for his flock is nurtured in common life in Christ, in worship, in times of joy and sadness, in looking to God together for it all.If our people could see into the secret lives of our pastors and their families they would find this pain. But if you are wondering “Why is he telling us about his pain in coming to us?” Then I will tell you. It is this: if love nurtured in common life created a pastoral bond there, it is what I desire here. I desire that over our time together we grow in our love of Jesus and our dependence upon Him and in our love for each other in Christ, so that when we part, there is that pastoral pain that testifies to something tying our lives together.As I sat at my desk on that first day this is the life I dreamed of. And it is the prayer I have for you. That you will leave here and risk your life, give your life away for the sake of the elect, the way Jesus Christ modeled giving His life away for us. It involves pain. But could there be any other way?

There is also here a pain from diabolical opposition.

Paul was hindered because of Satan. The Evil One did not want the pastoral love of pastor and parishioners to be realized. Because when that happens the kingdom of God comes and the kingdom of Satan diminishes. Love destroys evil.I remember one of my professors told me, “If you preach Christ and His gospel and there is not opposition, then you are probably not preaching the Gospel of Paul.” And I have found that to be true.But the secret life I long for is not some twisted desire to concoct a martyr’s syndrome for our community. But it is to realize that in this place there is a spiritual battle. I long to know that we are doing the Lord’s work and I long to be reminded and to remind you all that this is not just another graduate school of religion we have here. This is a School of the Prophets. This is the seedbed for the coming Kingdom of Jesus Christ. From these classrooms, you will feed on the Word from men who have been with God, whose lives are not their own, but who have been called to teach faithful men who will teach other faithful men to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus to set human beings free.As I sat at my desk, I thought about this. And I prayed, “O God, deliver me from a heart that would be seduced into thinking that raising money is about raising money and raising up pastors for spiritual warfare. Deliver me from thinking that recruiting students is about padding our reputation rather than gathering soldiers for the fight. Deliver me from thinking that we are safe except for the power of Jesus Christ. And help me to pray down God’s anointing and blessing on this place. Help me to pray for our faculty and our students. Help me to pray for our support team lest I think that I can do it alone.There is pain in ministry: the pain of pastoral love and of course the pain of diabolical opposition. But a greater pain would be to live a life free from love, and a life that is so spiritually dead that no opposition is really needed.On these things Paul thought for here we see the evidence. But we see more. And I would put it like this:If it is true that it is inevitable that there should be pain in ministry, it is also true:

There must be a great passion in ministry

There must be a passion for the purpose of our ministries

And Paul’s great passion, his great vision, was that the people he ministered to would one day be, to quote Fanny Crosby, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.”  God would be greatly glorified by His saints being brought home to him. In some way, through is faithfulness to the Gospel ministry; the Lord would bring this about.Some years ago when Dr. James Dobson had a heart attack he lay dying, he thought. And he brought his wife and his two children before him and he said to them these two simple words: “Be there.” And in those words you could see the passion of that man’s life. He loved his family. But he had a goal: that they should be safe in the arms of Jesus.And that is the great goal of my ministry for the churches where I have pastored. And I have thought that it is my passion in this work: that you are there.Francis Schaeffer used to say to the incoming students, “If you do not love Jesus more when you leave here than when you came here then one of us has failed.” My beloved, I want you to not only love Jesus more, I pray that through this seminary, you will be sent forth to have that passion for Christ’s flock, wherever God sends you. “Be there.” That is what Paul wanted.But this was not just a passion for a goal but

There must be a passion for people in our ministries

For Paul says, “For you are our glory and joy.”My dearest ones, your old President here was an orphan. I was adopted by my Aunt Eva and raised as her boy. Aunt Eva had no other children. And when she was 65 she got a 9-month-old little fellow to bring up. She was a widow. And she poured her life into rearing me. I failed her too many times. But I will never forget at her funeral, someone came to me and said, “I used to watch her watch you. And when she looked at you, she smiled inside.”And I think that is something like what was happening with Paul. He smiled inside at the thought of being with his flock.And that is what I do sometimes when I think of people that I have had the joy of sharing Christ with. And that is what I not only pray that God will do in our lives together. And I pray that the Lord will send out missionaries from here that love the people of the nation where God has called them. I pray that teachers will love their students as they leave here to go and teach. And I pray that pastors will smile inside when they pour the baptismal waters over the head of an infant, or steady the palsy afflicted hand of an older saint as she takes the Cup to her lips.And so Paul dreamt dreams that we sometimes have in our better moments: dreams of our lives together in Christ, through pain, and with passion.Fawcett ended his little song with words that really hit me hard as I sat thinking of our lives together:This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way; 
While each in expectation lives, 
And longs to see the day.That is the vision for our ministry together: that we are by God’s grace safe in the arms of Jesus and that our ministries will have been blessed to see many sons and daughters there as well.So now this secret life is not so secret. But in this way it is shared and by God’s grace lived. And lived, by God’s grace, together. Let us pray.Lord God, knit our hearts together that in unity of the Holy Spirit we may, by your power, fulfill your purposes on the earth in this generation. Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.


[1] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006)

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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