by John Howard Farmer
A Baptist Way
Eighteen years ago, this week, we’d just returned from a journey long, a journey holy. Our son, Robert Lee Farmer was ordained to the gospel ministry the previous weekend in west Tennessee. Baptists do a lot of things different from other gathered faith communities. So, let’s talk about how we do things, how we find our leaders of tomorrow. Most of our readers have an understanding of ministry that involves boards, districts, bishops, or seminary and or denominational placement services. For the most part, Baptists do not so relate.
I chose the title A Baptist Way for this writing because even all Baptists don’t do things the same…
I grew up in an old-time, gospel-preaching community of blue color chaps who had just returned from World War II. Most everyone’s dad worked at Reynolds, duPont, Philip Morris, or in a company who depended upon its relationship to one (or more) of those Richmond manufacturing plants. Though my family’s roots had been in the Methodist Church, my youthful days were formed around the children’s ministry, youth groups and vacation bible schools at Webber Memorial and Branches Churches (Richmond).
Robert Lee’s eventual ordination was a study of how we used to do things: about the communities of faith who maintain (even in the face of cultural, ethnic and gender explorations) a steadfast affirmation that the call to pastoral ministry comes after one’s life has been observed, categorized and one’s living has become testimony to what one lives, not just what one believes.
Lee was 36 years old and had spent all of his teen and adult life serving small, mostly rural Baptist churches. He had taught Sunday school, church training, led in youth evangelism, sang in and directed choirs. He had led revivals, conferences and served on the staff (volunteer and paid) of five Southern Baptist Churches. Clearly, God did have his hand on this lad for all his lifetime. He may even have called me into the ministry just to capture Lee’s heart. Lee did his church work while putting himself and his wife through college.
A few years prior Lee realized that God was leading him (not pushing him) toward a pastoral calling, a calling for which he was perhaps academically scant-equipped. He hadn’t been to seminary. Some of us Baptists actually believe this a benefit some days.
Our Irvington church had licensed Lee to preach. It was a proud dad thing. His west Tennessee pastor well understood. His pastor became Lee’s prayer partner. Since we have no board, councils, or what have you beyond the local church, Baptists move by word of mouth. Who do you know? Whose church is seeking leadership? For what, for whom, are they looking? There may be more efficient ways to do such a job, but I want no part of it. I’d still rather have my pastor coming from an army of recognized performers. I don’t disdain formal education; it’s just that of late, some Baptist churches lean too heavily upon class standing and denominational approval. They fail to seek that person of faith whose life commitment found success in serving God. All our churches need persons who can tell the story old, the story Holy; better yet: who can live the story.
Well, from across west Tennessee a panel of 25 ordained men (deacons and pastors) gathered: several men with whom and under whom Lee had served. Tons of prayer preceded the afternoon. Lee sat alone in the center of the room. Man, after man popped questions. What did Lee believe? Where was Lee on his spiritual journey? The whole thrust of the afternoon was to help Lee express and inventory just how God, through Christ, was leading him to pastoral service. It was a heavy, Holy time. He is my son. I longed to protect him; but that could not be. Like all the rest of the men, I needed to hear the lad espouse his burgeoning faith, where he stood on issues of eternal consequence. Questions soon dissipated into words of advice. The assembled, young and old, shared the best and worst of their corporate pastoral experiences. It drew the concluding council to vote Lee as a man to be ordained.
That evening the church gathered to endorse the decision of the council and to express their love and appreciation to a chap that would be leaving them to come to the Northern Neck to serve as the 21st pastor of the Coan Baptist Church. One young attending dad commented that he had seen funerals with fewer tears. Ah, yes; but tears of joy! I agreed. What transpired in that sanctuary was a catharsis of human emotion. That night it was my privilege to speak to the First Baptist Church, Henderson, Tenn., who were losing one of its most dedicated ministers. God was calling him on. May it ever be so.
Ministry ought not to be about processes, nor just about credentials. It should be about finding those champions of the gospel who can and will preach Jesus. When Lee began attending seminary at John Leland and later, Liberty University, as a new pastor he already knew more about church than some of the professors. That’s the way it used to be, ought to be.
That’s one way Baptists do it, especially when we do it right.