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Bivocational pastor wins fellowship from Harvard

EXCELSIOR SPRINGS, Mo. (BP)–It would be an honor for
any pastor to be invited to spend a semester for free at one
of the most prestigious theological schools in the nation.
But the honor is especially great when it goes to a
bivocational pastor who does not hold a seminary degree.
Not to mention he has a learning disability that makes
it difficult for him to read.
And that his church has fewer than 10 people in
attendance on most Sundays.
Dennis Farabee, pastor of Smith Fork Baptist Church in
Missouri’s Heartland Baptist Association, recently was
informed he will be one of four pastors from around the
globe to receive a 1998 Merrill Fellowship at Harvard
Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. The award covers all
tuition and fees at the seminary for the fall 1998 semester,
as well as a $2,200 stipend to help cover the cost of books
and living expenses.
Among last year’s Merrill Fellows were the Anglican
bishop of Northern Ireland and other noted clerics.
Farabee, who works evenings as a security guard for
Kansas City Power & Light Company’s Northland Service
Center, also is a student at Central Baptist Theological
Seminary in Kansas City, Kan.
He first became interested in continuing his
theological education after a trip to England. During that
two-week trip, co-sponsored by Central Seminary and William
Jewell College in Liberty, participants studied the life and
works of legendary British Baptist leader Charles Haddon
Spurgeon at Spurgeon’s College in London.
“I’ve never seen anyone prepare so well for one of
these trips,” said Jerry Cain, William Jewell College vice
president. “He and his wife scrimped and saved for a long
time to go on that trip.
“He read books about London, books about Spurgeon,
books about England. He is a big fan of C.H. Spurgeon.”
Cain, a longtime friend of Farabee’s, wrote one of four
letters of recommendation that won him the scholarship. “I
am impressed with his audacity and his deep commitment to
the Christian faith,” Cain said. “He’ll take any kind of
secular job just so he can pastor.”
Farabee is modest about the achievement. “This is not
so much my accomplishment as that I have wonderful friends
who are willing to say nice things about me,” he said.
Besides Cain, the friends and mentors who recommended
Farabee for the award were Jerry Palmer, director of
missions for Heartland association and Molly Marshall,
professor of theology, and Judith Todd, professor of Old
Testament, respectively, at Central Seminary.
Farabee applied for the award after seeing an
advertisement in The Christian Century. The application
required him to write a “personal spiritual autobiography,”
something he had just written for Marshall’s spiritual
formation class.
However, he became more and more convinced he never
would receive the award as he got into the application
process. “One thing that made me sure that I was not going
to get past the front door is that they asked me how many
works I have published,” he said. “The (character)
references worked harder on this than I did.”
Farabee also downplayed the fact that he gained the
honor in spite of his learning disability, dyslexia.
Dyslexics transpose letters and words in their heads, often
making it difficult for them to read. “I was just looking at
a paper for New Testament (class),” he said. “I noticed that
I was spelling the word ‘how’ as ‘who.’ That could cause a
Farabee is philosophical about being selected for
Harvard. “This proves two things,” he said.
“The existence of a God who intervenes in human
affairs, and that this God has a sense of humor.”
Though he earned a college degree in law enforcement
and sociology from Central Missouri State University in
Warrensburg, Farabee never has aspired to great academic or
theological office. He has completed three semesters of work
toward a master of arts in religious studies degree at
Central. He did not feel called to the ministry until 1974,
several years after he graduated from college.
One of the reasons he didn’t go to seminary when he
first was ordained had to do with family life. He explained
that he has heard many Baptist preachers tell romanticized
stories about how they felt the call to the ministry one
day, and came home to announce to their families that they
were moving far away so he could attend seminary. “That
story always leaves me unimpressed,” Farabee said. “I mean,
don’t these preachers talk to their wives?”
The couple agreed from the outset he would be a
bivocational pastor until later notice. “We decided that I
would go to seminary when the kids were grown,” Farabee
said. “In 1995, our youngest one got married; in the fall of
’96, I enrolled at Central.”
Smith Fork church is about 32 miles north of Farabee’s
home in Excelsior Springs. Organized in 1860, the church is
made up almost entirely of older couples who have been going
to the tiny rural church all their lives. The meeting house
sits in open country, three miles from the nearest paved
road. Farabee loves the setting; it’s classic.
“When I was ordained, there was still a strong
tradition of individuals without a formal education going
into the ministry,” he said. “But things have changed, and
it has gotten progressively more difficult to gain a hearing
if you do not have a seminary degree. I don’t see that as
necessarily a good thing.”
Farabee said he was raised in that tradition, which he
added some might call anti-intellectual.
“‘Anti-intellectual’ is not the same thing as
‘stupid,'” he emphasized. “As I said, I have a soft spot for
the days when a Baptist preacher was a guy with an
eighth-grade education and a real love for the Bible and a
love for the Lord.”
And yet he’s going to Harvard. Does Farabee consider
himself an intellectual now? “Well, I have this tweed jacket
on, and I would smoke a pipe if my wife would let me,” he
joked. “No, I’ve met genuine intellectuals, and I would say
that probably I would not fit that bill.”
But, Farabee added, bivocational pastors do need to be
educated in today’s world. “One thing I’m adamant about is
that it be realized that it takes everything one can muster
by way of education, by way of divine help to pastor a
bivocational church.”
Smith Fork members take pride in their shepherd. “We
just think that Brother Farabee is a good pastor for us; he
understands us,” said Mary Williams. “I just think it’s
great for him to be able to tell (his classmates at Harvard)
what it’s like to minister in a rural church.”
One of the problems Farabee will face will be paying
for the semester at Harvard. The $2,200 stipend he receives
will probably barely cover rent for the four months he and
his wife will spend in Boston. Plus, he will not be
receiving the income from either of his two current jobs.
“I’m not there yet; there are plenty of obstacles,” he
said. “To a large extent, I’m just going on faith.”
But he’s already passed the biggest hurdles. “Once I
got the (acceptance) letter, I figured that was such a
miracle that everything else was going to be child’s play,”
he said.
Farabee acknowledged some uncertainty about how church
members and fellow pastors would react to the news of his
fellowship at Harvard. “I was waiting for someone to warn me
about evil Yankees and liberals who would just be waiting,
with bated breath, to seduce some poor country preacher and
turn him into a Unitarian or something,” he said. “That
hasn’t happened.”
So he’s confident that God has a purpose in him going
to Harvard. “This is going to sound corny … but it was the
sovereign will of God” is the only way to explain his
acceptance into Harvard, the self-described predestinarian
“After all, Harvard was founded by Calvinists!”

    About the Author

  • Rob Marus