LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–This year, I am facing three significant anniversaries. First, I turned 50 years old in January. I never thought that age would cause me to pause, but I must admit that turning 50 has led to considering how I will spend the remaining years of my ministry. Second, my wife and I will be married 20 years in May. Third, I celebrate 30 years in full-time ministry in April. In these three decades, God has graciously allowed me to serve Him as pastor and seminary professor. That is not to say, though, that I would not change anything about the last 30 years.
For example, I would say “thank you” to my wife much more often. Little did I realize decades ago just how much my helpmate would complete me. She is strong when I am weak, patient when I am impulsive, forgiving when I am angry, and faithful when I struggle. She models Christian love for me, and I would not be who I am were it not for the gift that God has given me in Pam. A review of 20 years clearly shows me that many more daily “thank yous” were in order.
I would also more intentionally seek a mentor throughout my ministry. God gave me a pastor, Glenn Davidson, who instilled in me a passion for evangelism. Brother Jack Tichenor showed me how to love all people, being careful not to speak ill of others. I remember too many times, though, when I sought advice only after I had messed up. I wonder how many men stood ready to pray with me and advise me, but I allowed pride to keep me from asking for help.
Were I starting ministry again, I would teach more about the Cooperative Program. That change may seem superficial — and I suspect that the Cooperative Program will change in years to come — but I am still the beneficiary of Southern Baptist cooperation. Cooperative Program funds provided tuition assistance at my Baptist college and seminary and supported my salary as a young pastor. Now, my roles as dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Seminary and consultant for the International Mission Board have allowed me to see the Cooperative Program at work throughout the world. Had I known 30 years ago what I now know, I would have taught my churches much more about what God is doing through Cooperative Program funds.
More specifically, I would invite more missionaries to speak to my churches. Both churches I led gave to the Cooperative Program, but I did not realize then the importance of face-to-face contact with missionaries. I have since learned that giving to a depersonalized fund cannot be sustained, especially for a young generation that longs to be personally involved in the Great Commission task. They want to know names, recognize faces, hear stories and do missions even as they give. Pastors are key to making those opportunities known, and I would more strongly lead in that direction if I could start again.
I also would seek accountability in prayer and evangelism much sooner than I did. I became a full-time pastor at age 20, and I was certain that my little church in southwestern Ohio would lead the world to Jesus. We prayed, preached and witnessed — and God blessed. Seldom were there weeks when we did not baptize a new believer. An honest assessment, however, demands admission that I prayed and evangelized more when I was less trained, less experienced, less knowledgeable … more dependent on God and more amazed by His grace. Accountability partners keep me focused now, but I wish I had turned to them sooner.
Here’s the good news in all of this: God still gives us today to love Him, love others, and do the Great Commission. The older I get, the more I learn that each new day really does offer a new beginning. Thus, yesterday’s failures are no excuse for today’s disobedience; instead, they are reminders to “get it right” from now on. The God who is “I AM” is still a present-tense God.
Chuck Lawless is dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.