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Grads receive counsel from Don Whitney for avoiding ‘almost inevitable ruin’

LIBERTY, Mo. (BP)–“Regardless of your age or education or experience, it is almost inevitable that you will become the kind of minister you do not want to be,” warned Don Whitney, associate professor of spiritual formation, in his commencement address May 20 to Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary graduates.

Prior to his address, Whitney was named Professor of the Year by Michael Whitehead, the seminary’s interim president. Fifty-one graduates were awarded diplomas, master’s or doctor of ministry degrees during the 40th commencement exercises held at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, Liberty, Mo.

Whitney recognized that almost everyone knows someone who used to be in the ministry and someone who shouldn’t be in the ministry. “And every minister knows another minister — if not several — he does not want to be like.” Because of such realities, Whitney said he found it important to address the subject of “The Almost Inevitable Ruin of Every Minister … And How to Avoid It.” (The full text of his commencement address is available at www.mbts.edu.)

Citing a statistic from LifeWay Christian Resources President James T. Draper Jr., Whitney said that for every 20 men who enter the ministry, by the time those men reach retirement age, only one will still be in the ministry. “Despite all the commitment with which they began the race, despite all the investment of time and money to prepare, despite the years spent in service, despite the cost of retooling and redirecting their lives, nearly all will leave the ministry.”

Whitney said those who haven’t given serious thought to leaving the ministry haven’t been in it very long. Their reasons for leaving will vary, he observed, noting the impact of health, stress and forced termination. “Despite the fact that no one goes into ministry to be a casualty, the ruin of almost every minister, it seems, is inevitable.”

Among those who remain in the ministry are many who have been ruined in other ways, Whitney added. Their decreased effectiveness may result from a variety of failures, including:

— Money — “They make far too many choices based upon getting more money, or else they smolder in their attitude toward the church because they don’t get paid enough.”

— Sex — Whitney cited a 1995 study that revealed that 25 to 35 percent of ministers are involved in inappropriate sexual behavior at some level.

— Power — “They become authoritarian with people,” Whitney said. “Perhaps they got that way because they were so faithful in one place of ministry for so long and the sin came upon them gradually. Or maybe they discovered that they enjoyed denominational work, but after awhile they began serving their own political appetites more than Christ. To pull strings was more satisfying than to preach sermons. To get in the inner circle of the right people, to be able to place others in and keep others out of influential positions, to be among the first to get the inside information became ‘the ministry’ to them.”

— Pride — “The greater the influence God gives them, the greater they become in their own sight, and the more they believe they deserve the influence.”

— Cynicism — “When you deal week in and week out with people who claim to be Christians but often don’t act like it, when those who are supposed to be God’s people talk about you and treat you worse than those in the world do, when you’ve ministered for years and you see little apparent fruit in the lives of those you’ve given your life for, it’s easy to become cynical,” Whitney said.

— Success — Whitney described those who succumb to success as CEOs, not shepherds; managers, not ministers. “Their model is business, with its emphasis on numbers, units, products, marketing and customers, rather than a family with its emphasis on love, relationships, new births and maturity, or a farm with its emphasis on sheep, fruit and growing things.”

Whitney said there is no middle ground between progressing in the ministry and being ruined in ministry. By studying the apostle Paul’s instruction to ministers in 1 and 2 Timothy as well as Titus, Whitney cited guidance for avoiding such inevitable shipwreck in ministry.

From 1 Timothy 4:15, Whitney quoted Paul’s instruction for Timothy to “take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all.” He clarified that the minister’s “life and teaching” are the “things” to which Paul said a minister must “take pains.”

A minister must pay close attention to his own life as a man of God and servant of Christ Jesus, Whitney instructed. “It’s very easy for the ministry to keep you from Jesus,” he acknowledged. He related the story of a Bible college principal in South Africa who confessed that his own fall had resulted from two things — becoming so busy in the Lord’s work that he simply neglected to read the Scriptures and pray. The long-term effect of such neglect led to adultery, Whitney added.

He continued by addressing Paul’s other challenge for the minister to pay close attention to his teaching. “In seminary it’s like trying to take a drink from a fire hydrant, but from then on you are a well and everyone in the world is a bucket,” Whitney said. From an early biography of Jonathan Edwards, Whitney recalled that author Samuel Hopkins was impressed by the fact that a man already 20 years in the ministry had still “an uncommon thirst for knowledge” and “read all the books, especially books of divinity, that he could come at.”

Because of technological progress that allows ministers to become more efficient, Whitney said they would be tempted to become even busier, having more to do, not less. “We can talk on the phone as we eat fast food while using the ATM. But not only are we better at multitasking and becoming more productive and efficient, along with the increased pace, more is required of us. And so we hurtle through life faster and faster, becoming busier and busier. The result is that in our busyness we are becoming increasing efficient at leading meaningless lives.”

Whitney challenged graduates to resist the temptation to believe in “microwave spirituality” or “shortcut Christlikeness.” He added, “Faster Internet connections do not make us or our people like Jesus more quickly. The growth of a soul — your soul and the souls of your people — takes time.”

By “taking pains with the pastoral epistles,” Whitney said a young minister can make progress in his own spiritual life and teaching. “Whatever the cost, the pursuit of Christ is worth it. At his ‘right hand there are pleasures forever,'” he stated, quoting Psalm 16:11. “I hope to meet you there.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter