KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Some of this year’s new seminary students may decide the journey toward ministry is too great to persevere, warned assistant professor Tony Preston during the Aug. 24 academic convocation of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Becoming another casualty in the worship wars or a wounded healer who suffers the wrath of some unkind church member may send you on a journey that God did not ordain. It could happen to you. It happened to Elijah. It has happened to many who have gone before you,” Preston said, adding, “It happened to me.
His message addressed a concern offered by associate professor Don Whitney last May in his commencement address to graduates of the Kansas City, Mo., seminary. Whitney cited a statistic indicating that only one of every 20 ministers remains in ministry until retirement. “Despite all the commitment with which they begin the race,” Whitney said, “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.”
Preston, assistant professor of pastoral leadership and director of diploma studies, welcomed incoming students to the experiences of seminary. “Welcome to the most noble task and calling that God could bless and bestow upon you. And welcome to the ride of your life. All who have gone before and all with me wish to join you in saying that the journey before you is demanding,” Preston said.
Just as all believers are called to deny themselves daily in following Christ, Preston said there is an added responsibility for those preparing for ministry. After listing a number of the challenges, pitfalls and discouragements which are likely to occur during the demanding years of seminary and ministry, Preston observed, “Some of you are already flirting with that journey,” Preston said. “I see it in your eyes. I hear it in your voice. I see it in the fatigue expressed in your posture and in the lackadaisical way you go about what you used to do with such zeal and diligence. Out there somewhere you are going to find yourself as Elijah found himself. And my prayer is that God will somehow by the work of his own grace and Holy Spirit give you re-call.”
Preston drew from 1 Kings 19:1-18 to offer a comparison and a challenge from the life of Elijah the prophet. Describing the prophet as “the wild untutored child of the desert and a man of humble extraction who had no special training,” Preston said he was “consumed by a jealous passion for the Lord of hosts.”
Noting that Elijah experienced the grace and provision of God many times in his ministry, Preston said he was the “righteous man” whose prayers are always effected, according to chapter five of the New Testament Book of James. Furthermore, Elijah was fed by ravens, taken in by a gentile woman and used to raise the dead, Preston added. “Elijah was used to begin a drought of judgment and he was used to bring rains of forgiveness. And yet the Scriptures clearly tell us that Elijah forgot all of that in a moment of conflict.”
Then Preston pointed to Jezebel’s proclamation that Elijah would die at the moment when fear gripped Elijah’s heart. “Into that mind once permeated with the Word of God, into that mind once governed by a faith unshakable in Almighty God, into that bosom where a prophet’s heart beat with strength and confidence and courage there appeared the ever, ever, ever dreadful emotion of fear,” Preston recounted. “And when he saw that, he began the journey too great. The one who said to the widow of Zarephath, `Do not be afraid,’ now trembled with fear. If it happened to Elijah,” Preston repeated, “it can happen to you.”
While the unraveling of Elijah’s commitment began with the voice of an accuser, Preston said Elijah’s journey was initiated by fear, characterized by desertion and full of loneliness. He observed that Elijah’s steel confidence melted under the heat of threat from a godless hater of Yahweh and all his servants.
And just as Elijah deserted the Promised Land and God’s chosen people, Preston warned students, “You can desert the ministry and still be in the ministry. Preachers preach sermons that are somebody else’s sermons. Preachers attend meetings and their hearts are not there. They pray only in public. They minister only when called upon and when necessary to preserve the flow of their income. They are gone. They are not really there.”
Describing the resulting loneliness, Preston spoke of being alone in crowds, convention meetings and even the pulpit. “I have been there,” he conceded while restating Jesus’ promise to a group of fearful disciples, “I will be with you.”
The journey too great can be ended through God’s provision, Preston said. “God revives his prophet and he redirects his ministry. Sometimes the message of God comes by the Word of God and the messenger is just the present and precious Holy Spirit. Sometimes the message comes by way of a messenger. If you find yourself in the journey too great, pay attention and look for the messengers.”
Elijah’s 40-day journey was strengthened by the messenger and the meals that God sent, Preston said. “God’s provision was enough. When you find yourself on a journey too great, when you find yourself afraid, deserting your call, lonely, barren, depressed, broken, begging God to let you die, avail yourself of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And that begins the journey back.”
Preston said Elijah went to the mountain with revived strength, distinguishing the voice of God. “It is not as it once was. The ministry is not the same. Elijah is not the same. But his ministry is revived through the person of Christ. And his ministry is redirected to the accomplishment of the purposes of God.
“I have been on both journeys,” Preston said. “I like this one better.”
Midwestern’s interim president, Michael Whitehead, addressed the first chapel service Aug. 22, drawing on his 25 years of experience practicing law to remind students that words have power. While the words of law can bring life or death to those who come before the court, Whitehead said that no words hold more power than the words of the Bible.
Drawing from 2 Timothy 2:14-15, Whitehead encouraged new and returning seminary students to be diligent in their studies and become workmen who “handle accurately the word of truth.” With more than life and death at stake, Whitehead reminded that eternal life hangs in the balance.
“It’s our desire at the end of your studies here that you will have in your heart and in your spirit the words of God,” Whitehead said. “There will be so much power for you to deliver if you study.”
Gary Myers contributed to this article.