What I Wish I’d Learned From Hershael York

(Over the next few posts, I’m going to talk about several reasons why the book “Fallen Pastor” is for anyone concerned about the future of the church. We are in the midst of a crisis and need to understand how to approach it).

Listen to me. When I graduated from THE Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in December of 2000, I thought I was the bomb. Master of Divinity at my side, I saw great things – in my mind.

I don’t think that made me too different than many other seminary graduates. Well, at least the prideful ones. In my mind, I was going to bag a smaller church, move to a medium sized church, then WHAMMO! I was going to be sitting pretty at a megachurch one day. Heck. I deserved it. I had a seminary degree. In the middle of all those church exchanges, I was going to earn my Doctor of Ministry (so everyone would have to call me “Doctor Ray”, of course) and I would be sitting pretty.

If you read my blog, you know what happened to me in 2009. I committed adultery. Pastoral ministry was a thing of the past. It was long gone. My relationship with my first wife was over and irreconcilable. I married Allison and we moved on. I started anonymously blogging after that and wrote a book about what happened and how future pastors could avoid the temptation of moral failure.

I interviewed a lot of fallen pastors. Their stories broke my heart because they sounded identical to mine – and I’ll blog about that later.

But I also interviewed a lot of experts. One in particular was Hershael York. His official title is the Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the Associate Dean of Ministry and Proclamation.

I interviewed him for my book. But before I get to that, let me tell you what I thought about him when I was at seminary.

I was scared to death of him. I heard horror stories. “If you want an easy ‘A’, don’t take Dr. York. Seriously. He will tear you up and spit you out.” Then I would hear this: “But if you want to become the best preacher possible, take him as many times as you can. He will make you into an honorable preacher and a man of God.”

I heard one apocryphal story (apocryphal meaning, ‘If it isn’t true, it should be’) that a student went up to him and said, “I want you to grade me as hard as you can on my sermon.” He agreed. After the student minister was done, Dr. York gave him the heavy hand on everything he had done wrong, but said, “You have a great heart and a ton of potential. You will do well.”

That scared me. I stayed far away from Dr. York while in seminary. I got ‘A’s’ while in seminary in my preaching classes. But I’ll tell you this – all of my friends who took him for preaching have become phenomenal ministers of the gospel. They took him and his loving criticism and became better men for it. Thank God for men like Hershael York.

It wasn’t until over a year ago that I even talked to him. I was a miserable fallen pastor looking for help with my book. I heard that he had a heart for fallen pastors. At that time, I had perceived him to be some seminary professor living in an ivory tower, ready to destroy anyone who was full of sin. But I was terribly, terribly wrong. My first instinct came when I got his voicemail. It said, “You know who it is, you know what to do.” BEEEEEEEEEP. I let my daughter, who was 12 at the time listen to that. She loved it so much it’s her voicemail to this day.

When I interviewed him about fallen pastors and what they go through, I found a man who was so loving, so caring, and yet so passionate, I found myself being counseled by his words. While I was talking to him, I suddenly wished I had taken him for every class possible while I was at Southern.

He listened to my story of my failure, hurt for me and asked me questions. Then he was very honest with me. Scripturally honest with me. It was more than an interview. It was him helping me in my process. One of the first things he said to me was this about pastors who fall:

“It’s like a diamond being cut and polished. I saw this happen once in Tel Aviv. I asked the man cutting the diamond, ‘What happens if you make a misktake? What happens if you cut too deep?’ The cutter said, ‘Well, then I have to go and cut every other side exactly like that to match.’ So I said, ‘If you miscut you’ve diminished the value of it.’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ I think of it like that. A man who has fallen, there’s no question he’s diminished something. He’s still a diamond and of great worth, but he’s not what he could have been had he not fallen.”

He was one of the first people who heard through my anger, my problems and spoke directly to me. He read my book and I don’t think he agreed with all I had to say, but he let me quote him anyway. But one quote he gave me is one that I keep close to my heart every day. He said this: If a fallen pastor is going to make it in this world, “his repentance has to be more notorious than his sin.”

We talked about pastors who are looking for comfort beyond their spouses. Men who break and find a woman who is meeting their needs. He brought it down to very simple terms for me:

“Every time you have an affair with anybody, I don’t care who you are, in a sense, you’re having an affair with a fantasy and not a real person. Because the person you’ve got to pay the mortgage with, deal with the kids’ soccer schedule with, the one whose vomit you wipe up when they’re sick, that’s the real person you live with. Twenty minutes in the sack on a Tuesday afternoon is really not love. You’ve got to tell yourself that. You’ve got to awaken yourself to the fact that it’s fantasy. If you end up with the person you had an affair with, I guarantee you once you get married you have to face the same issues and same struggles. You cannot take two totally depraved human beings, stick them in the same house and not have friction.”

Finally, I asked him, “When does a church give up on a pastor? How long do they wait for him to be repentant? How long do they walk with him?” This question had haunted me for a long time and Dr. York gave me a very down to earth answer:

“A church’s posture has to be guided by whether or not there is repentance, because your posture has to be one thing if a person is living in defiance and embracing their sin. Then you have to confront. 1 Corinthians 5 kicks in and Paul describes as turning them over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. There’s nothing pretty about that. But if a person is broken and repentant over their sin, even if they want to be and they’re not there yet, but they want to be. They may say, ‘It’s hard for me to leave this 23 year old girl who thinks I hung the moon and go back to a wife I struggled with for the past 20 years, but I want to do that because it honors the Lord.’ Well, if a guy says that, then by all means, you’ve got to walk that walk with him, or see that someone does. Because sometimes the unity of the church matters too and the leaders in the church have to take care of the church but what they cannot do is just abandon the one in sin and say, ‘Well, you’re on your own.’”

I love Dr. York. He’s been at the forefront of a lot of political issues in the Bluegrass state and hasn’t backed down. He is a man of great character and loves his wife deeply. He knows what is at stake for pastors and lets the men he teaches at seminary know the dangers. I am proud of him and that Southern has such a great man there to help them.

I was intrigued recently by a Twitter/Facebook interaction he had regarding the removal of Joe Paterno’s statue at Penn State.

His first post said this: The removal of the Paterno statue is brutal evidence of the limitations of human judgment. “All of our heroes are flawed–except One.”

Of course, he got some flak from people who didn’t understand the point he was trying to make. Then he posted this: “Will they be taking Michelangelo’s David down now?” The idea is that since David committed adultery and killed Bathsheba’s husband, should we take down Michelangelo’s David? Excellent point. But he still got grief.

Then, the most beautiful post of the day, which I referenced in a recent post of mine: “To clarify my previous tweets, I fully support the removal of the Paterno statue. My point is that the people we idolize are all fallen.

When I interviewed him, that was the underlying idea. We are all fallen. Every one of us. Every one of us is moments away from a fall. But that’s why we all need to be surrounded by accountability, strong wives, and an understanding of the fear of God.

In fact, he told me at one point – and I don’t have the exact quote – that if he fell from the ministry, he would have nothing. He’d be delivering pizzas. He has an amazing fear of God, something that is strangely missing from this society and from many of our pastors. It was missing from me.

When we lack the fear of God, we will no longer fear man. Or our sin. Or ourselves. That’s what Dr. York taught me. I wish I had learned it from him sooner. I wish I hadn’t been afraid to take his classes when I was a student at Southern.

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All quotes from Dr. York were taken from his Facebook page or from “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World” by Ray Carroll. This post was approved by Dr. York before it was published and I am indebted to him for that.

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