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.

_______________________________

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.

Seminary, Being Judgmental, Self-Righteousness, and Other Thoughts, Part 2

Long before seminary, the seeds of self-righteousness had been sown.

Now, I have really got to be careful with this next part of my story because it will definitely offend some people. I don’t mean for it to. Just make sure you read it through before you react, please.

When I was about 13, I ran across a stash of cassette tapes my parents had. They listened to a lot of sermons. Charles Stanley, Chuck Swindoll, and our own pastor at the time. But the pastor who caught my attention at the time was John MacArthur.

I had never heard anything like his preaching in my entire life. I had never experienced expository preaching. I fell in love with it. The Bible came alive for me and I soaked it all in.

I don’t know how familiar you are with MacArthur’s preaching. It’s very good. At the same time, you have to know that it’s also very black and white. All the answers for all of life are to be found in the Word of God. Don’t hear me saying I disagree, but I went to an extreme.

I took MacArthur’s style, black and white belief system, and tough stance on sin and made it my own. I went even further with it as seminary came along. When I got past seminary and got my own church, the hard-line black and white view of life came to bear. And it infiltrated the way I did everything – especially the way I viewed sin in the congregation.

After a seminary education where church discipline was king, I was ready to wipe out sin in the church. I think my heart was in the right place, but my practice and attitude was not.

I remember the first couple of times I found out church members were sinning. Publicly. I didn’t handle it well. Or with compassion. I came down hard and quickly on them. Were they sinning? Yes. Was it wrong in accordance to the black and white of Scripture? Yes.

But I was wrong. I lacked compassion, love and understanding. I approached them with the attitude of, “You need to stop now or we’re bringing this in front of the church in [X] amount of days.”

I gave no time for God to do His work in their hearts. I gave no compassion to their circumstance. I didn’t care about their situation. None. No Christlikeness at all.

All I knew is that I saw sin. And I was the heat-seeking missile that wanted it out of the church.

What I never considered was that I was dealing with people. I knew the old saying, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” But I had trouble separating the two. In my eyes, if the sinner couldn’t separate from the sin, they needed to get serious help or be asked to leave until they could.

Of course, I was an idiot. That’s not how discipline works. That’s not how the church works. That’s not how forgiveness works. That’s not how we’re supposed to act at all. And I learned the hard way.

How could I sit through church as a youth, seminary as an adult, and pastor for almost ten years and miss it?

Worse, I taught the people at Angel Falls Baptist to judge harshly and without love or compassion. And they did that very thing to me when I fell.

Well, I did. Is it possible thousands of Christians are missing the same thing now? That they’re learning that sin is a horrible thing (which is true) but at the same time they’re missing out on how to show compassion?

I forgot that I was a sinner like those in the church were. I forgot that I had been saved by grace and that I wasn’t any better than anyone else. That is the heart of self-righteousness. I thought my education, my position, and my ability to judge made me better.

Didn’t. It just made me more smug. And I paid for it all.

Seminary, Being Judgmental, Self-Righteousness, and Other Thoughts, Part I

My new friend from the Work In Progress blog who comments here frequently asked me an honest question recently, which reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to blog about for a while.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I was somewhat judgmental as a pastor before my fall. I also discovered that I was self-righteous. I think those two things go hand in hand. After talking to several other fallen pastors from across the country, I’ve discovered that these qualities are very common. Let me give you some back story before I explain that.

When I got the call to ministry, the logical step for me was to attend seminary. I attended a very conservative Southern Baptist seminary. I didn’t have a strong religious educational background except for what I had learned in Sunday School and a few undergraduate religious classes.

I went to seminary with the expectation it would prepare me for a pastoral career. I hoped it would get me ready to minister as I learned practically how to care for people. That a Master of Divinity would transform me into the man of God who magically knew how to pastor a congregation.

Uh huh.

Let me give you a quick disclaimer. I don’t have a problem with seminary. I loved my seminary and I’d do it all over again. I’ll get to what went wrong in a minute.

I got a seminary education bereft of spiritual formation. Now, listen to what I’m saying first. It was ultimately my fault that I didn’t get the spiritual benefit. There were about four to six practical classes in the whole mix. They urged us on several occasions to make sure we were part of a good church where we were getting fed. They told us that seminary education was no replacement for spiritual growth. They told us that sermon preparation was not the same as edification for our soul.

Got that part.

But during an 18 hour class schedule, most students don’t take the time to do the spiritual work.

There were professors who made you do the spiritual work. I had several professors who forced us to do written quiet times and reflect on certain passages and hand them in on a daily basis. I’m still not sure what to think of that, but their hearts were in the right place.

Here was where I failed. And this is tough for me to write, but I write it hoping it will help someone else out there, because I know there are some out there who will benefit from it. So here goes.

The first day of seminary, they herded us into a room to do some preliminary testing to see if we needed some extra classes. One of the PhD students addressed all of us newbies: “50% of you will not graduate. Of those of you who do, 50% of you will not make it past the first two years of ministry.”

Fantastic.

I pondered why 50% of seminary students didn’t make it through. I found out in a hurry. Most of them said they couldn’t afford it anymore. That wasn’t the truth, though. I found out for myself.

Seminary is made up of a lot of factual information. Theology. History. Ecclesiology. Hermeneutics. So forth. A lot of stuff that I had never heard. It was stuff that challenged my own beliefs. My own system of thought. It challenged my faith.

Can you believe that? That in seminary they would challenge your beliefs? (That was sarcasm.)

In my early second year, it got so bad for me that I was questioning the existence of God. Honestly. We were learning so much, so fast that our heads were swimming. It was more than a lot of people could take. More than I could almost take.

When I talked to students who were leaving, I’d ask them, “Why are you really leaving?” When I got past the first five minutes of, “I can’t afford this anymore,” they’d finally say, “I just miss the old time religion. When things were simple.”

Their faith had been challenged too severely.

I’d encourage them to stay and work it out. But they’d leave. It was tough. It was tough for me.

Obviously, I finally worked it out. But my faith had been shaken to the core. But I probably didn’t work it out the way I should have. From the moment I “worked it out,” I began to “study” God. No longer did I have the same reverence for God, but I looked at God like a thing to be studied and not a God to be worshipped.

It was an easy thing to do, too. Especially in an environment when all you do is study. When all you do is break down the atonement, theories of the fall, whether you’re a trichotomist or dichotomist, argue over open membership vs. closed membership, study the history of church thought, examine document sources, read the Puritans, study and debate ethics, and fade away to sleep every night with a 20 pound book on your chest due for discussion the next day.

What’s even worse is that hardly anyone at seminary is immune from “studying” God. There were super seminary students who kept it all together. They did. They kept their spiritual level high while grinding out the papers. I don’t know how.

You know what happens when you study God like that? Even if you don’t mean to? A horrible thing begins to happen to your soul. You begin to think you’re a little better than people who aren’t seminary trained. That’s called self-righteousness.

Some of you who read this who went to seminary may disagree. That’s fine. You may not have had the same experience. God love you. I’m glad you didn’t. Seminary doesn’t have the same effect on everyone. But it has this effect on a lot of people. And again, seminary doesn’t necessarily do this to people. But if self-discipline isn’t enacted, it’ll happen.

Case in point, seminary students had a reputation at local churches. Especially in Sunday School classes. People from the town had the feeling and generalization that seminary students were arrogant know-it-alls. Now where would they get that idea?

From the handful of students who felt that a seminary education made them better than the general public. They showed up at these churches, sat in their Sunday School classes, told the layman teacher why they were wrong every Sunday and got cocky about it. A rotten apple spoils the whole bunch. That’s why a lot of the churches had “Seminary Classes.” Not to cater to the seminary students, but to get them out of general population.

Heck, I was the same way. I had a first-class Southern Baptist education and I let it be known. I wasn’t flaunting it, but sometimes, I had the need to be arrogant about it.

But I should have exercised humility. Especially in public. Especially in my ministry later. Especially in life.

Next time I’ll talk about the long-term effects of the self-righteous behavior I learned and really where it all started for me.

%d bloggers like this: