Apologizing to My Teacher and Preacher

Anyone reading this blog even occasionally knows of my love for old books. Recently, while revivaling with Pastor Rob Dowdle in Ocilla, Georgia, I noticed “Memoirs of John R. Sampey” (1947, Broadman) in their church library. And borrowed it. (I promise to return it, Rob!)

Sampey was for over a half-century a professor of Greek and Hebrew at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and for many years, its president. I figured his autobiography would be memorable and it’s proving to be so.

First, a funny story he tells.

At the age of 22, on finishing his basic seminary degree, Sampey turned around and became an instructor and at the same time, pastor of a small country church. He writes:

“Deacon Thomas W. Scott, a graduate of Georgetown College and an old Confederate soldier, handed me a list of seventy-three church members. Opposite fifteen names I found the notation ‘N.C.,’ and I asked its meaning. ‘No ‘count, parson, no ‘count,’ was his reply. Most of them for the work of the church were (indeed) of no account.”

You and I look at that and think, “Hey, that’s 15 out of 73. Pretty good. I’ll take that any day!”

And the other story, the one that prompted this article. About apologizing to your preacher/teacher.

One day, as young Sampey entered the Latin class being taught by Professor James P. Boyce, he felt rather confident of himself. He knew Latin fairly well, and even though he had not done the day’s assignment, was confident he could stand and read anything thrown at him that day.

Sure enough, Dr. Boyce called on him to recite a rather difficult piece of Latin, one for which Sampey was unprepared. But, he stood to his feet and commenced to delivering it.

Several times, when he was stumped, the professor had to bail him out, tell him what that word was and what it meant.

Afterwards, Sampey caught Boyce before he left the classroom to apologize “for my seeming disrespect.” The professor said, “You certainly owe me an apology.” Sampey offered one and Boyce accepted it, with “Yes, I will forgive you, Sampey.”

I found that fascinating.

A student makes a point of apologizing to his professor for coming to class unprepared and doing poorly in class. And the professor agreed that he was due an apology.

I wonder to whom I owe an apology.

As concerns teachers, I owe Marjorie McWhorter an apology. As a sophomore at Birmingham-Southern College, I impressed this professor in the Education Department as a young man who was going somewhere. She spoke to me about doing graduate studies at Duke. Alas, I never lived up to her expectations.

As a senior, I sought her out to thank her for all she had meant to my education. I said something to the effect that, “I know I did not live up to your expectations.” She smiled the smile of the understanding, and said, “What happened to you was you discovered love. Once you started spending your evenings with that pretty young thing in West End, classwork no longer held your attention.”

She remained a friend for the rest of her life, and an encourager. My career plans, of course, had switched from college teaching to pastoring, and she, a faithful Methodist as I recall, was supportive. She came to our wedding.

Later, I invested five more years in gaining a masters and doctorate from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and became a far better student than in college. Do I need to apologize to any of my teachers? I have two answers: none in particular and all in general. I could have done better.

These days, the idea of a student owing something to his professor seems foreign.

The whole world of education has been turned on its ears over the last century, I’m afraid. College and seminary students as a rule are seen as customers or clients and the faculty as sales people commissioned to sell a product. In this scenario, students become critics of their professors, rating them and reporting to their superiors on who is effective and who isn’t. Many students–yes, even in our SBC schools–have a sense of entitlement as though the school owes them and if what they receive fails to meet their expectations, someone has to pay the piper.

I had a note on Facebook the other day from a young minister who pastors an Alabama church and was in my Worship Leadership class last August. He was thanking me, saying he was doing things differently in church now, and had waited until the semester ended before expressing his gratitude lest it appear he was seeking a better grade. That was nice.

There were 45 students in that class. I think one or two others sent notes of thanks.

I wonder if church people should apologize to their pastors.

When John R. Sampey stood before his ordination council, one of the ministers grilled him harshly. When questioned about that later, the gentleman said, “Oh, I had no doubts about Sampey himself. I just wanted to see what Dr. Boyce had been teaching him.”

What has your pastor has been teaching you? Anyone should be able to ask you questions and learn the answer.

I fear that we who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ–like too many college and seminary students–enter church with a sense of entitlement. The pastor owes you. But what does he owe you?

How you answer tells volumes about you. For some, the preacher owes us interesting sermons, fascinating illustrations, a great worship experience, a church program that meets the needs of us and our family. And when those expectations are unmet, we go into action.

Pastors get fired every day for failing to live up to people’s expectations.

We ought to be apologizing to our pastors for not listening, for not respecting them, for failing to practice what they preach, for picking and choosing bits and pieces of their sermons which we will obey and retain. We should apologize for treating them like our employees, for thinking of ourselves as their customers, for failing to see them as God’s divinely appointed shepherds for this flock.

To whom do you owe an apology today?

I can name a dozen churches without a moment’s hesitation that have terminated pastors–and done severe damage to their future ministries–for no other reason than his failure to cater to certain people, to satisfy the membership, to meet expectations.

We owe them our deepest apologies.

Not long after graduating from seminary, John R. Sampey was invited to join the faculty to replace a beloved professor who had recently died unexpectedly. In his memoirs, Sampey writes, “I have wondered what would have happened, when some months later Drs. Manly and Broadus suggested that I be recommended to the Seminary faculty to succeed dear Dr. Riggan, if I had not apologized like a gentleman for ungentlemanly conduct.”

1 thought on “Apologizing to My Teacher and Preacher

  1. Thank you. I think this article goes well with your thoughts on self-evaluation in church leadership teams. Being humble must be shown through respecting authority and still striving for excellence or being resilient enough to persevere through difficult circumstances. I wonder at the relationship between humility and courage or even faithfulness… How does our view and practice of humility differ from Christ’s?

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