“Enjoy your glory and stay at home” (2 Kings 14:10).
In 1994, Joel Gregory wrote a book about his short-tenure as pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church. He gave it the ominous title: “Too Great a Temptation: The Seductive Power of America’s Super Church.”
The title will make sense to many pastors reading this as it surely does to me. When that mega-church came calling, begging Joel to become their pastor and follow the likes of W. A. Criswell and George W. Truett, there was no way he could turn them down.
He could have, of course. But he just couldn’t. That’s because the temptation was too great.
I came close to taking the pastorate of a great church about 10 years earlier than Joel, one that would have ended just as disastrously for me. As it turned out, the former pastor had two spies on the search committee, men who reported every action and every interview, and he was the one who vetoed me. When I get to Heaven, I intend to seek him out and thank him.
Assuming he’s there.
My story of “too great a temptation,” however, is not about a church that came calling but a denominational opportunity that opened up and I could not resist.
In 1976, I was appointed a trustee (we call them ‘”board members”) of the SBC Foreign Mission Board, now the International Mission Board, based in Richmond. This office overseas the work of thousands of career missionaries in over a hundred countries.
I was 36 years old and in the third year of my pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi. Margaret and I were in the 14th year of our marriage. Our children were 13, 10, and 7.
The simple fact is that my wife and children needed me at home far more than the FMB needed me in Richmond. My church had a full contingent of ministers and I was rarely away from the pulpit on Sundays, making it tempting to say the FBC did not miss me so much as my children. That’s true, but not by much.
When a pastor is gone a great deal and when his absences are for exotic reasons, dealing with worldwide causes and involving travel to places he has only heard of, his attention to the local situation wanes. His vision may be expanded, his knowledge vastly increased, and his work in the kingdom enhanced. But his pastorate of that church suffers.
The appointment to the FMB was for four years, 1976-80. At the end of that term, my children were then 17, 14, and 11. Their daddy had missed many of their most important events at school and church. (In those years, the Board would meet in Richmond 10 times a year, for a day and a half each time. Travel required flying to Atlanta and then to Richmond. Once a year, we met in some major city of the U.S., staying in grand hotels, and doing great work. I met some wonderful people and expanded my own horizons in a hundred ways.)
Was this all about me? It would appear.
By the summer of 1977, one year into my term on the Board, I was in Singapore.
My service on the Board involved membership in an “area committee,” working with the Area Director, making decisions about financial allotments and missionary requests from the field. I was assigned to the Southeast Asia committee. I had no idea that one year later, I would travel there for a two week assignment.
For their urban evangelization project, the missionaries in Singapore wanted a comic book drawn and published in order to target teenagers. The same day my wife and I spotted a small notice in the monthly magazine “Commission,” where Singapore missionaries were asking for a cartoonist to “come over and help us.”
It was a far bigger project than we ever envisioned. My church in Mississippi paid the air fare, over $1600, and I spent two weeks in Singapore. With our missionaries and the local church members, we worked up a story line and turned it into a play of sorts, then I traveled throughout Singapore drawing scenes for background. Flights took me to Anchorage, Tokyo, Hong Kong (to spend the night), Bangkok, and then, return flight, to Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, and Honolulu. Pretty exotic stuff for this Alabama farm boy.
The drawing and painting (acrylic on acetate cels) of a full-length comic book consumed much of the next six months. Members of our church not only helped to paint the cels, but also kicked in the money to have 10,000 copies printed in full color and shipped to Singapore.
In 1979-80, I served the Board as a member of the search committee for a new president, ending with our selecting Keith Parks to lead this global missionary outreach.
Also in 1979, my wife and I talked about divorce.
We had gone through a smattering of counseling at one time or other in our marriage. But in 1978 Margaret informed me that unless I made some changes, this marriage was not going to survive. We went through a year of counseling sessions 90 miles from our home. Because of the distance involved, we went twice a month and spent two hours with the therapist, a colleague in the ministry with a doctorate from my seminary. Jack Follis, a psychologist at the local state mental hospital, gave one afternoon a week at the local Lauderdale Associational office for private counseling.
That’s how it happened that in 1980, I informed the SBC office in Nashville I would be declining the routine second term of four years as a member of the Foreign Mission Board. They would need to find a replacement who would be elected at the annual denominational meeting in June of 1980.
Keith Parks, our new president, did not understand this. Was I jumping ship after helping to put him in place? Did I have some trouble with where he was leading the missionaries? None of that, I assured him.
“When I am away, no one else is husband to my wife, father to my children, or pastor to my church. But if I get off this board, someone else will step in and take my place. This is the one area I can do something about, something I can change,” I said.
I wonder about all this from time to time.
It clearly is not that one choice was bad and the other good, one evil and the other holy. Both were important to the kingdom and I wanted to do both, to be at home with my family and church and to go to the world. I loved my family and that has never wavered.
Our little daughter once told Margaret, “I wish we had two daddies–one to go all those places and one to stay home with us.” That was like a knife in my heart.
It’s all a matter of priorities, priorities that took me four years to figure out and set in place. By the time I got it straight, our oldest son was almost out of high school.
In lesser ways, I made other choices during those critical years that also soaked up time and energy and drew me away from my family and pastorate. Would I be willing to serve on the local symphony board? Would I become the spokesperson for the local beautification arm of the Chamber of Commerce (which involved making television commercials)? Would I be willing to be a trustee of the Mississippi Baptist Medical Center?
Sure. Why not?
Add to this the routine choices every minister of our denomination (and most of the others, I assume) must make all the time: invitations to speak in other churches, doing revivals and conferences and banquets, attending various denominational conventions and evangelistic conferences, Holy Land trips, and other “opportunities of a lifetime.”
I look back and wonder why I was not content to stay home–literally, stay at home!–as a full-time husband, father, and pastor.
What was going on psychologically within me? What was there inside that longed for these invitations and assignments? (Note: Please do not message me with your analysis. At this long distance, I am not trying to psychoanalyze myself and am not requesting such. I’m only telling this in the hope that some young minister will learn from my mistakes.)
During those years, 1976-80, I began drawing cartoons for our denomination’s major magazines. On one occasion when tension between my wife and me was stretched to the breaking point, she came into the church office and found me drawing something for the “Commission” magazine. Through tears, she said, “You have time for all these other things–even time and energy to do these silly little cartoons!–but no time for your family!” With that, she picked up the bottle of black india ink and poured it all over the desk, ruining the drawings and leaving permanent stains on furniture.
I couldn’t tell Keith Parks that was why I was getting off the Board and staying home.
These days–I’m 74 now and Margaret and I have logged over 52 years of marriage–I look back with so many regrets.
I made some changes, true. But one can never undo what has been done, can not take away yesterday’s pain, or erase a bad memory. You can never attend your child’s school play or ball game which you missed because you were out of town.
You just pick up and try to do right from now on in.
That’s why I’m sharing this story to our younger pastors. It is not therapeutic for me, in case anyone is wondering. I don’t “need” to tell this. I’ve gone through all this stuff years ago, and Margaret and I have talked it out time and again.
What I want to say to the young pastor is this: Nothing has to be “too great a temptation.” Not if your focus is on the Lord Jesus Christ and you are willing to do His will supremely.
Don’t accept those invitations automatically. Do not assume just because that conference where you’re invited to speak will increase your visibility that this is of the Lord. Worst of all, do not assume that being popular and invited to all these enticements confirms that you are a success in the ministry.
Stay with the One who called you into this work in the first place. Ask what He wants. And do not decide until you know for sure what He is saying.