"Was your dad a pastor?"
I have fielded that question more times than I care to count, and it surprises and slightly perplexes me to say so. It is not that the question is as troublesome as have been some of the more traumatic experiences—combatting rampant sexual misconduct and abuse, coming face-to-face with the pettiness and meanspiritedness that has infected some congregations, shepherding a congregation through devastating loss. These things have been very difficult along the way, but I anticipated those difficulties, having been warned about them. The question of whether my dad was a pastor was such an unexpected question and it so deeply—albeit unwittingly, I'm sure—undermined and trivialized the circumstances by which I entered this ministry.
For the record, my Dad was not a pastor, although pastoral ministry is just about the only thing that my Dad did not pursue at some time or another. He applied to West Point, but the physical exam revealed a medical problem that barred him from entry. He was the youngest Comptroller in the history of Arkansas State University. He was an Administrative Assistant to our U. S. Congressman, running the home office. He ran for Mayor of Lake City, Arkansas, once…sort of. He started so many businesses that I lost count. As a child, when people asked me what my Dad did for a living, usually I really didn't know. Finally, when I was fifteen, Dad started a business that endures to this day, Ashley Lighting, Inc. (I try not to be offended that he named it after my younger sister rather than after me). Dad was a deacon and a Sunday School teacher, but he never was and never considered being a pastor.
Furthermore, although he had enough piety and fatherly wisdom never to tell me so, I don't think that pastoral ministry was what Dad had in mind for me. He wanted me to go to Harvard. He would have been delighted for me to remain with the family lamp-manufacturing business in Arkansas. He didn't oppose my being a pastor, but I think it was a long time after I announced my vocation before he took it quite a seriously as I did. In that respect, he was probably in the majority of those who knew me. God called me to preach when I was eleven years old, and that's pretty young. Looking back, I think there were very few people who were convinced from the very start, and I can understand why.
I began to preach when I was fifteen. I found myself in leadership of a small rural congregation as a high-school senior. During those years and then while I was at Baylor, I lost count of the number of people who, upon learning that I was serving as a pastor when able and training to spend my life serving as a pastor, would ask me if my father was a pastor.
I used to wonder about my fellow classmates at Baylor. The one majoring in Russian, did everybody ask him if his father was Russian? Did the friends of my pre-med cousin presume that his father was a nephrologist, too? I never heard anybody ask my bride whether her parents were elementary educators. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention to all of the times that these other people were asked the paternity-vocation question, but for now I'm proceeding based upon the assumption that people ask this question of young pastors-in-training but not of people bound for myriad other trades.
I can see some good in this phenomenon. It probably means that people presume that pastors don't enter the ministry for the easy money. When a college student says that he is pre-med, most people probably think, "Money!" That's probably true as well for the student in law school or the guy getting the Executive MBA. Poli-Sci major? Power! Art History? Dementia!
OK, my apologies to the Art History people out there. And to the demented people out there.
I expected that people learning for the first time that I was pastoring and working toward a seminary degree would automatically ask me about my experience of being called into the ministry by God. Certainly, some people did precisely that, but the surprisingly high number of people who asked if Dad was a pastor caught my attention.
Do we really have that much nepotism in the ministry? Maybe so. When I looked around at my fellow Baylor classmates, I saw several instances of guys whose fathers were indeed pastors. Some of them were the children of prominent pastors. Looking beyond Baylor at the Southern Baptist Convention, I saw a lot more of the sons of prominent SBC pastors receiving prominent placement in our convention.
But it isn't as simple as calling it nepotism and then decrying it. Get to know some of these guys and you'll discover that they are passionate ministers of the gospel, very well qualified, doctrinally sound, and hard-working. These second-generation pastors are blessings to me and to our cooperative ministry. It would be evil of us to adopt a mindset that the son of a pastor must not enter the ministry.
Instead of acting like we ought to be putting up barriers or removing enticements for sons of pastors to become pastors, maybe we ought to consider whether we ought to take down barriers or more strongly to entice other people's sons to become pastors. Maybe there is too high a proportion of pastoral dynasties because of a dearth of the other folks who ought to be in pastoral ministry.
What I don't believe is that God, in His calling of people into the pastoral ministry, has a preference for the sons of pastors. I'm presuming that the proportion of pastors' sons entering pastoral ministry should, across the broader span, be very close to the proportion of pastors' sons within the collective membership of the churches.
Are we failing to teach sufficiently the idea of vocational calling? I am a pastor today because I experienced a dramatic and unmistakeable calling from God in the Summer of 1981. I submit that every person who asked me, "Is your Dad a pastor?" is a person who has fundamentally misunderstood the idea of a call into ministry. My father's occupation simply is not relevant to God's calling.
Really, if you ponder the matter for a while, I think you'll become more convinced of this problem. The evidence of it permeates this post. The fact that we presume the pre-med student to be in it for the money belies our failure to understand the idea of vocation. The fact that we presume the Art History major to be destined for his parents' basement apartment also demonstrates our failure to grasp the concept of Christian vocation. For every Christian college student, regardless of major or future plans, it seems that our beliefs would require us to ask universally, "How did you come to discern God's calling into this field? How does your service in this vocation execute your steward's responsibility to carry forward the Kingdom of God?"
How will I interact with my own son's vocational choices, particularly if he announces that he plans to be a pastor? That's really a tough question for me. He has already announced that he wants to be a pastor like his dad (sandwiched in-between the vocational choices of gladiator and whatever it is that The Man in the Yellow Hat does for a living). I replied by telling him that his mother and I simply want him to do whatever God tells him to do. In fact, virtually every night since before he was old enough to understand, he has heard either his mother or myself (or both of us) tell him after prayers, "Mommy loves you, Daddy loves you, and Jesus loves you. Mommy and Daddy want you to grow up to love Jesus and to do what He wants you to do." At his present age, anything he says about wanting to be a pastor doesn't have to be taken all that seriously.
But what about later? Perhaps the conversation won't arise later, but if it does, what should I do? Wanting to make certain that he is genuinely responding to a divine calling and not simply trying to please me, should I push back a little and try to discourage him? I can see how that approach might pass as wisdom, but I am glad that nobody took that approach with me. I generally try to avoid telling my son not to do what God is telling him to do. On the other hand, should I actively encourage my son to enter the pastoral ministry, running the risk that he feels that no other choice will please me?
I'll cross those bridges if I come to them, but I think that I've settled on this much—I'm not going to give my son a job serving together with me on a church staff. I don't think that I'm going to lean on my friends or otherwise lobby for a position for him, either. To do so would diminish his opportunity to learn about depending upon God to provide an assignment to His servants. It would, I think, interfere with his ability to respect himself and for me to respect him fully as a man. I also think such actions breed among our congregants a confusion about the mechanics of calling into vocational pastoral ministry, distracting them from the sovereign calling of God and leading them to conclude that men come into the pastoral ministry at the behest and under the provision of their earthly daddies.
In conclusion, I think that I preach about this matter far too infrequently. My congregation needs to know forwards-and-backwards just how it is that I came to be a pastor in general and their pastor in specific. They need to know how to sort out their own questions of vocation. Qualified men need to be prepared to recognize and respond obediently should God call them into pastoral ministry. Among the other responsibilities that come with my calling is probably the responsibility to help them in that regard.