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Day of Prayer

For seven decades, Welch College has set aside a day each semester for the entire campus community to give itself to prayer. This past Wednesday was our spring semester Day of Prayer, entitled “Praying the Scripture,” and it was a delight to be involved in.

The Day of Prayer events were led by Dr. Barry Raper (program coordinator for Youth and Family Ministry who also serves as senior pastor of Bethel Free Will Baptist Church, a growing congregation in the Nashville area) and Mr. Matthew McAffee (campus pastor and program coordinator for Theological Studies). We started the day at 8:30 a.m. with a song, prayer, and a talk from Dr. Raper on “Praying the Scripture.” This talk set the stage for the rest of the day’s events.

In his talk, Dr. Raper shared about George Müller’s method of praying the Scripture. Dr. Raper studied this in his doctoral program in Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He began his talk by asking the students, faculty, and staff if they ever struggle with three common obstacles in prayer:

  • Distraction
  • Mere routine
  • Loss for words

Then he said that “even though there is not an easy way to overcome these obstacles, there is a simple way to pray that can help you enjoy more enriching and effective prayer.” And he shared the method of George Müller, the nineteenth century Englishman who started an orphanage for the purpose of showing believers that God answers prayer. Here are some quotes he shared with us:

Before this time my practice had been, at least ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer after having dressed in the morning.  Now, I saw that the most important thing was to give myself to the reading of God’s Word, and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, by means of the Word of God, whilst meditating on it, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord.

I began therefore to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning, early in the morning.  The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words of the Lord’s blessing upon His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God, searching as it were into every verse to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word, not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon, but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul.

The result I have found to be almost invariably is this, that after a few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that, though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less to prayer.  When thus I have been for a while making confession or intercession or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next word or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the Word may lead it, but still continually keeping that food for my own soul which is the object of my meditation.  The result of this is that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart.”  (From Muller’s testimony in A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Müller [London: J. Nisbet and Co., 1855],  1.3, May 7).

Then Dr. Raper explained that “Müller’s testimony is backed up by different prayers recorded in the Bible—examples of people of faith receiving the Word of God and turning it back to God in prayer.”

For the remainder of the Day of Prayer, the Welch College community put into practice what Dr. Raper had described. From 9:20 to 9:50, everyone engaged in private prayer time, praying through a psalm or New Testament passage. Then we reassembled and watched two videos on prayer needs, one from the Nashville Rescue Mission and the other from the Voice of the Martyrs about persecution of Christians in Nigeria.

Then, from 10:30 to noon, Dr. Raper and Mr. McAffee led a concert of prayer. In the concert of prayer the A.C.T.S. formula was used, with prayers of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication punctuated with Scripture readings and congregational songs that corresponded to each component, as well as small-group times of sharing and prayer. At one point in the concert, different students were asked to share spontaneously: “I praise God because. . . .”

I have heard so many students, faculty, and staff comment on how edifying and enriching this semester’s Day of Prayer was, and I agree. I thank God that we have one day each semester at Welch College that is set aside for prayer and for emphasizing the importance of prayer and its vital place in the Christian life. Please pray for Welch College that it will continue to be, as it always has been, a place of prayer.

Fred Sanders’s “Wesley on the Christian Life”

If you are interested in the Arminian-Calvinist debate or the theology of John Wesley, you may be interested in a brief piece I wrote recently for the Gospel Coalition. In the essay, I give reflections on a recent book by the Wesleyan-Arminian scholar Fred Sanders, Wesley on the Christian Life.

Sanders is on the faculty at Biola University, and the book is a part of Crossway’s excellent series Theologians on the Christian Life. The essay can be found here.

Never Blink in a Hailstorm – Part 2

Do you want to become a great leader? We all do. David McKenna’s 12 lessons on leadership in his excellent book Never Blink in a Hailstorm provide wise maxims on outstanding leadership. In the last post, I talked about his first two principles of great leadership. I continue the discussion of his 12 lessons in this post.

Never Go Solo

“Leaders are often lonely, but they must never go it alone” (41). Outstanding leaders do not yield to the temptations of the “soloist”: (1) to confide in no one, (2) to confess to no one, and (3) to accept criticism from no one (41). McKenna’s right: with their superiors, leaders have to be “performing artists.” With their peers (and I might add followers), they have to be “insatiable optimists.” “With whom can they be themselves?” he asks (43).

We need a few solid people whom we can trust, in whom we can confide, and by whom we can be held accountable. And we need to be open to criticism: Leaders who “go solo without the check and balance of someone who can say ‘No’ are courting trouble” (43).

Never Steal a Paper Clip

Outstanding leaders are first and foremost ethical leaders, and this begins and ends with the smallest details of integrity. McKenna thinks leaders are more liable to ethical lapses because the more visible we are, the more vulnerable we are. Leadership opens us up to greater temptation, and in the face of that temptation, we must grow closer to God and major on honesty and humility.

Never Swallow Perfume

“All of us love the fragrance of flattery and all of us are in danger of swallowing its perfume,” McKenna insightfully says (55). Too many leaders “thrive on praise” (55). The trouble comes in when we “begin to believe what we hear or read about ourselves” (55), a temptation to which those from humble beginnings, he thinks, too often fall prey.

Never Build without a Balcony

Leaders need to have ways to retreat from the “trenches” of leadership. We “live in trenches where controversial issues are confronted, contentious people are encountered, and disputable decisions are made” (61). We need a way to find “release from the pressure” to “regain perspective” so we won’t “flame out, flunk out, and fall out” (61). Going to the balcony can be done by taking some time off to clear your head, or simply waiting before you respond to a critic or going off by yourself to consider the proper course of action.

Never Waste an Interruption

Effective leaders resist the temptation to let their drive for efficiency keep them from allowing their schedules to be interrupted by people. “Like the best-laid plans of mice and men, the daily schedule of an executive invariably includes surprises that wreak havoc with any prearranged agenda” (74). But, Dr. McKenna urges, we must learn to see these interruptions as opportunities. They are “not only our business, they are our ministry” (75).

Never Die from Failure

As Harry Truman said, “If you can’t handle failure, get out of leadership” (85). Everyone will make mistakes; the crucial factor is how the leader handles them. Fear of failure keeps people from being able to take risks, and calculated risks are key to transformational leadership. McKenna reminds us that “to lead is to risk” (86). But when you take risks, you will experience failure. Count on it. It happened to all the great leaders in world history. But the good thing is that we learn and grow from our failures. Like learning to ski, “if you’re not falling down, you’re not learning” (90).

Never Hide Behind a Gas Mask

When toxic fumes fill the air, a leader can’t just put on a gas mask and hope the fumes will go away (98). What he’s illustrating here is avoiding confrontation, a sign of a weak leader and a dysfunctional organization. This reminds me of a book I once read entitledToxic Workplace, which talked about allowing toxic people to poison your organizational culture. Sometimes in Christian leadership, we’re so “nice” that we allow toxic people to toxify our organizations. We put on a gas mask, and hope the toxin will just go away. McKenna offers some tremendous counsel from the life of Jesus to help leaders engage in loving confrontation if necessary by speaking the truth in love.

Never Blink in a Hailstorm – Part 1

“A leader’s trophies are not etched in brass; they are written in flesh.”—David L. McKenna

Are you called to be a leader? If you are, then you know that leadership can be an exhilarating experience. But your level of experience in leadership will determine to what degree you’re acquainted with the challenges leadership brings with it.

This is the message of a wonderful book I recently read on leadership by evangelical statesman David L. McKenna, Never Blink in a Hailstorm and Other Lessons on Leadership. Dr. McKenna, former president of Spring Arbor University, Seattle Pacific University, and Asbury Theological Seminary, gets to the heart of the rewards of leadership. But where his book is most helpful is when he discusses leadership’s challenges.

Without reviewing the book, I want to share with you some of its most poignant “takeaways.” Dr. McKenna gives 12 maxims on leadership in pithy statements which I’ll summarize, and then I’ll tell you what was most penetrating and illuminating to me.

Outstanding Leaders

Before he gives his 12 lessons on leadership, Dr. McKenna spends some time talking about the raw materials of leadership. Outstanding leaders have boards that say “GO until we say STOP,” not “STOP until we say GO” (p. 16), and they should be “subject to only two major limitations”: prudence and ethics (17). Prudence, Dr. McKenna says, means “Don’t do dumb things,” and ethics means “Don’t do wrong things” (18).

Part and parcel of prudence are taste and judgment (quoting John W. Gardner’s book Excellence): “Don’t violate good taste,” and“Don’t violate sound judgment” are at the heart of prudence and are absolutely necessary for outstanding leadership (18).

Violations of sound judgment would be things like “saying what’s wrong with the company before employment,” and taste is “tested by such factors as dress and demeanor.” McKenna is on target when he says, “There is no excuse for sloppiness in taste or shoddiness in judgment under the name of Christ” (18).

Now to the 12 lessons. . . .

Never Play God

The best of leaders are tempted to play God. “We want to be as wise as God by pretending to be competent, in control, and deserving of credit for our accomplishments. Nothing is further from the truth” (23). Don’t be tempted to substitute success for faithfulness, Dr. McKenna warns. The disciples in Scripture were not “accountable for results or judged by their success” (24).  Christian leaders play God when they substitute success for faithfulness.

There are three main besetting sins that accompany this substitution:

The sin of competitive statistics: Numbers being the end-all, be-all.

The sin of cheapened means: When we place so much stress on “competitive statistics as the goal of the church,” we are tempted to “cheapen the means of ministry” (26). In connection with this, McKenna gives some pungent nuggets of wisdom for pastors and leaders of Christian nonprofits alike: Don’t sacrifice “richness” (depth, faithfulness) for “reach” (numerical growth). But don’t ignore reach simply because you’re trying to maintain richness!

The sin of stolen glory: This is the sin of leaders whose “favorite word, when speaking of organizational successes,” is “I.”

Lastly, Dr. McKenna says that we try to play God when we make an idol out of competence and control. While we need to work on our competence as leaders, Dr. McKenna reminds us, sometimes our competence can “get in the way of our dependence upon God.” And, while he is all in favor of strong, transformational leadership, McKenna warns against the misuse of power and control.

Never Blink in a Hailstorm

President Lyndon Johnson once said being a leader was like being a donkey in a Texas hailstorm: “You just have to stand there, close your eyes, and take it” (35). McKenna is so right when he says, “It is lonely at the top when the buck stops and the hail cuts loose” (35).

Decision-making is lonely. The confidentiality that comes with Christian leadership is lonely. And sometimes it seems like what Billy Martin, the New York Yankees coach, once said of a good baseball manager: “one who keeps the five who hate you away from the four who are still unsure” (36). But as Christian leaders, we must go on and never blink.

Learning How to Beg

“The hungry man needs no help to teach him how to beg.”—William Gurnall

Recently over lunch, a friend asked me how I had been stretched most in the past few years. I immediately said that difficulties in life had forced me to realize in a new way that life’s circumstances are not what bring satisfaction in life; only Christ is.

Life’s difficulties have the potential to create in us a greater desire to draw near to God. This has stretched me, because my greatest temptation, like so many, is to rely, for happiness, on things going well. But Scripture reminds us again and again that even the greatest and noblest things in life cannot bring ultimate satisfaction. Only God can.

Do you ever find that you’re happy only when things are going “according to plan”? What is really happening is that you have replaced God with something else you think can meet your needs.

My wife Melinda and I have been reading a devotional book by Nancy Leigh DeMoss, The Quiet Place, a book I would recommend to men and women alike. Today’s reading hit home for me. Miss DeMoss said, “I have come to believe that one of the greatest reasons we don’t pray more than we do is this: we’re not desperate. We are not really conscious of our need for God.”

She goes on to quote Puritan pastor William Gurnall. “The hungry man,” Gurnall said, “needs no help to teach him how to beg.” When things are going well for us, we’re tempted to allow ourselves to have our hunger satisfied—our needs met—by our favorable circumstances. And we’re tempted to stop “begging,” because we don’t feel spiritually hungry.

But God can use life’s difficulties to create in us a greater desire for him, a yearning for nearness to him. When things are not going well, we have a greater sense of our true need, because our ultimate needs are not being met by our immediate circumstances. And that sense of need has the potential of creating within us a hunger for that which will truly meet our needs, and the only One who can truly meet our ultimate needs is God.

So when you’re experiencing difficulty in life, I encourage you to allow it to create in you a hunger for God, a sense of desperation and need for the only One who can truly meet your needs.

A New Semester at Welch College

The beginning of the spring semester is always an exciting time at Welch College, and right now is no exception. Of course it’s anything but spring. It’s been bitterly cold and gray outside. But the community of faith and learning that is Welch College is abuzz with excitement. We’re back from Christmas break, settled in, and everyone has gotten back to the books and back to work.

There are more students on the Welch campus than there were this time last year—around 24% more in the dorms (about the same increase as this past fall). This of course is creating excitement, because the student population has experienced a major uptick for the first time since 2008 when the Great Recession hit.

The momentum we’re experiencing in numbers this year follows a momentum we’ve been experiencing in the past few years in terms of mission, quality, and excellence. Let me give you a few examples.

A higher percentage of students who are investing themselves in ministry, missions, and lay leadership in local churches are attending Welch. There is an increase in commitment level in classes, chapel, and Christian service assignments. There is an increasing attitude of ministry and service. More of our young men are answering the call to preach, with around half the men in Goen Hall (our men’s dormitory) being preachers.

The societies are experiencing a revitalization of interest among students. Student government has been reinvigorated. Our choir and Rejoice ensemble are larger. These groups, along with the Evangels drama team and our new Men’s Quartet, are receiving rave reviews and are in heavy demand by churches.

The ACT scores of incoming students are climbing. Freshman-to-sophomore retention has increased to much higher levels than most small Christian colleges. The percentage of freshmen going on to degree completion is on the rise. Scores on our exit exams have increased in comparison with other colleges and universities.

We’re now ranked as one of U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Colleges,” ranking alongside much larger schools that have fifteen and twenty times our endowment (and one of only a handful of schools in the Bible college movement to be ranked). For the first time, in 2012 we were named a certified “Best Christian Workplace.” The college received this accolade from Best Christian Workplaces of America again this year.

For the first time, three years ago Welch sent a delegation to the Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature, a mock student legislature that voted Welch student Frank Thornsbury best senator the first year and winner of the Carlisle Award, the top award in the legislature, the second year. The Tennessee legislature even voted on a religious liberty bill advanced by this group of students. Noel-Levitz student satisfaction surveys continue to show increased student satisfaction with their experience at Welch College.

I believe one of the reasons for these gains in excellence, quality, and mission is our mentorship model of Christian higher education: Fresh young faculty are joining seasoned veterans in seeing the teaching and learning process at Welch as not just taking classes and getting grades. They’re seeing it as mentoring—as spiritual formation in the context of an academic community. So this means that the intellect, the heart, and the character are being mentored and shaped and formed through a Christ-centered model of teaching and learning.

When I hear our students talking about the conversations they’re having outside of class with faculty members—often about the books they’re reading that aren’t required—it makes my heart leap for joy. Recently I had a young man come to my office. His academic background in high school left something to be desired. He hadn’t had the best of chances for spiritual growth as a child. But he came to my office and was talking about reading John Owen’s book The Mortification of Sin with one of his professors. He was talking about how his eyes were being opened to so many things, and how he felt himself maturing spiritually and emotionally and intellectually.

I’ve had this same conversation (different profs, different books) with dozens of our students. They’re excited about the opportunities for growth they’re receiving at Welch College—spiritual, intellectual, personal, and professional—and they don’t take it for granted.

It’s our faculty that make this possible. And it’s our churches and college supporters that make it possible for our faculty to do the work they do. As you finish reading this post, I ask you to say a prayer for us—that God will continue the work He is doing on our campus, that the momentum of kingdom-centered mission, quality, and excellence will continue to flourish in this Christian community of faith and learning.

On Starting A Blog

I’ve finally decided to start a blog. For years people have suggested that I start blogging. Many of them have used the argument that the president of our nationally sponsored denominational college needs to be blogging. I suppose this is what finally got me thinking about it.

Recent studies have shown that a large percentage of college and seminary presidents blog—even more than corporate CEOs. A blog helps supporters of their institutions know what the president is thinking, what his vision is, what his theology or philosophy is. It also gives the president an opportunity to reflect on happenings on campus in a more informal way than would be seen in a typical news release.

On this blog, I’ll be talking primarily about Christian faith and life—how Christian belief affects our lives and families and churches, and what that looks like when it intersects with the world around us, with culture. When one looks at my confessional commitments and calling, one sees that the Free Will Baptist tradition is my vantage point for the church’s faith and practice, and that leadership and education are my vantage points for much of my consideration of culture. And those come together in my calling as president of Welch College.

So, much of the material I post on this blog will be just plain and simple Christian spirituality, discussions about what the Bible and the Christian tradition have to say about how to live out the Christ-life in a way that’s centered on the gospel and driven by the Word, in the context of family, the church, and culture.

Then there will be other reflections I post on this blog that are aimed at the intellectual life: intellectual or theological reflections on some aspect of the church’s faith and practice and its relation to culture. At other times I’ll share the results of my scholarly research with my readers. And, of course, I will keep my readers abreast of Welch College and its mission.

I encourage readers to share their thoughts with me (by clicking on the link above). I’d love to hear how I can make this blog a more profitable—and enjoyable—reading experience. [1]

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[1] For readers who wonder why this blog doesn’t have comments, my reason for this is much like Seth Godin’s, whose post “Why I don’t have comments” I would encourage you to read: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/06/why_i_dont_have.html

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