The Affair That Ended My Ministry
As an undergraduate at ACU I discovered an unexpected enthusiasm for my studies of the Old Testament and the Hebrew language. To say it was a surprise would be like suggesting the Pope was, in fact, not Catholic. No one could have predicted my love for the Old Testament, least of all me. Maybe a prophet,on a really good day, could have seen it coming, but I doubt it.
I arrived on campus at ACU as a practicing Marcionite, though I didn’t know the term. Marcion was a second century Christian who rejected the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, as well as parts of the New Testament that were too much like the Old Testament (too many laws and not enough grace). As the product of a conservative Church of Christ, I also had little use for the Old Testament. We would’ve never admitted that we rejected the Old Testament. But in practice, we never touched it unless we could make some association with Jesus or support a point we were already making from the New Testament.Otherwise, with the exception of praise psalms, I could have cut the Old Testament out of my Bible and never noticed the difference. Marcion would’ve been proud. (To set the record straight, the Roman church condemned and expelled Marcion as a heretic. His movement eventually died out, at least until its resurrection in some post-Reformation churches.)
The first day of my freshman year at ACU, Dr. John Willis, professor of Old Testament, began to beat the inner-Marcionite out of me—though he never said a word about Marcion and never made a frontal assault on my beliefs. Instead, I sat in class mesmerized as he brought the Old Testament to life. Suddenly, the stories and ideas not only made sense, they touched my life. I was like Copernicus, the moment he realized the earth is not the center of the universe; Newton, when the apple hit him on the head, and he understood the force of gravity. What I had despised became relevant, sparking an interest that quickly grew to an obsession. I took all the required courses and used all my electives until I had taken every Old Testament course the university had to offer, all of which Dr. Willis taught—which gave me a decisive academic edge. After my third Old Testament class, I could produce ninety-nine to one hundred percent of the test questions before the exam. So, it wasn’t difficult for me to ace every test. Good for me, but not for the class. According to his policy, Dr. Willis always added points to the highest score in class so that someone earned 100% on every exam. Then, he added the same number of points to everyone’s score. So while I studied a little and enjoyed scoring an easy 99 or 100 %, after a while it dawned on me that my fun was crushing other students who were in desperate need of extra points. So, I began to throw exams, scoring no higher than a 94 or 95% so everyone could get an extra five or six points.
Meanwhile, Dr. Willis encouraged me to continue work on one of my research projects, rewrite it, and submit it for publication. So with his help and the dictum “the best writing is rewriting,” I published a two-part discussion of Psalm 51 ("A Sinner's Plea: Psalm 51") in a small but good-spirited denominational journal (The Firm Foundation, 1982). When I first read my article in print, I was angry that the editor took the liberty of removing part of what I had written without consulting me, an unacceptable practice then and now. A little later, after reading some of what the editor had written elsewhere, I understood that he removed the offensive sentences because they didn’t agree with his particular theology. Despite my quibbles with the editor, I was hooked. I enjoyed the process of research, writing, and rewriting. And seeing my work in print felt great and gave me a high that lasted for months.
Still, I must admit that I wasn’t the brightest or best-informed student. I kept falling into academic honors I didn’t know existed, much less that I qualified for them. The first came in high school, when I was notified that I’d been accepted into The National Honor Society. Then, the second semester of my junior year at ACU, I received a letter from Dr. Lemoine Lewis inviting me to the induction ceremony for Alpha Chi (a national college honors society). I used extra elective hours to take a full year of Hebrew my junior year, which turned out to be a graduate level course. I thought it was fun and made A’s both semesters. At the same time, I took a second year of Greek and was elected to the auspicious rank of Vice President for Nu Sigma Nothing, an academic Greek club we created and for which I truly did nothing.
I saw and read bulletin board advertisements about graduate school, especially the program at Princeton, and fantasized about what it would be like to move east and continue my education. But by the time I graduated, I was too poor, too exhausted, and too married to do anything. My senior year of school, after marrying the summer before, I took a full load of classes, preached two sermons every Sunday in Putnam, helped build a new sanctuary in Putnam, worked twelve hours a week at the university paint shop, and stirred up my own painting, carpentry, and roofing jobs. And while I might change a thing or two, I’m glad I was exhausted. I might’ve been academically ready for graduate school, but I needed time to grow up. I needed to mature in my faith, mature in my understanding of the world, and simply mature as a young man. I wasn’t ready to continue my education, not yet. My passion for the Old Testament was still with me, but for a few years this fire smoldered into an ember beneath the ash, waiting for the right conditions to reignite.
Seven years later in 1991, the fire burning down my ministry reignited the ember. ACU offered a graduate course on “Contemporary Theology” at an off-campus site in Denver. I wasn’t crazy about the topic, but since I was only 120 miles away in Buena Vista and now anxious to investigate graduate work, I enrolled. At first, I didn’t understand why Dr. Leonard Allen began with the concepts of pre-modern or pre-enlightenment philosophy and theology(short-hand for our talk about God and the life of faith). But as Dr. Allen led us through the enlightenment and the theological changes that came with modernity, the heavens opened and I began to understand. For the first time in my life, I could see how history and my social location led to my set of beliefs. More important, I began to understand how people of good faith could reach different theological conclusions. My iron-fisted claim to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—and God help anyone who disagrees with me was shattered.I hit pay dirt, the mother lode, precisely what I needed to learn as I began my studies.I walked into class on one path, but left moving toward an appreciation of historical and social factors in every biblical interpretation and theological system. In fact, it became clear that the most dangerous theology, the most dangerous sets of beliefs, are those that refuse to acknowledge their place in history. All these new ideas left me rethinking and expanding my own theology with space for difference and nuance. I still had a longdistance to travel, but my experiment with graduate school not only changed me in ways that prepared me for further learning, it left me starving for more. I couldn’t turn back now. Somehow, whatever I did in coming years—it had to include going back to school.
So, when the North “A” Church of Christ in Midland, Texas, called, our earliest conversation included continuing courses at ACU, intersecting my education with this congregation for a second time. The first had come ten years earlier in 1982, when I served a summer internship at North “A” as part of my undergraduate degree. At the ripe age of nineteen, it’s not easy to find a preaching internship. So North “A” offered the best I could hope for: a chance to work with both pastors in a variety of tasks—preaching, teaching, and a little youth ministry.
My first Sunday in Midland, however, I helped the youth pastor load a U-Haul truck, as he left for a new church. The transition was seamless, fast, and without any discussion: I became the interim youth minister for the summer. The youth group was small, only a handful of teens in a church rapidly growing grey. I taught their classes, took them to area-wide youth rallies, made a trip to Six Flags over Texas, and was part of a team that led the teenagers on a summer mission to Norwich, Kansas. By the end of summer I reached two firm conclusions: I liked the kids at church, and I never, ever wanted to be a youth pastor again—so help me God, never.I was a rotten fit for the dynamic of working with teenagers, perhaps an early clue that I was a poor fit for ministry.
My first two years back in Midland, I took weeklong intensive courses at ACU in Abilene and weekend intensives (Thursday afternoon through Saturday morning) at an off-campus site in Dallas . In the fall of my third year, I drove to Abilene once a week to take courses that were not available in an intensive format. I took Old Testament Theology on Tuesday afternoon, spent the night with my grandmother, and took Intermediate Hebrewon Wednesday before rushing back home to mid-week Bible classes. Then I repeated this schedule in the spring, taking Advanced Introduction to the Old Testament and Intermediate Hebrew (2), and seizing every spare minute in-between to research and write my master’s thesis (“The Theology of Atonement Sacrifice in Leviticus”). I graduated with my master’s degree and preached my last sermon at North “A” on July 31, 1995. The next morning, I drove a U-Haul truck back to Colorado and enrolled in the joint Ph.D. program of Denver University and Iliff School of Theology.
My days as a full-time pastor were over. I still enjoyed preaching, as long as I was not “the” preacher and didn’t depend on a salary from the church. Like so many young pastors, I burned out of ministry within ten years. Unlike most, however, I was fortunate or blessed (depending on your point of view) that as one fire died, it reignited coals still smoldering from my undergraduate days.
—to be continued—
Excerpt from a working manuscript,A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton)