What follows is an interview with Owen Strachan. At the time of this interview Owen was an assistant professor at both Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College. He is now at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and serves as the Associate Professor of Christian Theology, the Director of the Center for Public Theology, and the Director of the Residency PHD Program. Owen was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
Owen, you’re an assistant professor at both Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College. You’re the director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute at SBTS. You’re also the president of the Council On Biblical Manhood And Womanhood. Above all that, you’re married and have three children. At what point of any day do you do things like sleeping, eating, personal hygiene, etc.?
Life is full but joyful. God has been very kind to me. I am a high-energy guy, so wearing these different hats is fun. But yes, I am definitely learning how to balance my schedule. Saying yes to a few things means saying no to many others. My wife Bethany is a great help to me in figuring this out.
My family is my first priority. I make sure that I have quality time with my wife and kids before I focus on anything else. I am determined, above all, to be known not simply as a public advocate for God’s vision of the family, but to live it out. This means making hard decisions and constantly scheming to make sure we have time together.
Beyond that, I believe in living all-out, full-throttle for the glory of Christ. Once in a while you hear some movie star or athlete talk about how much they love their life and their work. That sort of comment is convicting to me because, as a Christian, I’ve been given the opportunity to work in the Lord’s vineyard. All our work, whether pipe-fitting, teaching, trading stocks, preaching, or raising children, is unto God. What could be better than that? The call to “make more” talents for God’s glory—which I’ve written about in my book Risky Gospel—is really one of the central realities of the Christian life. I am trying to live that out, however imperfectly I do so.
In terms of personal hygiene, by the way, I simply forgo that. I’m from Maine originally, and we have given the world “natural” products like Tom’s toothpaste, after all. Tom’s seems so natural, in fact, that it falls short of basic toothpaste standards. But I digress.
As a seminary professor, you are regularly interacting with men who desire to be pastors. What are a couple of the most important things you tend to say in helping men prepare for pastoral ministry?
- Stay close to your family. Focus far more on being an excellent husband and father than anything else. You’d think this advice would be old hat, but I’m just 33 years old and have already seen numerous colleagues and friends fall out of ministry due to infidelity. It takes your breath away. It also makes you realize that you are not far from the same end.
- Luxuriate, exalt, and lose yourself in the life of the mind. Do not make the very common mistake of thinking that pastoral ministry is a retreat from thinking and pondering. It most certainly is not. The American church is in the midst of a theology famine. It needs excellent, soul-feeding preaching that is both theologically rich and boots-on-the-ground practical. See yourself as a small but vital part of solving this major problem. The pastor used to be a thinker. He should be again in our day.
- Preach well and study hard, but make sure you allot a good portion of your week to meeting with your people. You can by no means meet with everyone, so let that be said right up front. But if you lose that instinct, if you find yourself wanting to get away from the sheep, then hit the alarm. Pastoring is people work. It has to be. The pastor is not everyone’s personal discipler in a 1-on-1 sense. Preaching yields tremendous opportunity for discipleship in a group sense. But if a pastor is not doing some counseling and discipleship, something is off. Pastors are not theological resource providers; they are shepherds. If they are not directly shepherding some part of the body each week, I fear that they have transitioned out of biblical pastoral ministry.
- Feel no pressure at all to reinvent the ecclesial wheel. Gorge on the wisdom of the past like a hipster who was barred from their favorite foodie locales for a year and is now released to eat. Concentrate less on being the next Young Gun Pastor Sensation and more on attaching yourself to an ecclesial tradition that is tested by time, faithful to Scripture, and affords you opportunities to partner in the gospel to push the gospel to the ends of the earth.
What is it that you want men to get from their seminary experience that most local churches may not be able to supply?
Well, it’s not easy to provide one-stop-shop training in the languages, systematic theology, biblical theology, theological ethics, church history, counseling, missions, and more. The concept of some kind of “school of the prophets” is biblical (see 1 Sam. 10:10, for example). In Old Testament times, there were two “schools”—one at Kirjath-jearim, another at Ramah. From the earliest times, ministry leaders have believed in and invested in training the next generation to know the Word and handle it skillfully.
This is what Southern Seminary and Boyce College provide. They offer outstanding instruction in the Word and disciplines that fill out the minister’s Christian worldview. No one needs to go to seminary or Christian college. I grew up in a very small church in Maine that had a pastor without a seminary degree, and he was an excellent preacher. But we should not set our ministry standards lower than the Bible. It is no small thing to seek to “skillfully handle” or “accurately divide” the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:15). In Jewish circles, this meant extensive training. In Catholic circles, it means extensive preparation. Why would we adopt lower standards for our pastors?
A small part of the solution to our theology famine is faithful and skilled preaching that richly exposits the Bible. For many of us, myself thoroughly included, this will mean that we get as much training as we can. If you’re sent out as a Navy SEAL to enact justice in the world, you get a little bit of training, right? If you’re going to operate as a surgeon on flesh and blood, you get some training, right? Why is it any different for pastors?
It’s terrific when local churches provide as extensive a course of preparation as they can. I love that. I had a tremendous experience at Capitol Hill Baptist Church under Mark Dever. I also learned from men like Michael Lawrence and Matt Schmucker. The local church is ideally positioned to train future pastors in evangelism, discipleship, ecclesiology, preaching, and more. But just about everyone I know will benefit from godly and faithful instructors outside of the church. There need not be any antagonism between the seminary and the church. The two should work together to send out an army of gospel-loving heralds of the kingdom.
What are some specific ways the pursuit of biblical manhood helps a man who may feel called to ministry?
Biblical manhood is not tame or weak. It doesn’t apologize for itself. The men of Scripture say things like, “Show yourself a man” (1 Kings 2:2) by which they mean “Be strong in the Lord and lead well!,” not “Wear shorts so you can display your hairy legs.”
Biblical manhood is grounded in the saving and transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. It calls us to be self-sacrificial men for others, not self-serving kings unto our own renown. This is the core conviction and instinct of a pastor. You’re not here to get a big podcast, to get sent out on the conference circuit, to write books that everybody reads. You’re here to die to yourself in the work of the gospel so that others might live. That’s it. Biblical manhood, which is only living in the image of Christ the church’s head, is foundational to pastoral ministry.
The Bible, unlike our modern culture, challenges men. It calls them to become something greater. It gives them a way bigger story and a much greater purpose than any other voice in the world. And it beckons men to risk their comfort and ease and low expectations and to step up and embrace responsibility, leadership, and self-sacrifice. In responding to this call by the power of the Holy Spirit, we become something noble, something greater than we thought we could be.
Biblical manhood is not machismo. It is not ordering people around. It is not proud. It is humble. It leads to men pouring themselves out for others.
It has produced many salutary effects:
- Men riding out against evil enemies to suffer and if necessary die to protect women and children.
- Men leading their families to adopt children who nobody wants, even though this will mean way less ESPN, golf, reading, and “me time.”
- Men getting involved with pro-life ministries to overturn the cycle of death and to protect the innocent.
- Men coaching Little League teams in their communities to get to know fatherless boys who are almost certain to go off the rails without a strong male figure in their life.
- Men who might never be a Senior Pastor or Lead Teacher picking up books like J. I. Packer’s Knowing God, Greg Gilbert’s What Is the Gospel?, and C. J. Mahaney’s The Cross-Centered Life in order to learn some stuff about the Bible and its core message in order to train their children in the faith.
- Men getting off the couch and chucking their iPhone across the room to get on the floor and wrestle with their kids even when very tired from a long day at work.
- Men giving up a week each year of beachside vacation to take the whole family on a mission trip to serve a desperately needy people they have absolutely nothing in common with.
Take away biblical manhood, and I conjecture that you take away the nobility and purpose that leads men to attempt great things for God, whether far away in the 10/40 window or in the suburbs of Birmingham.
What are a couple of common weaknesses you see in guys who desire pastoral ministry? How would you seek to address those weaknesses?
I see a desire for a name and ministry fame; a desire to reinvent the ecclesial wheel; and a hunger for power and control.
On the other side, I see a lack of courage, initiative, and risk.
A major counter to these problems, to which we are all prone in some way, is oddly enough to embrace biblical polity. I say without any sarcasm: embrace congregational church government. Recruit godly elders to “keep watch” over the souls in your care (Hebrews 13:17). Allow the local church to be what Jesus wants it to be: its own authority (Matthew 18:17). Don’t be threatened in the least by sharing the pulpit with your fellow elders. Don’t be scared at all of getting voted down in the elder’s meeting.
Ministry is not about us and our carefully-burnished image. We are not ministerial supermodels. We are those who delight in having a team of like-minded elders at the plow with us. Jesus was the Son of God, and he gathered twelve apostles to himself, and then—this takes your breath away—he sent them out in his supernatural name to carry on the work of his gospel.
If he was not threatened by that, we should not be either. Congregational polity is so good. It is a destroyer of pride, an angel of vengeance against ministerial self-sufficiency and celebrity pastoring. Elders labor together to care for the body; the local church itself is invested by God with the authority to care for itself.
What are some specific ways that pastors in the local church can better prepare men for ministry?
Invest in them. Identify them. Take them out on the church’s budget for a meal each week. Read Grudem’s theology with them, discuss it for a while, pray together.
Every great leader in the Bible develops the next generation—Jesus and Paul are the preeminent examples of this, but Moses and a host of other “ministers” lay this ground in the Old Testament. With this kind of model, how can we not do the same?
Pastors should focus on two major things in training men: 1) fashioning their character according to the elder qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and 2) shaping their doctrine and ecclesiology. Lead your church to invest heavily in training future pastors. I saw this under my pastor, Dever, CHBC; under my pastor, Mike Bullmore, at Crossway Community Church in Kenosha, WI; I see it now at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville as Jim Hamilton and Denny Burk give sacrificially of their time to train the many, many seminary students who have flocked to the church. It’s a beautiful thing. A bell rings in heaven when a pastor takes a young man out for coffee, counsels him, challenges him to kill sin, and looks him in the eye and says, “Bro, you’re doing well. Keep pushing ahead in Jesus.”
A lesser known fact about you is that you occasionally moonlight as a rap artist. Do you have a stage name and does the seminary community at Southern know about this?
Yes, my sterling rap career has included many global hits, including “Boyce Anthem,” which reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and led to a lucrative side gig in Belgium. I jest. Actually, few people outside of my family have heard my raps. My old rap handle was Crosswords.
In total seriousness, I am in talks with a veteran producer about a new album. It’s taking a while, because I just wrote a book on Chuck Colson and the semester has started and CBMW is cranking to level 10. But it will be dropping. When it does, it will be…I was going to say “epic,” but I just realized that was not true, and so I will say, “hopefully not so mediocre that it ends my teaching career.”
There you go: the marketing campaign for my EP, coming (hopefully) in Spring 2015: “It will be hopefully not so mediocre that it ends Strachan’s teaching career!” Look out rap world. I’m gunning for you.