Before I knew Danny Akin as a seminary president, I knew him as a seminary administrator, preaching professor, longtime pastor, and fellow Georgia Bulldogs fan. In his preaching classes at Southern Seminary, I sat riveted to his “war stories” from years of experience in the trenches of local church ministry. Years later, while serving in my first pastorate, I recalled some of his stories—and the Lord used them as a valuable reminder that the rough waters I was encountering were nothing strange to local church ministry.
Since 2004, Akin has served as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is also a TGC Council member and, in addition to having authored many books, Akin contributed a chapter (“How to Shepherd My Wife”) to 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (Crossway), a new book I edited with Collin Hansen.
Among the things we discussed in this interview is the important intersection between formal seminary training and learning how to minister in the local church.
You’ve served as both a pastor and a seminary president for many years now. What’s the one big thing you wish someone had taught you when you first entered pastoral ministry?
I was trained well both in Bible college and seminary. Many of the challenges I would face were mentioned in a number of classes. I think it would have been good for me to understand that the number of friends who will guard your back in the foxhole of ministry is probably smaller than you think. There have been times in my life when I thought someone would take a bullet for me, only to find out they had the gun pointed to the back of my head! Sometimes this was intentional and sometimes accidental. Nevertheless, if you get shot in the back of the head you are dead either way.
We both love theological education and see seminary as important for ministerial training—and we also agree it doesn’t make one a pastor. What would you tell a new seminary student who wants to be a pastor, so that there’s not a wide gap between his academic training and the trenches of local church ministry?
A new seminary student needs to understand that a seminary does not make a pastor. A church makes a pastor. So I would tell them to get active immediately in the life of a church and also, as God opens doors, to jump into pastoral ministry. I’m a big fan of internship programs. Southeastern Seminary has joined with a number of churches in what we call EQUIP, a partnership between the seminary and local churches. I’ve often said the best education happens in a partnership between a seminary and a local church. There are many things a seminary can teach more readily than a local church. Nevertheless, there are things you can only learn in the refining fire of pastoral ministry.
Should every God-called minister seek to study at a biblically faithful seminary? Are there cases where you’d recommend they not seek a seminary education, even if it’s basic?
I do believe that every God-called minister needs to be trained and equipped. And I think if you’re able to attend a biblically faithful seminary, you should. Yet I realize there are cases where that may not be possible. Still, with technology as we have it today, there are excellent online programs of which you can avail yourself given sufficient financial resources. Is seminary for everyone? No. Should everyone who has the opportunity to attend seminary probably go? Yes.
I remember a few of the stories you shared with us in preaching class about hard things you went through while serving as a pastor. What are some of the most difficult things you faced in local church ministry, and what did God teach you as a result of them?
Probably the most difficult lesson I learned is that you cannot make people do the right thing. You can teach them the Word, and you can challenge them to obey it, but ultimately their obedience to the gospel and to Christ is a personal decision they must make. Too many times in ministry I’ve had my heart broken as I’ve watched someone who knew better make foolish mistakes and choose the path of sin. No matter how hard we tried to love them back to the right path, they walked away from the Lord and the church. If God gives you a shepherd’s heart, it will be broken when things like this take place.
Do you think it’s more difficult to be a pastor today than it was even a couple of decades ago?
I do believe pastoral ministry is more difficult today because there are greater demands and more temptations. The American church in particular has been influenced by the secular culture more than it realizes. We’re often more driven by the culture than we are by Scripture—in spite of our affirmation of the Bible as our authority. Further, the avenues of temptation today are virtually omnipresent. I think, for example, of pornography. It’s destroying ministers and devastating churches. Pornography has always been a problem, but the fact that it’s only a click away on a smartphone has raised the level of danger. In this context, I don’t believe a minister can be too cautious or too careful with his personal life. It’s not legalism; it’s biblical wisdom.
How can churches encourage men to stay the course—to continue to see ministry as a joyful privilege—when the road gets rough?
Churches can encourage their pastors in a number of ways. First and foremost, they can pray for them. Second, they can personally affirm them both with their words and their actions. Third, they can consider giving their pastors a sabbatical break that allows them to rest, recharge their batteries, and return to the field of ministry ready for action. Pastors who are loved well usually finish well.
Editors’ note: Many hopeful men emerge from seminary eager to dive headfirst into ministry. Confident that seminary equipped them with the tools they need for the journey ahead, they find themselves discouraged when the realities of their first call don’t line up with what they came to expect from assigned readings and classroom discussions.
This book, with contributions from 15 veteran pastors, including Juan Sanchez, Phil A. Newton, and Scott Sauls, offers real-world advice about the joys and challenges of the first five years of pastoral ministry—bridging the gap between seminary training and life in a local church.
Armed with wisdom from those who have gone before them, young pastors will find encouragement to stand firm in the thick of the realities and rigors of pastoral ministry.