Winter 2016

They Never Taught Me How to Build a Pulpit

What I could only learn while knee-deep in local church ministry.

by Neal Laybourne

As young Christians fresh out of seminary, my friend and I, like many, set out to turn the world upside down for Jesus. When our church-planting efforts saw fruit, we both secured rental properties in our respective cities and started Sunday worship services … only to realize something we needed but neither of us had the money to purchase: a podium to hold our Bible and notes. We’d each have to build one, but no one had ever taught us to build a pulpit!

When ministry leaders hit major problems, it is not uncommon to think, “I wish I had learned this in seminary (or Bible School or my church’s leadership program). Indeed, it would be great to always be prepared for whatever arises. But this is neither realistic nor the way the Lord’s leaders learn their most important lessons.

Moses received some of the finest training available—“educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). Yet when God called him to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, he felt totally unprepared (Exodus 3-4).

But, really could Moses ever have been prepared for 10 plagues, for following a pillar of cloud and fire, for confronting a charging army with just a staff, or for getting water out of a rock? Could any classes have prepared him for the wild swings of people—ranging from radical obedience (Numbers 2:34) to intense, constant grumbling (Numbers 11)? Is it practical to think a different training system could have equipped Moses’ heart to be ready for wholehearted commitment and excitement of leaders at one moment (Exodus 5-13; 15:20-21) and mutiny by the same ones at another (Exodus 32, Numbers 12)?

You can never prepare for the delightful variety of quirky people whom God will entrust into your care.

I firmly believe that the deepest lessons godly leaders will learn can only happen out in the wilderness of local church and mission work. That’s because many of the most important lessons can only be truly understood as we humbly walk through them with Jesus. Life will always deliver more new situations than could ever be predicted or be prepared for.

For example, seminary can’t teach us “reality.”

Young leaders head out on their mission for Jesus with incredible idealism. May that never be lost! Yet those same leaders inevitably face a rude awakening when their conclusions formed in a classroom don’t produce endless revival. Perhaps the rudest awakenings, however, come when their expectations run up against people. You can never know (and therefore prepare for) the unexpected, delightful variety of quirky people whom God will entrust into your care. And there must be a reason so much is recorded in the New Testament about how to handle interpersonal conflict.

God can cause hope to arise from the ashes of our despair, even though nothing has outwardly changed.

Bible school lessons won’t substitute for experiencing God when He’s doing what only He can do.

We know, for example, that Romans 8:28 is true. Yet we must go through the agony of cancer, family crises and hidden addictions with our people to genuinely learn deeper faith in God’s promises and His goodness. These incredibly difficult problems seem unsolvable. Yet as we see Jesus work in ways far beyond our expectations, we experience God in a deeper way than could ever be “taught.” And our confidence in Him as our provider, counselor and healer grows.

Our church leadership programs can’t teach us hope.

When church attendance is dropping, finances are lagging and criticism is increasing, we can become overwhelmed by discouragement and even despair. We’re unable to point others toward hope when everything in us is pushing us toward cynicism or fear. And yet … as we plead for courage, God steps in. He shows us how to reapply the Word of God in a deeper way, causing hope to arise from the ashes of our despair even though nothing has outwardly changed. It’s what our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church experience regularly.

Seminary can’t expose our deepest prejudices, selfish desires or most foolish rationalizations.

Our professors certainly tried—through examples, chapel, teaching, assigned readings and mission classes. And their efforts and prayers laid very valuable groundwork. But it takes “in your face” life and heavy-duty Holy Spirit conviction (often through the direct words of a friend) to genuinely get through any leader’s hidden bigotries and pockets of selfishness.

The list continues, of indispensable lessons that can only be fully grasped through time and the experiences of life as we walk closely with Jesus: standing publicly for the Bible even when its truth is not popular … responding to the most raw questions of faith (such as the problem of evil) with emotional as well as intellectual answers … balancing truth with compassion when counseling someone whose overwhelming life tragedy was triggered by sinful decisions.

As young pastors, my friend and I were never taught how to build a pulpit. So we each grabbed some discarded lumber, searched out some good examples and did our best.1 In the process, Jesus reminded us that He will call His leaders to do things they neither imagined nor could have prepared for ahead of time. And He will go with them.

A disciple is a lifetime learner. How freeing it is that we don’t have to have everything figured out before we go out to serve our Lord. In fact, it is through figuratively learning to build our own pulpits that our wise Heavenly Father matures, stretches and develops us.

1 My simple handmade pulpit is still the one I choose to use today.

Neal Laybourne is senior pastor of Barre (Vt.) EFC.