From Pastor to President: An Interview with Philip Graham Ryken

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Tabletalk: How did you make the difficult decision to leave the pastorate and enter the academy as president of Wheaton College?

Philip Graham Ryken: When the time finally came, making the decision was unexpectedly easy. Eventually God’s will became so clear that to do anything else would have been disobedience. The process leading up to the decision was difficult, though, as Lisa and I wrestled with God in prayer and asked for the grace to have only one agenda: to obey God’s calling, whether he called us to stay at Tenth Presbyterian Church or go to Wheaton College. Sharing this decision with the congregation we love was more difficult still — the most painful thing we have ever done.

It is important to say that I did not “leave the pastorate” but continue to exercise a gospel ministry that has the blessing of my denomination. My calling to a ministry of prayer and the Word of God (see Acts 6:4) is for life, and I could never leave it. What has changed is that I no longer serve a local congregation but the wider body of Christ through the work of Christian higher education.

TT: What is your hope for the future for the congregat ion of Tenth Presbyterian Church and the city of Philadelphia?

PGR: I praise God for the appointment of my friend Liam Goligher as Tenth’s next senior minister. Dr. Goligher is a gifted Bible expositor with a genuine zeal for evangelism, a deep love for the city, and a sound grasp of systematic theology. I have every confidence that God will bless his ministry in Philadelphia, as He has blessed it for many years in London, the United Kingdom, and beyond.

We remain in close contact with many friends from Tenth and take an ongoing interest in the church’s outreach to Philadelphia and the world. I expect we will always think of Tenth as our “home church.” In fact, most Sunday mornings we tune in to Tenth’s webcast while we are having breakfast as a family before walking over to College Church in Wheaton. Our prayer is that the congregation we love will continue to preach the Word of God, honor God with joyful praise, serve the city in gospel mercy, plant new churches that are faithful to Jesus Christ, and send out scores of missionaries to advance the kingdom of God.

TT: Are there any things you learned as a pastor that have been particularly helpful in your new role as president of Wheaton?

PGR: I would be hard-pressed to think of anything that could offer better preparation for what I do now than serving as senior pastor of a large, diverse, urban church. Perhaps the most obvious connection is that I draw on my experience as a Bible teacher every day as I preach in chapel, lead devotions for athletic teams, offer biblical perspectives on issues in higher education, write articles on spiritual themes for college publications, speak on Christian discipleship in student dorms, and work with the faculty to promote a Christ-centered vision for liberal-arts education.

The structure of my weekly schedule is surprisingly similar to the one I followed in Philadelphia: mornings for Bible study, writing, sermon preparation, and prayer; afternoons for team leadership, meetings, and a wide range of ministry connections. I find that the biggest problems on a college campus — like the biggest problems in a local church — always have a personal dimension. So it takes everything I have ever learned about discipleship to provide good leadership for a college that needs the grace of God as much as any college in America.

TT: At Wheaton you work with Christians from many theological traditions. In what ways can Christians from the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition work with Christians from other traditions to advance the gospel?

PGR: I have enjoyed and learned from the evangelical diversity of Wheaton College since I was a child. We live by a statement of faith that is fully compatible with Reformed theology and a community covenant that follows biblical principles for community life.

Generally speaking, we can work together with Christians from other traditions wherever we share a common faith in Jesus Christ and find common purpose in the specific calling God has given to each of us in the work of His kingdom. Biblically minded believers find countless ways to work together in Christian love, and a non-denominational Christian college is a place where many strong ministry connections are made.

TT: What is your understanding of the role of a Christian college in today’s world?

PGR: The mission of Wheaton College is to help develop whole and effective Christians who are able to build the church and improve society worldwide through excellence in programs of higher education.

Every aspect of this mission is appropriate for Christian learning institutions everywhere. Christ-centered colleges and universities have a unique responsibility to promote truth by developing the Christian mind. But we also develop students in a holistic way; the preparation we offer is not merely intellectual but also spiritual, social, physical, and emotional.

The impact of our graduates is twofold. First, they build up the church. In every congregation where I have served, there have been dozens of highly effective leaders who trained for work and ministry at Christian colleges. But whole and effective Christians also make a difference in the wider world. Wherever we go and whatever we do — whether we are working in the marketplace, performing in the arts, teaching at school, serving in medicine, or rebuilding the city — we seek to be a faithful presence that brings kingdom values to daily life.

TT: What place do academics have in the training and ministry of a pastor?

PGR: Many effective pastors have had little or no academic training. One thinks of Peter and John, for example (Acts 4:13). What is indispensable to effective ministry is not an academic degree but a vital relationship with Jesus Christ, with spiritual gifts for the ministry of the gospel.

Yet Reformed and Presbyterian churches rightly emphasize the value of a learned clergy, and for this there is no substitute for a rigorous education. A good example is the Apostle Paul, whose exceptional education prepared him for worldwide leadership in the church and a primary position in the development of Christian doctrine.

There are many pathways to ministry, but I will always be deeply grateful for my own intellectual preparation, starting with elementary education at a Christian grammar school and continuing with a liberal-arts curriculum at a Christ-centered college. Many students who plan on going to seminary focus on biblical studies during their undergraduate years. But I always encourage students to study literature, history, psychology, philosophy, or something else that they love.

Perhaps the most important thing to gain from college is a lively and curious mind. This is best cultivated through what John Milton called “a complete and generous education.” There will be time to study more theology later on. But a pastor who has received an education in the liberal arts is likely to be a more interesting conversationalist, a better communicator, a more sensitive reader of the biblical text — all things that are valuable to have in pastoral ministry.

TT: How has your father influenced your ministry?

PGR: My father’s influence in my life is so pervasive that this is hard to answer. Some of my earliest memories are of him reading me Bible stories at bedtime — especially about Nicodemus and the boy Samuel. God used these stories to give me the gift of the new birth and call me to gospel ministry.

Later on I studied literature with my father, taking various courses in British literature and the literature of the Bible. His sensitivity to literary genres helps me every time I open my Bible for personal study or public preaching.

My father has also set a good example for me in his commitment to the church. Growing up, our family was in church every Sunday morning and evening, including Sunday school, and generally sitting near the front for public worship. We also attended a Wednesday night home Bible study throughout most of my childhood. All of this helped to instill in me an appetite for good preaching and a deep satisfaction in the rhythms of congregational life.


Philip Graham Ryken is the president of Wheaton College, where he also teaches theology. Prior to his appointment as president of Wheaton in July 2010, Dr. Ryken served as the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for ten years. Dr. Ryken earned his master of divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary and his doctorate from the University of Oxford. He has written more than thirty books, including Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis, Discovering God in Stories From the Bible, and commentaries on Galatians, Luke, and 1 Kings in the Reformed Expository Commentary series.

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