Leading an Institution: An Interview with Ligon Duncan
by Ligon Duncan
Tabletalk: How did growing up in a Presbyterian home shape your faith?
Ligon Duncan: It is almost impossible to calculate the wonderful influences I received at home and in my church growing up. My father (an eighth-generation Presbyterian ruling elder) and mother (a university professor, seminary graduate, and choir director in our local church) provided an example of the Christian life lived well, a loving home, devotion to the Lord, faithfulness to the truth, passion for learning, love for the church, and trust in Christ as He is offered in the gospel. My boyhood pastors preached and taught the Bible faithfully, and they deliberately discipled me as a covenant child. The elders of the church watched over me, offered me opportunities to serve, and eventually recognized a call to ministry for me. My experience in the local church was of extraordinary blessing from God’s ordinary means of grace. It grounded me with a Bible-based, doctrinally rooted, gospel-centered, church-shaped Christian experience.
TT: What led you to become a minister of the gospel? Where have you served? How has working in pastoral ministry informed your ministry today?
LD: By the time I was six or seven years old, the thought of being a preacher had already crossed my mind, even before I made my public profession of faith (at about age ten). When I was fourteen, our church’s youth director, John Hutchinson, had a profound impact on me and took me to a youth conference where the preacher expounded Ephesians 1. I understood the doctrines of grace more clearly than ever before and immediately sensed a definite internal call to the ministry. This was confirmed by the elders of my church, and during my junior year in college I was taken under care of the presbytery as a candidate for the ministry. While in seminary, I served the Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Louis (as youth director and ministerial assistant). After my studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, I returned to the United States to teach theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and I also served Trinity Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss. (as assistant pastor), and First Presbyterian Church in Yazoo City, Miss. (as interim pastor). In 1996, I was called to the First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, as senior minister. Needless to say, in my calling to prepare pastors for the ministry, my own experience in the ministry has been enormously valuable in informing how and what I teach and in leading Reformed Theological Seminary.
TT: What does your role as chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary entail?
LD: My job as chancellor of RTS is to lead the institution, secure the resources necessary for us to fulfill our purpose, and commend our program of pastoral preparation to the churches and prospective students. I also teach a full load of theology courses at RTS in addition to my other duties as chancellor. This is by conviction that my calling is primarily to teach and preach the Word.
TT: Besides praying for a man who is preparing for the gospel ministry, how can a local church best support him?
LD: When the elders of a local congregation see in a man the potential for ministry, and he feels an internal call to preach and has the opportunity to prepare, no greater gift could be given by the church than to support him in his studies. My own home church, Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C., paid my tuition all the way through seminary and doctoral work. I wish more churches had a vision for providing the financial support necessary to prepare ministers of the gospel. If we support existing pastors, campus ministers, missionaries, and church planters (and we should), why wouldn’t we also want to support those called to and preparing to be pastors, campus ministers, missionaries, and church planters?
This support is a win-win-win proposition. It helps the student, the seminary, and the church. It helps the student by easing some of the cost burden of preparing for ministry. It helps the seminary by defraying part of the cost of theological education. It helps the church by preparing a minister who will serve God’s people for thirty to fifty years, Deo volente (God willing).
TT: Do seminaries have a role in helping a student discern his call to ministry, or is this something reserved exclusively for the local church? Why or why not?
LD: Both the seminary and the local church have a role to play in helping students discern a call to ministry. Ideally, a local church has already seen gifts and potential in a student before he comes to seminary. But the seminary should confirm that gifting and hone his sense of specificity in that call. While at seminary, the student usually discovers and develops his gift of preaching and teaching, as well as other aspects essential to the ministry. Is he best suited to be a solo pastor, an assistant pastor, or an associate pastor? A campus minister, church planter, counselor, or missionary? Could he lead a multi-staff church? Is there a demographic or location or constituency that he is better suited to serve? All of these questions usually become clearer in seminary under the advice, counsel, and mentoring of pastor-professors who are discipling the student.
TT: What is the most common misconception that students entering seminary have about their education? What direction would you give them in light of this misconception?
LD: Students are often unaware of the kinds of difficulties and challenges that await them in seminary. They may anticipate three or four years of spiritual retreat, and when the reality that they encounter doesn’t look like that, they get discouraged.
So, for instance, one of the great challenges of seminary is that we combine rigorous academic study with discipleship for personal spiritual growth and practical preparation. These are hard to do simultaneously and they present challenges to seminarians. Those who struggle with academics can become discouraged (even though they may be godly and naturally adept at important aspects of ministry). Those who are good at academics can struggle with pride (and fail to understand that good grades do not necessarily translate into ministerial effectiveness and fruitfulness).
Combine this with the fact that many seminarians are struggling to make ends meet, working multiple jobs, depending on spouses to work, rearing children, and trying to serve in the local church, and they can feel (and truly are) pulled in a thousand directions. Spiritual struggles can easily ensue in this situation.
To prepare for this, (1) seminarians need a supportive local church and good pastoral care; (2) they need to be aware of these challenges ahead of time; and (3) they ought to read preparatory books such as The Religious Life of Theological Students by B.B. Warfield, Preparation for Ministry by Allan Harman, and How to Stay Christian in Seminary by David Mathis.
TT: What counsel would you give a new seminary graduate beginning his first pastorate, and what counsel would you give the church that is welcoming him as their pastor?
LD: To the new pastor: Be humble. Work hard. Listen, watch, and learn for a season before trying to make changes too quickly. Preach the word. Love the people. Visit. Pray fervently. Pour yourself into your leaders. Love your wife and children well. Love God more than you love your work.
To the congregation: Pray for him. Be patient. Encourage your pastor (and be aware of how easily and deeply discouraged a young minister can become). Take good care of him financially. Be careful of criticism, especially of his preaching and his children. Love his wife (and realize what a hard job she has). Don’t begrudge his time off and his family time. Invest in his ongoing education. Give him time to study.
TT: What will faithful Christian preaching look like as the twenty-first century progresses?
LD: It will look like it always has. It will be God-centered, Christ-exalting, gospel-proclaiming, Bible-based exposition of the whole counsel of God. It won’t pit story against truth. It won’t pit justification against sanctification. It won’t pit evangelism against discipleship. It won’t pit the insights of redemptive history against systematic theology. It won’t pit theology against application. As J.I. Packer says, in good preaching, “the Word of God delivers through the preacher a message about God and godliness.”
TT: How should Christians respond to a secular culture’s attempts to marginalize their faith?
LD: By knowing and living out the truth of Jesus’ words in the Upper Room: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), as well as in combination with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? … You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. . . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:11–16)
TT: There has been a significant resurgence of interest in Calvinism and Reformed theology in the past decade, especially among young people. Where do you see this movement heading?
LD: I actually think this movement has been building momentum for about fifty years, and I see it continuing to grow and mature for some time to come. In part, this is because only a “Big God” theology will be able to survive in our current cultural climate. In part, it is because people who take their Bibles seriously tend to come to high views of God, grace, salvation, and the church. And those things comport with Calvinism and Reformed theology.
Dr. Ligon Duncan is chancellor and John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Prior to his appointment as chancellor, Dr. Duncan served as senior minister of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss. He is cofounder of Together for the Gospel and former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in America. Dr. Duncan is author of many books, including Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?