An Interview with a Pastor-as-Scholar
By C. Gene Wilkes, Ph.D.
As part of the series of posts on Pastor-as-Scholar, I sent questions to three pastors serving in local church who had received (or finishing up) a Ph.D. from B. H. Carroll Theological Institute. Meet David Ritsema.
David Ritsema, Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Waxahachie, has three boys (9, 7, 3) and is married to Angela Ritsema, Interim Children’s Minister at FBC Waxahachie.
David finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at B. H. Carroll and now serves as Resident Fellow. His present church and previous church (Woodlawn Baptist in Austin, TX) is a Teaching Church for Carroll Institute. Dr. Ritsema has served as the pastor of five Texas churches. His home church is Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, TX where he served on staff in student, singles, college, and children’s ministries.
He is a magna cum laude and Alpha Chai national honorary graduate of East Texas Baptist University. He attended seminary at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He also serves the local chapter of the Rotary Club International in Waxahachie and serves on the Committee on Convention Business for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Q: Where do you serve as a pastor, and were you in this position as you worked on your doctoral degree? Describe some of the struggles you encountered as you went through the disciple of a doctoral degree.
I currently serve FBC Waxahachie, TX. While I was working on a Ph.D. at Carroll, I pastored two Texas churches. First, I pastored Oak Knoll Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX and then the Woodlawn Baptist Church in Austin, TX.
Q: In what ways has your doctoral studies benefitted your ministry as pastor of your church?
My student in Carroll’s Ph.D. program had an enormous impact on my teaching and preaching role. My area of study was the New Testament—part of the cluster on Scripture and Witness. The increased depth of my understanding of the Bible has provided me a seemingly limitless well to draw from in teaching. It has also added credibility to my role as a pastor and teacher in a church with many skilled people (included many Ph.D.s, M.D.s, professors, teachers, church administrators, denominational leaders, etc.). Frankly, I doubt the pastor search committee would have asked me to pastor this year, and I doubt that I would have been able to have sustained my ministry here as long as I have part from my education at Carroll.
Q: What value does your church place on you as a pastor/scholar?
I just got a call this morning from a lady thanking me for our Bible Study last night. One of the things people regularly say to me is that my teaching has a lot more “meat” to it then they have heard from other pastors. I enjoy teaching the Bible in-depth, and I feel comfortable preaching sermons with more substance. But also teach seminary classes at the church, and for those who teach Sunday school in our church, I really encourage them to take our classes. I notice they benefit from a “seminary education” and can turn around then uses that information they learn to teach their students. This helps them be better prepared but also helps have the confidence and credibility to teach the Bible. I like to say that my Sunday school teachers are the most trained of any church, anywhere!
Q: Do you believe pastor/scholar is a value that should be reestablished in local church pastoral ministry? Why or why not?
I think for the American church to survive in the 21st century Christians are going to have to take their faith more seriously. Understanding the Bible and its message better requires pastors becoming true scholars. The ability to articulate the Christian faith and beliefs in this growing secular culture demands that we bring our best to the task. The glut and abundance of instant-information makes the preaching and teaching task more difficult than it has ever been. People can literally (and do) check my sermons while I’m preaching. Google can tell if my sermon is actually someone else’s and if my sermon illustrations are correct. In this kind of world, preachers had been knowing what they are talking about. The days of preaching other people’s sermons are coming to an end. The task of preparing sermons each week is enormous and requires a true scholar’s discipline.
Q: While not everyone will pursue a terminal degree as part of their pastoral training, what are one or two reasons why you believe pastors should have some kind of seminary training as they serve the local church?
When I was first deciding on whether or not to go to seminary, I called my 90-year-old grandmother. I told her I seminary was three years long. Expecting her to say to me, “Don’t bother with it. You have been in school for five years. Get out there and do ministry.” She surprised me when she said, “Three years is not very long.” Those were words of wisdom. Spending a few years preparing to do something that you will do for the rest of your life is difficult, expensive, tedious, uncomfortable, but it also, very wise.
A teacher told me in college that if I wanted to be a pastor I should “sharpen my saw” as much as I could because that way I could “cut down more trees.” He reminded me that Billy Graham had once said that if he had ten years to live, he would spend nine of them in school.
The job of a pastor is one of the most difficult for so many reasons but chief among them need to have knowledge and the ability to communicate it wisely. The synthesis of biblical knowledge (as well as academic knowledge) with every day, ordinary life is truly one of the most difficult imaginable—but it is the pastor’s every day job. Sadly, many pastors do this job very poorly and excuse themselves by simply acquiescing to a life of socializing, do-gooding, and backslapping.
Although much of pastoral ministry involves helping and encouraging people, too often the real job of the ministry—the communication of divine true into real life—does not happen because the pastor failed to prepare themselves properly through seminary and a life of careful study. Thus, they have not “studied to show themselves approved” and are found “ashamed” (2 Tim 2:15). We need to set the high goal in ministry to develop the discipline of the pastor who also lives the scholar’s life.
This nexus of information and daily living absolutely demands that we spend as much time as possible training—before seminary, during seminary, and with seminary tools then to continue for the rest of our lives.
Q: Anything else you would like to add related to this topic?
One of my favorite quotes that has motivated me through the years is by Bernard of Clairvaux. I quoted it to my graduating class from ETBU in 2000.
There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is curiosity.
There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is vanity.
There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.
~ Bernard of Clairvaux