“Both Hands on the Plow”

Dr. Gene Wilkes, President

B. H. Carroll Theological Seminary

Commencement Address

May 2024


Graduates, I want to congratulate you on your accomplishment. The paper your diploma is written on is not worth much, but the journey it represents is priceless. You have demonstrated a persistent devotion to be equipped for God’s call on your life. This journey has been costly in every area of your life, yet you have paid the price to finish the race. What you have begun to learn and practice will serve you the rest of your life as you follow Christ into the mission field, wherever he has assigned you.


My parents grew up in the Panhandle of Texas, in Happy, known as the “Town without a Frown.” My father’s parents had a large garden in their back yard—two or three rows of corn, squash, and vegetables, along with apple and peach trees became this boy’s playground. They had a hand-pushed plow they used to till the soil, plant seeds, and to weed the rows once the plants began to grow. It was a two-handed wooden-framed plow with a single steel wheel which required both hands on the handles and two strong legs to push it through the drought-hardened soil of Texas.


The image of that wood and steel plow came to mind when I heard Dr. Jim Spivey say at our 20th Anniversary Gala that our seminary’s namesake, B. H. Carroll, envisioned a seminary whose faculty trained ministers with “both hands on the plow.” Here is Dr. Spivey’s description of B. H. Carroll’s vision in an earlier paper:


Faculty members were to be scholars, both male and female, of high academic caliber, rotating on and off campus: one-third teaching in residence, one-third engaged in practical field work, and one-third on sabbatical leave. This approach had two goals in mind. First, it maintained a healthy tension between academic excellence and practical ministry—keeping both hands on the plow. This did not mean making academic work pedestrian … but it did hedge against faculty becoming erudite, ivory-tower experts who had not ministered in a church for years, if ever. The second goal was to make theological education accessible to as many people as possible: “If we ever intend to make Texas Baptists the greatest spiritual force in the world and to be the potential in shaping the destiny of our state and nation, we must provide at home for the right and adequate training of a great host of spiritual leaders. Not to do it is a sin.”[1]


I want to affirm today that B. H. Carroll Theological Seminary remains committed to equip men and women called to serve Christ and his church with “a healthy tension between academic excellence and practical ministry.” That tension represents the two hands on the plow of ministry training and ministry itself. You graduates have been equipped in both theological education and practical ministry, and you must keep both hands on the plow as you serve the Lord.


Why is it important that we keep both hands on the plow both in the seminary and in ministry?


Timothy George writes, “Theology divorced from life is arid intellectualism. A Christian life not based on sound principles will end up in sterile activism or sentimental fluff.”[2]


Eugene Peterson agrees with this assessment when he writes in Eat This Book, “[W]ithout exegesis spirituality becomes sappy, soupy. Spirituality without exegesis become self-indulgent. Without disciplined exegesis spirituality develops into an idiolect in which I define all the key verbs and nouns out of my own experience. And prayer ends up limping along with sighs and stutters.”[3]


In too many churches and ministries today, we have taken our hand of historic, biblical theology off the plow, and we are plowing in circles. Church members receive spiritual advice for living that is anemic of biblical discipleship. Both theology and praxis should make up the ministry of those called to serve Christ and his church.


You see, the real problem is not that we have erred on the side of praxis. The real problem is we have erred on the side of a personal, practical theology without biblical and theological foundations. “How to” minister outweighs “to Whom” we minister in our preaching and leadership.


Two aspects of B. H. Carroll Theological Seminary captured my heart and imagination when I heard about the seminary in 2004. First was our motto of returning theological education back to the local church. Second was restoring the value of the pastor as scholar or theologian in the local church. Both captured my heart and imagination as I sought how to pastor where God had planted me. We do not have time to rehearse both visionary concepts; however, a return to the medieval cathedral school model for training ministers would be an option. But, that’s for another time and place.


Tonight, I want to highlight the restoration of the local church pastor as scholar and theologian. This concept, which requires both hands on the plow of local church ministry, applies to all who serve, but our churches’ urgent need is pastors who think theologically and who behave biblically. Pastors over the last three decades have been portrayed as organizational CEOs and market-driven entrepreneurs. These models have drawn the minister’s attention away from the primacy of the study to the priority strategic planning. And, as we have drawn our ministry staff from the ranks of church members, we have too often depended on their marketplace skills alone to produce numerical results. To not train them to do the work of the Lord with both hands on the plow will be to grow an organization but not grow a movement of God.


And what is happening as a result? In The Great Dechurching, co-authored by Jim Davis and Michael Graham, the authors begin their book with this fact:


In the United States, we are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country, as tens of millions of formerly regular Christian worshippers nationwide have decided they no longer desire to attend church at all…About 40 million adults in America today used to go to church but no longer do…about 16 per cent of the adult population. For the first time in the eight decades that Gallup has tracked American religious membership, more adults in the US do not attend church than attend church. This is not a gradual shift; it is a jolting one.[4]


The researchers continue: “one million youth who are at least nominally connected to the church will leave the church every year for the next three decades.”[5]


There is no one program which can stem the flow out the back door of the church. But I do believe that, if the church will return to its foundational purpose to equip biblically trained disciples, people will find those fellowships to guide them through life; and, the way back to that purpose is through the servant leadership of pastors who think theologically and who behave biblically.


Douglas Sweeney, dean of the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, concludes, “[T]he people best suited to synthesize our knowledge of God in his ways in the world, applying his knowledge to the empirical realities people face, are pastor theologians.”[6]


Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, authors of The Pastor Theologian, conclude, “It is, we are convinced, only by reuniting the office of pastor with the historic duty of the theologian that evangelicalism can begin to address the theological anemia of the church and the ecclesial anemia of theology.”[7]


I agree with their conviction.


To train and to serve as a pastor theologian is to keep both hands on the plow, the hand of biblical theology and the hand of theologically sound practice.


Twice in Paul’s correspondence to his apprentice, Timothy, did he allude to these dual emphases in ministry. In his first letter to Timothy, he provided the why and what of his ministry:


For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth (1 Timothy 2:5-7).


He then acknowledged in his second letter to his young minister that it was in “the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do” (2 Timothy 1:10-11).


The coming and victorious Christ was the reason for his ministry, his calling, and the One who appointed him to be an apostle, preacher and teacher.


I do not want to split hairs or compartmentalize Paul’s descriptions of his ministry, but an apostle does both preach and teach. The Sent One heralds the truth of the gospel and instructs others in the person and ways of God. The movement of the apostle is steadied with the hands of proclamation and instruction; that is, theology and praxis.


What is my bottom line tonight? We need more seminary trained pastors and servant leaders in ministry in the pulpits and programs of our churches who have completed the discipline of a degree program built upon both biblically formed theology and biblically informed practice.


This need is not shared by the majority of the next-generation church leaders. They too often depend on year-long or shorter internships and conferences to be trained for ministry. These programs are helpful for a season but too often are limited to the theology and practice of that flavor of Christianity and do not provide a solid foundation for a lifetime of ministry. The full orb of theological education remains the foundation for a faithful and fruitful life of ministry.


This question seems too obvious to ask, but I will. “Do you want your doctor who went to a conference and watched a YouTube video to perform open-heart surgery on you?” Let me put it this way, “When you go to church because you are desperate to hear a word from the Lord to speak into your life situation, do you want your pastor’s ChatGPT-generated sermon or a prayer-covered, carefully studied, “rightly handled” biblical message?


Our need is greater than ever for the church to be a people of proclamation and teaching served by pastor theologians who are life-long learners at the feet of Jesus. B. H. Carroll Theological Seminary is committed to keeping both hands on the plow to equip men and women called to serve Christ in the diverse and global ministries of his church.


You graduates have been trained with both hands on the plow—counselors, chaplains, pastors, missionaries, and ministry leaders. You have been sent to herald the Good News and teach others how to live as fully devoted followers of Christ. As you return to the fields of ministry where the Lord has assigned you, keep both hands on the plow.

[1] Jim Spivey, “The Legacy of B. H. Carroll” (unpublished paper, B. H. Carroll Theological Institute Fall Colloquy, November 11. 2014).


[2] Gerald Hiestand and Todd A. Wilson, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 7.


[3] Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 58.

[4] Jim Davis, Michael Graham, et al., The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2023), Audiobook.


[5] Ibid.


[6] Douglas Sweeney, “Sixteen Theses on the Pastor Theologian,” presented at the annual gathering of the Center for Pastor Theologians, October, 2009; quoted in Hiestand, et al., The Pastor Theologian, 98.


[7] Hiestand, et al., The Pastor Theologian, 100.

Published: May 24, 2024


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