by Paul Schwarz
Mike Herrin and Jonah have something in common. Of course, Mike hasn't been swallowed by a giant fish and spit out onto dry land after three days, but like the Old Testament prophet, he has run from God's will for his life. In Mike's case, the belly of the fish was a high-school classroom in Valdosta, GA, and instead of being there three days, he stayed there three years. And whereas Jonah went to Nineveh, Mike went to RTS-Jackson.
The Georgia native's experience at RTS
not only helped him fulfill God's calling for him to become a pastor,
but it also prepared him for a strategic role in the life of the church
denomination in which he grew up.
Mike serves as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Port Gibson, MS, a congregation with about 160 members. That makes him a typical Presbyterian pastor; the vast majority of Presbyterian congregations nationwide having fewer than 200 members.
Mike may not be shepherding a mega-church, but God has positioned him to have.a national impact. This year Mike will serve as a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In that position he will represent his presbytery on a national level, and thus help shape the direction of the denomination. This responsibility will also punctuate the RTS graduate's role in what is called the Confessing Church Movement.
This movement is an initiative by certain PCUSA members to bring denominational practices back in line with the PCUSA's original, official confession of faith. In a nutshell, the Confessing Church Movement seeks to reaffirm the denomination's commitment to three basic truths: Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation; the Bible is the infallible Word of God; and God's people are called to holy living in all aspects of life, including sexuality. (For more details about the Confessing Church Movement, click here.)
More than 1,200 PCUSA churches, in 45 states and in Puerto Rico, have officially identified themselves with the movement; those churches represent more than 400,000 members. The movement has naturally engendered some conflict within churches and presbyteries, as pastors and other leaders have sometimes left their positions because those above them in PCUSA leadership have taken opposing stands on both sides of the movement. However, movement leaders resolve to work peacefully within the system so as not to split the denomination.
FROM GEORGIA TO JACKSON
On first listen, Mike Herrin doesn't sound like the kind of guy who would be in the middle of such a controversy. He's a friendly, easygoing advertisement for Southern hospitality. Mike grew up in Valdosta, GA, in a family that attended First Presbyterian Church there - the PCUSA congregation where Mike was baptized upon making Christ His Lord and Savior at a young age. He graduated from high school in Valdosta, went on to attend Washington and Lee College in Virginia, and ultimately attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, to pursue a Ph.D. as part of an initial desire to be become a history professor.
That's when Mike had his first encounter with the current state of the secular academic world, which unfortunately has negatively influenced church scholarship as well - the fight to uphold orthodoxy in the PCUSA being one example. "I know this may be breaking news, but academia today is very liberal," he says with a chuckle. "I didn't have a good world view at the time, so I didn't understand why what I was learning didn't fit with what I believed. I understand now that it was postmodernism, but I didn't know that word then. So I got really frustrated with the whole thing and knew it wasn't for me."
Ironically, it was at a career-counseling center at Vanderbilt where he began to sense a calling into ministry. "I had this realization that all my gifts and abilities pointed me toward the pastoral ministry," he recalls. "It was in February 1990 that it just hit me like a ton of bricks. It was like God was speaking to me - not in an audible voice, but His direction was clear to me."
But whereas God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, yet he sailed for Tarshish, God told Mike to go to seminary, yet he went back to Valdosta, teaching certificate in hand. He spent three miserable years teaching history at his old high school. "It was just horrible," he recalls. "I do not recommend running from God for anyone, because He made those three years really, really tough for me. Looking back, though, I see that He even used those three years to help me develop some skills that help me do what I do now."
By 1994 Mike finally started researching seminaries and decided on RTS-Jackson. "I was very impressed by the spirituality of the students, as well as the balance between the practical and academic content of the courses," Mike says. More importantly, his three years at RTS prepared him for the position he now holds in the PCUSA, and confirmed his sense of calling to minister in that denomination. "I know there's a need for and a desire on the part of many PCUSA churches, for ministers who teach the Bible as the true Word of God," Mike declares. "I came to RTS intending to do ministry in the PCUSA. If people in the PCUSA don't train for the ministry and stay there to try to help, the situation will never get better."
A PRACTICAL EDUCATION
Mike found two RTS classes - and the professors who taught them - especially helpful in forging this perspective. One was a course in the Pauline Epistles taught by Dr. Knox Chamblin. "One of the things he drew out was the unity of the Body of Christ," Mike says. "That really got me thinking about what the nature of the Church is and how it affects the nature of our relationship to one another. It confirmed for me that wherever there are believers in Jesus Christ, there is the Church. It confirmed my desire to do ministry among God's people in the PCUSA."
The other influential course was a course in Church Polity, taught by Dr. Al Freundt, a PCUSA leader as well as an RTS professor. "He showed me, by his life and example, that it was possible to be an orthodox Calvinist who was nevertheless fully active in the life of the PCUSA," says Mike. "He inspired me to fight and to work [for the truth]." Mike also admired Dr. Freundt's Christ-like example in the face of criticism, not only from theological liberals, but also from fellow believers who misunderstood his place in the denomination.
THE STATE OF THE CHURCH
Mike first heard about the movement from another PCUSA pastor in Mississippi who sent a letter to all his pastor friends telling them about it. "When I showed the letter to my church, they said, 'Well, doesn't everybody think this way?' So I had to break the news to them that no, there are a lot of theological liberals in the denomination." Mike's initial experience with educating his local church leaders about the state of affairs in the denomination reveals the disconnect between institutional leadership and the congregational rank-and-file.
Mike cites polling figures from the Presbyterian Panel, the PCUSA's own research division, that routinely reveal that PCUSA congregation members are more conservative theologically than elders, who in turn are more conservative than pastoral ministers, who in turn are more conservative than what are known as "specialized clergy." (For more details on the Presbyterian Panel's findings when polling PCUSA members on various issues, visit rq.pcusa.org/research.) Specialized clergy refers to seminary professors and other leaders without official pastoral positions - in effect, the denominational bureaucracy.
Contending with such institutionalized drift from biblical truth can be a struggle. So in evaluating the effectiveness of the Confessing Church Movement, "The most important thing it has done has been to encourage us all that there are like-minded people out there in our denomination," Mike says. He will connect with many of those like-minded people from around the country at the PCUSA's 2003 General Assembly in Denver in late May.
At last year's General Assembly, Mike served as an alternate commissioner from his presbytery. That meant he didn't get to vote on denomination-wide issues, but he had the opportunity to sit in on everything, learn the procedures and do some valuable networking with others in the movement. This year, as a commissioner, Mike gets to vote, and will prepare this year's alternate to be next year's commissioner.
Quite a change for someone who once ran away from a challenge.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 22, Number 1-2