Partnership pays off

by Becky Hobbs

Never in his wildest imagination did former RTS Professor Ligon Duncan think he would be where God has placed him now — as Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. While the pastorate was always near and dear to his heart, he thought certainly he would cut his teeth on a small church, then teach in a seminary somewhere.

     Actually, the Lord had it the other way around, minus the small church. For three years now Ligon has ministered at First Presbyterian and, among other things, has seen how much his time at RTS has helped him in his new pastorate. "In a sense everything I did at the seminary was preparing me for this ministry," says Ligon. "In another sense, I had no idea what to expect. I determined simply to go in and try to be faithful, preach the Word, love the people, pray, and see what happened."

Ligon & Anne Duncan with Bill Anderson

Ligon with wife, Anne, and
dear friend Bill Anderson at Ligon's
graduation from Edinburgh in 1995

     What has happened is a dynamic ministry that has people searching the Word for God's will through Ligon's sermons and a healthy desire to reach out and minister to others. Ligon feels that a good part of the church's success in ministry lies in its close relationship to RTS and the benefits derived from a long-term partnership.


     "First Presbyterian and RTS have such a long history that, in a sense, we are RTS and RTS is us," says Ligon, laughing. "Some of the founders of RTS were FPC elders — Robert Kennington, Robert Cannada, Erskine Wells, and H.S. Williford. Over the years the church has had such a love for the work of the seminary that it has tried to contribute in any way it could."

     Former Senior Pastor Dr. John Reed Miller began a winter theological institute at FPC many years ago. The church eventually turned it over to RTS and it has become the well-known John Reed Miller Lecture Series at RTS, which the church funds each year.

     The seminary returns the favor by bringing to First Presbyterian and other area congregations excellent and compelling speakers, faculty, and students from across the world. Theologians such as J.I. Packer and Alec Motyer provide wonderful learning experiences for church members and seminary students alike. Seminary professors teach in churches throughout the area; those having taught at First Presbyterian include Luder Whitlock, Douglas Kelly, Simon Kistemaker, Paul Long, Andy Hoffecker, James Hurley, Ralph Davis, John Currid, and Duncan Rankin, just to name a few.

     The RTS international community provide a valuable resource to churches in the community. Need a missions program? Just call one of the RTS missions professors or ask for an RTS international student to speak to your congregation. Your members' spiritual horizons will certainly be broadened as they are exposed to other cultures, ministries, and mission fields.

     "We now have an international Sunday School class made up largely of seminary students from Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, and Africa," relates Ligon. "They help us reach out to the sizeable number of unchurched internationals in the Jackson medical community. We also support RTS students from other countries financially through the FORTS program (Friends of RTS)."

     The recently expanded internship program at First Presbyterian is another blessing for both church and seminary. It allows twelve RTS students at different stages in their studies to flesh out their classroom learning. Not only does it help those students facing financial challenges, it enables the church to get high caliber workers because of its close proximity to RTS.

     Comments Ligon, "When we see a person with great potential but not all the means to go through school, we work together and support one another. The program allows students to practice what they are learning in class with mentors to steer them in the right direction. It's a beautiful blend of theory and practice; by the time they reach the pastorate they are miles ahead because they have dealt not only with principles but with their implementation."


Ligon & Anne Duncan and Sarah

Ligon with wife, Anne,
and daughter Sarah Kennedy (3).
Ligon met Anne in Jackson
when she was a student at RTS.

     Area churches also provide a significant blessing to professors who want to get out of the classroom and keep their hands in ministry. In addition to giving professors an outlet to serve, students can also pass on to congregations and study groups interesting biblical and theological knowledge learned in the classroom. Their listeners benefit by "getting it hot off the press."

     For example, in addition to his seminary responsibilities, RTS Assistant Professor of Theology Derek Thomas teaches regularly on Wednesday nights and assists with the church's radio ministry. "Derek is one of the finest Reformed preachers in the world today with years and years of pastoral experience," says Ligon. "We value greatly his presence here."

     For the third year, RTS professors are holding a few selected classes at some area churches, and the response has been very favorable. Four classes met during the fall, allowing easier accessibility to the seminary. Church members may audit for free with a small administrative fee.

     "I'm so glad that RTS holds a class here," says Ligon, "because it keeps our members aware of the seminary. We constantly get new members so we are always looking for ways to reintroduce RTS to the congregation because it is such an enormous resource, for lay education as well as for ministerial students."

     It goes without saying that many of the staff at FPC are RTS graduates. Currently the grads include Jim Stewart, Minister of Outreach/Missions; Bill Wymond, Minister of Music; Tim Horn, Minister of Discipleship; Ted Wenger, Minister to Students; and Guy Richard, Singles Coordinator, currently an RTS middler.

     "I want to staff the church in such a way that we too can be a blessing to RTS," says Ligon. "We want high caliber people that the seminary can call upon from time to time to augment its faculty. In attracting new staff, they usually ask if there's a chance for continuing education. I say, 'Just fifteen minutes away!'"

From Professor to Pulpit

     Ligon Duncan knows the value of partnership between seminary and church because he's wanted to minister in both since the age of fourteen — just not necessarily on the same timetable the Lord seemed to have.

     "I remember telling RTS board members that I loved my job — all except grading papers, says Ligon. "I often couldn't believe people paid me to do something I loved so much." As with most every direction the Lord has taken him, Ligon never expected to teach so soon after completing his residency requirements for a Ph.D. in Theology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Yet, he was able to teach at RTS while working on his dissertation and get valuable pastoral experience as Assistant Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian in Jackson under his old pastor, Dr. Gordon Reed. He fondly remembers those first years at RTS as a glorious — if exhausting — experience.

     "I came home from Trinity between eight and nine o'clock at night, popped a meal in the microwave, watched CNN for about thirty minutes, and went to bed. I got up at four every morning to write lectures, and, five minutes before class I'd rip one off the printer and walk into class. In my first three years at RTS I taught fourteen different classes — new preparations for all. I learned an incredible amount."

     That Ligon ended up teaching in a seminary is not a far stretch when you know that his father was an eighth generation Presbyterian elder. Ligon himself grew up in Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, South Carolina, with former RTS professor Gordon Reed, then former Advisory Board member Paul Settle, as his pastors. He never remembers a time he did not know that he was a sinner and needed a Savior, but he made a public profession of faith at age ten. RTS grad John Hutchinson (RTS'79) and his wife, Cynthia, had a tremendous effect on Ligon as a teen when they were youth ministers in his church. Under their ministry, he first felt the call to ministry.

     "A man of extraordinary gifts and abilities, Ligon Duncan moves seamlessly from the seminary lecturn to the pulpit," says colleague Duncan Rankin, Professor of Systematic Theology at RTS/Jackson. "His love of truth and its relevance to life is palpable and infectious for his students. His clear expository preaching fills both the mind and heart to overflowing, attracting the serious and the lost alike. His depth of pastoral feeling and compassion for the hurting and needy are singularly appreciated by his flock."

     "As a pastor I feel a burden of responsibility I did not feel in seminary," says Ligon. "At a church the size of First Presbyterian, in any given week there will be as many as thirty really significant crises in the congregation. During my first six months there I felt as if my back would bend. I was humbled to realize that I was trying to minister to people who were facing grave problems day after day. Each time I preach, I pray that God will remind me that underneath those handsome, attractively dressed people are lives under enormous pressure. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve them."

Reformed Quarterly, Volume 18, Number 4
© 1999 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

Last updated 12-13-1999.