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One-on-One with James Meeks on Going to Back to School

Meeks is pursuing an M.A. at the Wheaton College Graduate School.
One-on-One with James Meeks on Going to Back to School
Image: James Meeks/Wheaton College

Ed: You've been a pastor for many years—and a remarkably successful pastor at that. We often joke that you're the Christian godfather of Chicago, and yet you're wanting to pursue more theological education. Can you tell us why?

James: Ed, for 39 years—and this is the 40th year I’m going to be a pastor—I have encouraged many people to go back to school and finish their education whether that be a bachelor’s, master's, or doctorate.

Every single year, I have parishioners come to show me an additional degree and they always tell me, "Pastor, if it were not for that message that you preached on going back, starting over, trying your best, I never would've gone back, so this degree is dedicated to you." It started dawning on me that I needed to listen to my own preaching. It was over 40 years ago when I stopped pursuing a master's degree. At that point in my life, it was just a timing issue.

I had just began pastoring, had recently gotten married and had a baby, so it was too many pressures at one time. I couldn’t drop any of the responsibilities I had on my plate and that meant school had to be the thing to go.

In all honesty, the master’s was always something that I thought I would quickly get back to, and 40 years later I happened to look up and discover that I had never gotten back to it. I knew right then that this was the right time and a good time to start that pilgrimage again.

Ed: How has it been jumping back into school while also pastoring one of the largest churches in the country?

James: One thing about being an adult learner is that the pressures are different. When iwas younger and in school, I believed that I would have to know everything that I read and retain it perfectly, because it was what was going to make me a success as I move forward in life.

Once you've already lived your way through a large chunk of life, you are much more aware of how high or how far you're going to go. Right now, as an adult learner, I’m mostly focusing on improving the knowledge and abilities that I already have.

Truthfully, the books that I'm reading now are so exciting. I do see so many missteps and mistakes that I am presently making being exposed through this work. There are so many things that I'm learning in the process.

For example, one of our classes deals with organization, and I've chosen to write on a leadership pipeline because I have a chance to see that the structure that I have loosely set up is really not a good structure at all. The excitement of having discovered some new things in reading has been much more substantial than I ever thought it would be, especially this fast. The changes that I've implemented have happened much quicker than I ever thought I would be able to pull off.

Ed: Talk to me a little bit more about being in a cohort. What's challenging? What's good?

James: Well, it has not been a challenge to me because it seems like the commonality in the cohort is that everybody is trying to figure out how to do this pastoring thing right; how to make financial decisions as it relates to the church, how to make organizational decisions, how to look at succession and much more.

I guess I thought that most pastors were going to just go all our lives and periodically change our battery—kind of like the Energizer bunny. I discovered that several of the guys are kind of tired and facing burnout and we do need to be looking toward what a healthy succession process looks like. I think the class is helping us to even determine how important a sabbatical is so that burnout will never occur in the first place.

When you get a chance to talk to pastors from all around the country—especially because we're in such a polarizing time period with our politics in America and the church—the cohort has been a safe haven for conversations to about how decisions are made. We discuss some things that we wouldn't talk about with just anybody.

Ed: You’re a student now, but, you're also a trustee at Moody Bible Institute. You obviously love theological education. What kind of closing thought would you give to people who are considering if they should go back to school?

James: I think that in life, it's going to take more than our Bible to really be effective pastors. For a long time, there were people who thought that all a preacher needs to know about is the Bible. But the truth is that we need to have mastered much more than the Bible.

We need to know finances. We need to know leadership. We need to know organizational development and skills. We need to know the art, the fine art of homiletics or hermeneutics and how to develop a sermon and how to construct a sermon and how to critically analyze a situation.

I love the Bible—in fact, if I only had one book in the whole of life in which I could breathe out my life reading, it would be the Bible. But since I'm not limited to just one book, there have been many other books written, and theological higher education demands that we find out what those books are and read them.

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One-on-One with James Meeks on Going to Back to School