2 comments | Posted: 12 May 07 in Interviews, by Nathan Smith
Ben Gray is a full-time youth pastor at a church in Atlanta, Georgia where his official title is Minister to Students. He runs a popular blog at Openswitch.org and is also a contributing writer at Blogministry.com. Recently, I was able to pick his brain on the topics of blogging, camping, preaching and Ubuntu.
What experiences in your life led up to and influenced your decision to become a pastor? Was your calling to full-time ministry an illuminating heroic moment, like a burning bush (ala Moses) or a beacon in the night (ala Batman), or was it more of a subtle nudging in the gut that you knew you must respond to? If you would, please describe this revelatory event or process for our readers.
My experience wasn’t a burning bush or beacon in the night. It was much more of a subtle nudging of my heart. I accepted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior when I was 16. But I didn’t truly surrender myself to His leadership until I was 17.
At that time I was being actively and purposefully discipled by my then youth pastor, Dave Monreal. It was during this time of intense discipleship that my heart became very sensitive to the Lord’s leading and I felt that I was being called into full time ministry. One day I told Dave this and his response was, “I knew that a long time ago. You would be a great minister.”
After consulting several other strong Christians in my life at the time, this leading I felt in my heart was confirmed over and over again. God was definitely calling me and I was happy to accept the calling.
You hold a Bachelor of Arts degree in Family Ministries and minored in Camping. As a student at Toccoa Falls College, you were also a cheerleader. How would you say this diverse collegiate experience has helped prepare you for work in the field, and did you feel adequately equipped upon graduation? Also, what is your opinion of seminary vs. undergraduate ministry training?
Well, first off, I believe some explanation is in order. Any time I mention that I minored in Camping everyone screws up their faces and then, inevitably, someone snickers. TFC has recently changed the name of this minor from “Camping” to “Outdoor Leadership Education” or “OLE.” The reason is that “Camping” carries certain connotations which really don’t apply to this line of study. The Camping minor has nothing to do with “how to camp” or the like. It’s all about how to become an educational leader in an outdoor setting. It has a lot to do with running and organizing a camp (with cabins, etc) and how to incorporate high adventure activities like rafting, high ropes courses or kayaking into Christian Education. I was a Boy Scout back in the day and I love the outdoors so this was a great choice for me.
But getting back to your original question, I would say that this background definitely helped me get ready for full time ministry. Toccoa Falls College requires that every student, regardless of major, take at least 30 hours of Bible courses. Many other Christian colleges only require 12 or so. I actually ended up taking 37 hours because I’m a glutton for punishment. This, I think, was one of the best things about that particular college. I got a lot of Bible education to the point where even as I’ve taken Seminary courses on and off over the years, the Bible courses in Seminary have all been review for me.
I’m also very glad that I majored in Family Ministries. At one point I was going to major in something like Youth Ministry or Children’s Ministry but I’m very thankful I diversified myself. As I’ve been in ministry for over 4 years now I have definitely discovered that no ministry can be compartmentalized. Even though I, as a youth pastor, do spend a lot of time ministering to youth I also minister to adults and even senior adults sometimes.
The “Seminary vs. Undergrad” ministry education is often a hot topic. Those who received a secular degree often suggest that it was better for them to get a secular degree from a secular school and then go to Seminary for their “ministry” education. Some would say that this is the ideal path of education, secular Bachelors, Christian Mdiv. While I see their point, I disagree with it. I think that this path can work (often well) but it’s not the ideal situation. If a teenager knows they are being called into ministry like I was, pursuing an undergrad degree in ministry is the best thing they can do. There are several reasons for this.
At a school like Toccoa Falls, you are required to attend chapel 4 times a week. You are then expected to attend a church on your own. You are encouraged to participate in the planning of chapel, and to get involved in the church you attend. Bible study groups abound. Personal accountability for your actions is inescapable. The professors are all believers and can afford you a great resource for Godly leadership. I know that a couple of my professors became prayer partners with me and I still keep in touch with them to this day. Your room mate is often someone you can pray with, someone who shares your convictions. We all know that iron sharpens iron. Well, imagine a whole LOT of iron, there’s a bunch of sharpening going on!
At a secular school you get very little of that. Instead you are inundated with lies, anti-Christian professors, lasciviousness, drinking, etc. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to remain a strong Christian in a secular school. What I am saying is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult. If you know you are called into full time ministry, what good will it do you to then knowingly attend a non-Christian school? Very little good, if any. I know that I’ve just stepped on some toes. So let me do some damage control.
I know some tremendous pastors who have secular undergrad degrees and then went on to Seminary before entering ministry. My experience, however, is that these pastors often received their call to ministry while they were in undergrad or after they already had accomplished their bachelor’s degree. At that point, yes, they need to finish their degree and then go on to seminary. After all, they will have a lot of use for their undergrad degree in ministry.
Undergrad degrees such as marketing or business all have a strong role to play in ministry. What I’m saying isn’t that these degrees are useless or that these people wasted a part of their lives. All I’m saying is that if a teenager knows they are being called into full time ministry then the best thing they can do is to seek an undergrad education at a Christian institution. I suppose that’s not really what you’re asking, Nathan, but the fact that I just wrote a short essay on it without meaning to suggests to me that it’s something that matters deeply to me. I’m very glad that I received and undergrad at a Christian college.
Some would say that attending a secular school will increase their strength as a Christian. Or that it will give them more opportunities to share their faith. That’s the equivalent of missionary dating, hoping that your faith will rub off on the person you’re dating. While this sometimes works, keep in mind that it’s always easier to get pulled down off a chair than it is to pull someone else up onto the chair with you.
I’m convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that getting my undergrad from a Christian school was the best decision I could have made.
Seminary is vitally important too, for a minister. But does it replace a Christian undergrad experience? No. Not in my opinion. It’s not a replacement, it’s just, different. A person who gets a secular degree and then goes to seminary just has a different experience than a person who gets a ministry-related degree for undergrad and then goes on to seminary. Personally, I am happy with the path I have chosen. If I got out of high school and went to a secular college I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been ‘led astray’. I just know myself well enough to admit to that.
I felt very equipped upon graduation to go straight into ministry. Still there are just some things that you can’t teach, they have to be learned. That’s true in any field of work. Much of what can’t be taught is people-skills.
Well spoken. I did the whole secular undergrad thing, at Washington State University, then one of the top party schools in the nation. What you said about expecting one’s faith to rub off in a non-Christian environment is true. Even though I knew I wanted to go to seminary, it wasn’t until I got plugged in with a good church in college that I really started living it. On that note…
If you could go back in time and change one thing about your life, what would it be? Describe any things that were surprisingly difficult about ministry that you had not anticipated. Also, were there any serendipitous moments at which you felt like you grew into your pastoral role? What advice would you give to those who aspire to full-time pastoral ministry?
What would I change? Haha! I would have pulled more practical jokes in high school and college. I would have been less afraid of getting in trouble. Seriously, I would have taken more risks. I never did anything “illegal,” nor do I wish I had done illegal things, but I do wish I wasn’t such a goody-two-shoes. That’s the only thing I regret, not pushing the limits more. I would have sucked the marrow out of life. Still, lest I be misquoted, there’s a difference between sucking out the marrow and choking on the bone.
Arguably, one of the toughest things about being a pastor is the weekly sermon preparation, constantly striving to present the timeless message in a potent and relevant manner. What mental or spiritual disciplines do you employ in order to focus yourself when readying a sermon? Given the choice, what is your favorite Biblical passage or topic on which you prefer to preach?
Well, the only way to preach or deliver a sermon is to preach from the overflow of God in your life. Unless you have a vital relationship with Him, and have an overflow to preach from, you’ll go dry as a pastor very quickly. Your first responsibility as a pastor is to stay full of God. Then you preach from what flows over the top of the cup.
My favorite passage is Revelation 3:16. God would prefer that we be either hot or cold. But because we are lukewarm He is about to spit us out. It speaks strongly to me, that God wants me to burn for Him.
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. — Revelation 3:15-16
I think that if many of the legendary church fathers were alive today, they would be all about open source initiatives, and putting the power back into the hands of the people. For instance, Martin Luther nailed the 95 thesis to the door of the Wittenburg church, declaring that scripture should be accessible to everyone. Not to over spiritualize things, but I think that guy would be all about Linux. If you would, please describe your switch from Windows to Ubuntu.
It really is like a conversion experience. I once walked in the dark and now I see the light! Heh. Well, maybe not that extreme, but the feeling of being free is similar to when I accepted the Lord. Making Christ my Lord and Savior and switching from Windows to Linux were both very ‘freeing’ experiences. Though definitely on different levels.
I think you’re right, in that many of the legendary church fathers would have been all over Linux. I also think that many of America’s founding fathers would have been big Linux fans too. The central idea to OSS (open source software) is the free dispersion of power and information.
Great thinkers of the past realized that he has the most power who controls the most information. Hitler knew this, Stalin knew this, and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs know this. OK, unfair comparison, but the point stands. Linux, to me, is more than a virus-free, stable, software-riddled and monetarily free operating system. It’s a philosophical decision. I don’t think it’s right that companies hoard information and the sell it to those with the fattest wallets. It’s just not nice. It’s capitalism, and I’m admittedly a capitalist. Actually, I’m a Libertarian, but that’s neither here nor there.
I believe in a free market. But I believe much more strongly in treating mankind with dignity and respect. I believe that there comes a point at which we have to decide, will I run my life by the almighty dollar or will I run my life with self-giving love? I choose the latter. Like I said, I’m a Libertarian, and I believe in a free market. But I think there’s a stark contrast between selling services and selling information.
Switching from Windows to Ubuntu was a little rocky at first. What took me the most time was grasping how a *nix box worked. I was used to Windows, it was all I ever knew. And Linux is not Windows. It’s vastly superior, but it’s not the same.
My first experience with OSS was with The Gimp. I was in need of some image editing software but couldn’t fork out the mountain of cash for Photoshop so a friend of mine who was also an OSS evangelist pointed me to The Gimp. I remember his exact words: “You know you want to.” Heh. Indeed. At that time I didn’t even know fully what open source was. But I soon found out. I slowly began switching all my apps over to open source software. The Gimp was soon followed by OpenOffice, and then FileZilla, then Gaim. Piece by piece my PC was becoming open source until only one thing was left: the operating system itself. After reading about all the advantages of Linux, and specifically Ubuntu, it didn’t take much persuading to get me to make the switch. It was singularly the best computing decision I have made to date.
Switching gears, let’s talk a little about self-publishing on the Internet. Much to the chagrin of a few of your loyal theme-using fans, you recently moved from the blogging tool WordPress to the content management system Textpattern. Now that you have had some time to use each, what would you say are the pros and cons of both WP and TXP?
Oh man, that’s a big question. It’s also one I don’t claim to be an expert on. All I can speak of is my personal experience which, after all, is what you’re probably after anyway.
I find it interesting that you used the term “blogging tool” in relation to WP and “content management system” (CMS) in relation to TXP. WordPress-ers really don’t like to call their software a “blogging tool” but instead insist that it’s a full fledged CMS. In my experience (and I’m no coder) WordPress is a blogging tool. They are making some advances in this area, adding in bits and pieces of functionality here and there but it still is designed first and foremost to be a blogging tool. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you. But we really should call a spade a spade.
Textpattern, on the other hand, is first and foremost a CMS but can be used a blogging tool if you want to. There has been a bit of a learning curve for me having only used WordPress in the past. Keeping in mind that I’m a new TXP user here are what I consider to be the pros and cons of each tool.
Pros: Very easy to learn and use. Click + done mentality. Very active community of developers and designers. Heaps of free blog themes. Theme system is very easy – again, click + done.
Cons: Unnecessarily rigid. Getting a non-blog site to do what I wanted it to do involved going around my butt to get to my elbow, if you will. Little built-in functionality, lots of plugins are needed to add functionality. Lack of simple template tags is annoying.
Pros: Loads of built-in functionality. Very active development community as well. Most of the things that required a plugin with WordPress are built in to Textpattern; things like caching. You can put anything anywhere, lots of flexibility there. A good way to look at Textpattern vs. WordPress is by thinking of Legos. WordPress is a pre-sorted boxed set of Legos that are designed to make one particular Lego toy, like a spaceship or a farm house. You can make small changes in exactly where the pieces go but in the end you’re gonna end up with somewhat the same thing as the next guy. Textpattern, on the other hand, is like a big ol’ box of Legos. You can use them to make whatever you want. That analogy falls short at points, but it’s fairly accurate. Tends to be a faster engine than WordPress.
Cons: Templating system is somewhat complex. This, however, is due to the fact that TXP was designed to be flexible. Not many blog templates but this, again, could be blamed on the fact that TXP is not primarily a blogging tool, it’s primarily a CMS.
I have a theory concerning simplicity and flexibility: Flexibility is inversely related to Simplicity. That is, the more flexible something is, the less simple it is and vice versa. It’s the nature of the beast, really. WordPress is simple and inflexible. Textpattern is more complex yet much more flexible. It makes a wonderful blogging platform for me, and it will prove to be a great tool in future projects.
Pastors are undoubtedly looked to as people of stature in their respective communities. One of my seminary professors is fond of saying that though a pastor might not get paid a whole lot, he is by nature of his profession a member of the upper class. Describe how this responsibility affects the way you blog. Do you find it easier or more difficult to be open about yourself as a person, knowing you live in a glass house?
Oh, it definitely affects how I share myself as a person. That’s actually the least favorite part of ministry for me. I have to watch what I say and what I do. I’m held to a much higher standard and am judged accordingly.
Being a pastor somewhat stifles my blogging too. In person I would say things and give opinions about things that wouldn’t communicate well on a blog too well. More frustrating to me, though, is that when I make a butt of myself publicly, others will see it and will tend to generalize it to other Christians. In that respect I really have to watch my temper and snarkasm (I’m a very sarcastic person by nature but sarcasm doesn’t communicate well on the Net.)
On the other hand, parts of being a pastor are easy to incorporate or even facilitate my blogging. Things like forgiveness over a heated comment someone makes toward me. Or humbleness when I say something stupid. Or being transparent with my own humanity. I like to think of it like this: we’re all in this together and no one’s getting out of here alive.
What advice would you give to churches or pastors who are considering blogging as a means of outreach evangelism? What would you say to someone who is a bit intimidated by either the technology learning curve, or the stage fright of being readable by anyone on the web?
Technologically I think it’s a somewhat small learning curve. It’s there, but it’s small and it’s definitely worth learning. It’s small when you consider sites like wordpress.com or blogger.com that let you host a blog for free. The curve gets steeper when you start talking about self-hosted sites.
My biggest piece of advice would be to be cool. That is to say, keep a cool head. If you start a site, say, for evangelism, and you start screaming from the street corner you will turn more people off than anything. Your best bet is to start a blog with the intention to do two things:
- Create an online presence.
- Build a community around your site.
Readers don’t want to be preached at, they want relationships. And those relationships, I think, are one of the driving forces behind blogging. Without real relationships with others any blog, regardless of topic, will fail.
The fear of being readable is really mostly a fear of being held accountable for what you say. It’s like having a tape recorder on and recording while you talk to everyone in your daily routine; it would be unnerving to say the least. It’s best to just ignore the tape recorder, ignore the Net and speak your convictions. Otherwise you’ll be a phony.
The reality of the matter is that we do need to be thoughtful and careful of what we write online. But this shouldn’t be a deterrent, it should be encouraging, and a challenge to live an upright life on and offline.
I suppose there’s also some fear that you’ll upset someone and have to get into an “argument” about it. But flame-wars are completely avoidable and stoppable. It’s all about the tone you set on your site. If you set yourself up as someone who’s “always right” then you’ll attract readers who also believe they’re “always right.” It really is avoidable by you, the blogger, genuinely listening to your readers and being concerned first and foremost with developing a genuine relationship with them.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap it up – Any further nuggets of wisdom to impart?
Hey Nathan, thanks for asking me to do this interview. I’ve been a huge fan of Godbit and Sonspring for a long time and I’m flattered to be able to do this. I do have a few nuggets of wisdom I’d like to share. In no particular order:
- Backup often and thoroughly. Crashes are never planned or convenient.
- Be nice on the blog-o-sphere. People will do to you as you do to them.
- Beware giving heed to those who won’t give heed to you.
- Take care when listening to long-winded pastors online. ;)
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