Eric Black has been pastor of First Baptist Church in Covington for close to seven years and has taught for B.H Carroll Theological Institute since 2008. From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on ministry. To suggest a Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated minister to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured, click here.
• Where else have you served in ministry, and what were your positions there?
We moved to Covington from Galax, Va., where I was the associate/youth pastor. From 2002 to 2008, Dalese and I served as self-supporting collegiate missionaries with the Baptist Student Union at the University of New Mexico.
• Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., and consider the high desert of northern New Mexico home.
• How did you come to faith in Christ?
Although I grew up in a Christian home, I associate my coming to faith in Christ with a three-year journey between 1993 and 1996, beginning with my determination that “Christianity is a hoax devised to make me miserable.”
At the end of that journey, two sentences changed my life: “God, if you’re real, you’re going to have to show me, because I don’t know how to find you,” and “Jesus, I’ll follow you the best I know how.” A third sentence uttered years later has proved just as life-changing: “God, I’ll go wherever you want me to go and do whatever you want me to do.”
The first sentence came after my desperate search for life. The second sentence came after God responded to the first. The third sentence was a rash, though heartfelt, promise with which I’m stuck for the rest of my life.
• Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?
I have a bachelor of behavioral science degree in probation and parole from Hardin-Simmons University (1997), a master of education degree (2001) and a doctor of philosophy degree in philosophy of education (2012) from B.H. Carroll Theological Institute.
• Why do you feel called to ministry?
I don’t know why I feel called to ministry. I just know I am. Whenever I think back over my life, I wonder why God is so certain I should be in ministry. None of my academic training is for the pastorate, yet here I am.
I’ve tried to stay out of ministry on more than one occasion. In fact, I made a concerted effort from 1999 to 2009 to avoid the pastorate, and much of that time I was adamantly opposed to being on a church staff. After relenting and serving several years as a collegiate missionary, I found myself miserable when I again stepped away from ministry.
• What one aspect of congregational life gives you the greatest joy?
I remain ambivalent about congregational life. While I love ministering with people and living the life of faith with others, the calcification and enculturation of the established church drives me crazy. In particular, I chafe at the professionalization of ministry. While I understand I need to carry myself like a professional, what it means to be a professional in our culture seems to adulterate what it means to be a minister.
• What one aspect of congregational life would you like to change?
I’d like to see congregations and their leaders shed the features of establishment.
• How do you expect congregational life to change in the next 10 to 20 years?
I expect congregational life to continue the changes already under way for several decades. I expect the established church will continue losing cultural cachet, and congregations will need to make the adjustment or pass away. American congregations will look increasingly like congregations in other parts of the world, where buildings, programs and staff are luxuries.
• What qualities do you look for in a congregation?
I want to see a congregation connected with its source of life. Challenges abound, no doubt. In the midst of our challenges, I want to see a congregation fully aware of its reason for existence and alive to its mission in the world.
• Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing your congregation.
My congregation exists in an economically challenged and sparsely populated region. Young adults must travel to work and generally work “irregular” hours—which seem to be more regular all the time. The community itself does not have the means to afford the overhead of the traditional established church. These are the immediate challenges of our context, which are influenced by the larger cultural challenges all churches face.
• What do you wish more laypeople knew about ministry or, specifically, your ministry?
I wish people knew I’m not any closer to God than they are just because I carry the title “pastor.”
I wish people knew they could be themselves around me.
I wish people knew how lonely ministry is.
I wish people knew how hard it can be, when you care for people, to go from life to death and back to life again in mere moments. Sometimes, ministers are expected to be the consummate professionals, switching from celebration to mourning and back to celebration again in moments, all without wrinkling their suit. In the midst of the emotional roller coaster, we also are expected to have all the correct answers to every hard question and to be experts in growing our churches. Ministers aren’t experts, as it turns out.
• What would you change about the Baptist denomination—state, nation or local?
Wouldn’t it be nice to wind back the clock and take back the entire Southern Baptist war between the late 1970s and early 1990s? Instead of growing up in a denomination secure in itself and actively engaged in doing good in the world, I grew up in a denomination turned inward and devouring itself. That’s the Baptist world I know.
The remains of the Southern Baptist Convention continue to dissolve. The world has too many problems for us to be our own worst enemies. Going forward, is it possible for us to hold in tension our respective convictions on biblical, spiritual, theological, political and social matters so, together, we can communicate the good news of Christ to a watching world?
• Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?
Ted With taught me grace and love. While we served the BSU at UNM, he softened my calloused heart and taught me how to care for people more than tasks.
Winford Hendrix taught me how to be a caring administrator. As the intentional interim at First Baptist Church in Galax, he taught me how to pastor an entire church.
• Name some of your favorite books (other than the Bible) or authors, and explain why.
Søren Kierkegaard changed my life. While at UNM, some of our students said I should take a class on Kierkegaard offered by Andrew Burgess, a world-renowned Kierkegaard scholar. So, I did. We read Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, along with other writings from Kierkegaard’s second authorship, and I was smitten, eventually writing a dissertation on Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard gets a bad rap from some conservative Christians who credit him with the sort of existentialism they believe diminishes Christianity and the church. However, his stridently Christian second authorship and his many edifying discourses penned during his first authorship put to rest any idea of Kierkegaard being an enemy of Christ, Christianity or the church.
• Name something about you that would surprise your church.
I think my church would be a bit surprised by one of my other answers—I am ambivalent about congregational life. Pastors are supposed to be totally sold on congregational life, aren’t they?
They also might be surprised by how introverted I am. Then again, I’ve been with them long enough, they might not be shocked.
• If you could get one “do over” in ministry, what would it be, and why?
The one thing I wish I could take back is the one moment that produced who I am today, the moment I walked away from God and the church. I wish I had known myself and God better then and had continued pursuing a ministry major. I might have saved myself one sort of heartache and matured in ministry faster.
However, I am the minister I am today because of my life experience.
• What would you do if you weren’t in ministry?
The first time I was asked this question, I said, “Landscape design,” and a few months later, I was doing just that for a firm in Dallas. However, as I mentioned in an earlier response, I wasn’t settled outside of ministry. It was then I made that rash promise, “God, I’ll go wherever you want me to go and do whatever you want me to do.”
I do think it’s a fair question, though. If paid ministry positions really do go the way of the dodo or if God calls me away from congregational ministry, I will likely need to do some other sort of work, since I’m neither independently wealthy nor much for the lottery.
I enjoy teaching and writing. I’ve even considered dispute resolution, but after what I learned from the first time I was asked this question, I will continue in congregational ministry until God calls me to something else.