Kenneth Hugghins: ‘The first act of love is to listen’

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Kenneth Hugghins recently retired after more than 30 years as the pastor of Elkins Lake Baptist Church in Huntsville. From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on the church and ministry. To suggest a BGCT-affiliated minister to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured yourself, click here.


Where else have you served in ministry, and what were your positions there?

• First Baptist Church in Coolidge as part-time music and youth minister.
• First Baptist Church in Seagoville as part-time youth minister, then full-time associate minister.
• Eastfield College in Dallas as part-time Baptist student minister.
• Texas Christian University as an adjunct in the undergraduate program.
• First Baptist Church in Abilene as full-time minister to young adults.

Where did you grow up?

I lived in Houston, Fort Worth, twice in Denver and four years in Los Angeles by the time I was 12 years old. From eighth grade to high school graduation, I lived in southeast Houston near Hobby Airport.

How did you come to faith in Christ?

I grew up in a family of faith and active church involvement. So, a commitment to Christ came rather naturally at age 9. Thankfully, I had a tremendous youth minister in Houston who guided me in continued growth as a Christian.

Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?

• Baylor University, Bachelor of Arts in sociology and social work
• Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Master of Divinity and Ph.D. in New Testament.

About ministry life

Why do you feel called into ministry?

The answer has changed over the course of my life. Short answer: I sensed my talents could be used to serve God’s people in church and schools.

What is your favorite aspect of ministry? Why?

I enjoy preaching, teaching and creative worship planning. I especially enjoy conversations that encourage or stretch folks—and me.

What one aspect of ministry gives you the greatest joy?

I always have enjoyed helping people feel affirmed as they are and to feel free to relate to me as a normal person, not just as “the preacher.”

What one aspect of ministry would you like to change?

In the years I have been in ministry, I always felt the pressure—rightly or wrongly—to “grow the organization.” The alternative approach would be to grow the spiritual health of the members, but I’ll grant I wasn’t always sure how to do that beyond preaching, teaching, and pastoral ministry and conversations.

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How has your ministry or your perspective on ministry changed?

I would put much more emphasis on spiritual formation or, as it once was called, discipleship. I would spend more time with a semi-structured approach to ground people in a relationship with Christ through small groups.

How do you expect ministry to change in the next 10 to 20 years?

I have no idea how things will change. That’s why I enjoy teaching in seminaries the ministers who will deal with the changes. We can, at least, ground them in solid and creative Scripture study and theology.

I do think culture in the United States is tilting against a Christian worldview. So, the church may not enjoy the “taken for granted” acceptance it once did.

I think ministry should change in a few ways: (1) greater emphasis on affirming people in the culture around us wherever they are spiritually, rather than viewing them as in or out, or for or against us; (2) greater emphasis on personal spiritual growth in and through Christian community for the specific purpose of showing a different way of living together than is common outside of Christian community; (3) focus on cultivating a Christian worldview beyond the surface culture wars, both to inform the lives of believers and to present a coherent Christian apologetic to the issues and challenges of the 21st century. Of course, each of these deserves vast expansion and discussion, but the statements are a good catalyst to begin.

Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing your ministry.

The greatest challenge in my later years has been consumer culture often expressed in generational expectations in worship, preaching style, ministry priorities and otherwise. Add to that the politicization of Christian faith in the United States. These are strong and divisive forces challenging churches.

What do you wish more laypeople knew about ministry or, specifically, your ministry?

So many issues or interpretations have more than one perspective. The willingness to talk together about challenging issues doesn’t mean I or leadership think the church should go one way or the other. Conversation is necessary to honor each of the members in the fellowship. “The first act of love is to listen.”

What did you learn on the job you wish you learned in seminary?

Administration, but I don’t think I would have recognized the need as much then. And I certainly don’t have the natural aptitude.

What is the impact of ministry on your family?

I am so fortunate to have been in a church that didn’t put pressure on my family to fit a certain mold. My two children grew up in Huntsville. So, this was the only church they’d known until they left for college.

I have a wise, patient and wonderful wife. The church and other ministry were priority for my time—my dad was a workaholic; so, I learned that model—but my wife and kids rolled with it pretty well.

I continually say I am so grateful my children still love God and don’t hate the church.

About Baptists

Why are you Baptist?

My mother told me we were Baptist, because “they are closest to the Bible.” She said if we weren’t Baptist, we’d probably be Disciples of Christ.

I detect strong leanings toward congregational government. I always have valued the Baptist focus on Scripture as the primary source for beliefs, as well as for worship and individual lives. I also value congregational organization—as awkward as it can be.

What are the key issues facing Baptists—denominationally and/or congregationally?

One major threat is the hyper-individualism of our culture and in our Baptist ethos. In both society and Baptist life, such a focus on the individual’s rights can lead to the drama and tribalism seen in both society and Baptist life. I think we need to recover a humble recognition of the biblical goal of community, while maintaining respect for each individual conscience and conviction.

Even a cursory awareness of church and Baptist history can demonstrate many “convictions” often are not as significant as the holder thinks. Continuing conversation—personally, in educational institutions, books and publications like the Baptist Standard—is important for understanding and cooperation.

I also think we need a healthier understanding of salvation as justification and sanctification. Process is an important part of beginning and continuing with Jesus.

What would you change about the Baptist denomination—state, nation or local?

I would like to see a broader ease with varied perspectives, spiritual gifts and motivations. I would like to see our populism better informed by the grace that awareness—education—can bring. It would be great if we could enjoy the community of grace we are given around the Lord Jesus, even as we talk about challenging and personal issues.

About Kenneth

Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?

My single most important mentor was my youth minister at Park Place Baptist Church in Houston. Don Sims was just out of seminary, and he poured himself into a group of students. He grounded us in spiritual practices, and trained and allowed us to do ministry through mission trips, camps, youth revivals, music, preaching and just clowning around with other youth groups. There are many members of that group who are in ministry of all kinds today.

My pastor at that time, Presnall Wood, was also a significant influence. His steady, wise and gracious approach to preaching and pastoral ministry have shaped much of my approach today.

I’ve been saying lately I need to make a collection of the sayings, wisdom and witticisms that have shaped me over the years. Those two would be cited many times.

Other than the Bible, name some of your favorite books or authors, and explain why.

• Frederick Buechner’s theological freshness and creativity literally snuck up on me and set me free to imagine with Scripture.
• Brennan Manning’s overwhelming emphasis on grace informed by broad reading and hard living.
• Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Foster reconnected my scholasticism with ancient spiritual disciplines. Willard provided a well-reasoned vision of the purpose of the Christian life.
• F.F. Bruce, Craig Blomberg, Craig Keener, Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright are scholars with a love for Scripture and are committed to understanding Scripture on its own terms in its original culture.

What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?

Philippians 1:6. I discovered it as a Baptist Student Union summer missionary in 1973. I appreciate its assurance of God’s faithfulness to complete what he started in me. I later understood the “you” to be plural, which only underscores God’s work in me, while personal, always is done through and for a group of believers.

Who is your favorite person in the Bible, other than Jesus? Why?

John the Apostle, for his insights into Jesus, his creativity in telling the story, and his emphasis on love for each other.

Name something about you that would surprise people who know you.

I really like my Harley Davidson.

EDITOR’S NOTE: You also might be surprised to know Kenneth was part of Loveship, which performed a parody of a Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show song. You can hear it here.

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