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Don’t Let ‘Em Change You: Clayton Sullivan & the Consequence of Theological Education

I’ll not soon forget the first time I read Clayton Sullivan’s Called to Preach, Condemned to Survive. Then a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Master of Divinity student, and one intrigued by Southern Baptist history, I quickly ordered Sullivan’s book upon learning of its existence. First published in 1985, Called to Preach, Condemned to Survive arrived in the midst of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Conservative Resurgence and unwittingly became proof positive of the necessity of theological renewal within the denomination.

As I turned each page, Sullivan’s memoir prompted emotions within me I had not felt since reading Joel Gregory’s, Too Great a Temptation, or Ralph Elliott’s, The Genesis Controversy. Indeed, Called to Preach, Condemned to Survive is a sad story written by an apparently sad man.  Sullivan affords the reader an up-front seat into his own emotional struggles, scholastic anxieties and spiritual and ministerial digressions. From Depression-era poverty, Jim Crow racism and biblical fundamentalism to theological liberalism, spiritual atrophy and a withered call to the pastorate, Sullivan documents the demons that he has wrestled with throughout his life.

Embedded within this Southerner’s memoir is more than a tale of life in the Jim Crow South. It is a theological catastrophe that reads more like a Shakespearean tragedy than a ministerial autobiography.  It is a story of a young man called to preach, but in his own words, condemned to survive.

Yet for those interested in theological education, Called to Preach, Condemned to Survive is a book worth reading and rereading; a cautionary tale worth internalizing and interjecting into contemporary conversations about theological education. Within Sullivan’s book, one finds both the promise and peril of theological education; a story with abiding relevance for seminaries, the students that would attend them and the denomination that governs them. Called to Preach, Condemned to Survive is replete with life lessons, but five are especially germane for theological education.

First, a seminary education has consequences.

A trickledown effect exists from the professor to the student; and the influence a seminary can have on a minister-in-training, for good or ill, is undeniable. Fatefully, Sullivan writes of a final conversation he had with his father before departing for seminary. “I remember the last words my father said to me that morning, standing by the driveway, waving goodbye as I was pulling away from the house into the morning light, ‘Son, whatever happens, don’t let ‘em change you’” (68). This parting admonition would prove ominous for Sullivan. In short order he would be changed by the denomination’s mother seminary, and not for the better.

One ought not leave seminary unchanged and, arguably, one cannot. The seminary experience inexorably shapes students intellectually, emotionally and spiritually; influencing their deepest theological convictions and shaping their philosophy of ministry. For Sullivan, his seminary experience proved to dismantle his theological beliefs. He arrived in Louisville, Ky., a young man from Mississippi, believing God’s Word, preaching Jesus with zeal and conviction, and eagerly seeking to make converts for Christ. Yet, just as the sun thaws the ice, over time Sullivan’s seminary experience proved to melt his belief in the Bible, his urgency in preaching and his fervor for the Great Commission.

To be sure, the old Southern Seminary is not entirely to blame for Clayton Sullivan. The heart of man is beyond scrutiny, and the currents that channeled Sullivan’s life and ministry are beyond discernment. By Sullivan’s own admission, though, a dramatic “before” and “after” took place in his life and ministry, and this change took place while he studied on Lexington Road. Regrettably, his father’s instinctive warning proved well-founded.

Second, the disastrous effects of theological liberalism are beyond dispute.

Sullivan, who matriculated at Southern Seminary in the 1950s, recounts the crumbling of his faith, writing, “As a seminarian still in my mid-twenties, I found myself baffled. I was more certain of what I didn’t believe than I was of what I did believe. Southern Seminary had destroyed my biblical fundamentalism, but it had not given me anything viable to take its place. That’s the weakness of the historical-critical method: its power to destroy exceeds its power to construct” (79).

Sullivan’s story would prove to be replicated in countless others who attended one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s six seminaries during the second half of the 20th century.  Theological question marks would sprout where periods were once rooted.  Doctrinal certainties would give way to ambiguities of belief. Indeed, liberalism’s power to destroy does exceed its power to construct.

Third, the seminary culture must seek to nurture one’s call to ministry, not marginalize it.

Sullivan bemoans how subtly and incrementally his call to ministry shifted. Seminary, which was intended as a preparatory season of training, became an all-encompassing stage of life with its own sense of momentum, achievement and finality. He writes, “By this time, the cart was before the horse. The means had become the end. When I first enrolled in seminary, I’d looked upon study as a means by which to prepare to be a preacher. And I’d viewed Southern Seminary as a temporary dwelling place on my way to the pastorate. But to me, an overcooked graduate student, study by now had become an end within itself” (81).

One need not look to the Ivy League or search liberal theological institutions to find academic snobbery. Such can exist within Southern Baptist institutions, and we can locate it within ourselves. Scholastic idolatry places educational achievement ahead of growth in Christ; GPA ahead of love for the church; and the pursuit of degrees ahead of faithfully pursuing God’s call on one’s life. A carnal man can earn a Ph.D. in theology, and too many carnal men have. On the contrary, faithful ministerial training begins with the end in mind – to serve the church, and it keeps the end in mind along the way.

In the spirit of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, seminary should be a time to “kindle afresh the call of God” on one’s life. Aberrant theology is ruinous to one’s call, yet that same call can be even more undermined in subtle ways – not loving the church, not strengthening and cherishing the call to ministry, not prizing the gospel of Christ. One should leave seminary more in love with the gospel, the ministry, and the church, than when one arrived.

Fourth, a seminary must esteem the local church, not denigrate it.

Christ has promised to build his church – not his seminary. A seminary’s right to exist is tethered to its service of the local church, and the most faithful theological institution is the one that intentionally builds a seminary community that loves and desires to serve the church.  Sullivan writes, “My seminary professors tended to look upon preachers as hucksters, denominational drumbeaters, or dummies. That’s why one of my seminary professors remarked, ‘The most brilliant Southern Baptist ministers become seminary professors and college teachers. The rest have to go into the pastorate’” (85).

Fifth, a seminary must be held accountable by the churches that own it.

The Southern Seminary that Clayton Sullivan encountered was one well-distanced from the institution envisioned by its founders some 100 years earlier. A partial righting of the ship occurred in the context of the 1958 controversy, which underscored the institution’s aspiration to serve the denomination, not merely function as a divinity school. Of course, a comprehensive recovery would not occur until the mid-1990s after the election of Albert Mohler as president, an election made possible by the Conservative Resurgence, which began some 15 years earlier in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Thankfully, Southern Seminary in the year 2013 is the antithesis of the institution from which Sullivan graduated. Yet, the lesson is clear – institutions, left to themselves, drift leftward. Academic pursuit, donor support, professional affiliations, and countless other forces often exude an incremental, but undeniable, leftward pull on institutions of higher learning, including seminaries. The governing body must vigilantly give scrupulous oversight and insist that the seminary maintain the letter and the spirit of its confessional commitment as well as keeping at the center of its focus a persistent resolve to serve the church and abet the Great Commission.

The horror and abiding caution of Sullivan’s story is not merely a man’s theological drift. It is a system, any system, which encourages or facilitates such a drift. It is a theological institution that is not bound to a firm confessional expectation. It is an institution that does not long to serve the church and that does not have the self-imposed determination to allocate its energies accordingly.

I have never met Clayton Sullivan, but if I did, I’d be more interested in getting to know the boy called to preach in the Heidelburg kitchen than the young man that graduated from Southern Seminary. I’d rather receive instruction from the adolescent, pulpit-pounding preacher than the tenured university professor. Knowing what I now know, if I could magically interject myself into his life on one occasion, I know just where I’d choose. I’d show up in the driveway with his father, as Sullivan was pulling out for Louisville.  And when his father said, “Don’t let ‘em change you,” I’d interrupt and say to Sullivan what I say to every potential seminarian today – “Whichever seminary you attend will change you, and rightly so. Make sure and attend one that will shape you rightly for the gospel, for the Word, for the church and for Christ.”






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