Neither my mother nor my father finished high school. Dad made it through the tenth grade but dropped out to help support the family. Mom dropped out at sixteen for reasons tied to her mother’s menopausal health and emotional issues, and soon married my Dad. Yet, they valued education. For Dad it represented financial security, “I want you kids to get a good education so you want have to work as hard as I have had to.” Mom never said (that I recall) but I think for her education was tied to being better able to serve God. They never asked us if we were going to college; their question was always “which college are you going to?”
My parent’s commitment to higher education was out of character for their families; I think three of my fifty-plus cousins went to college. All four of us siblings went. When I was a student at Lee one of my aunts asked me “why are you wasting your Daddy’s money going to school; you should be out preaching and winning souls.”
My home church in Jacksonville, Florida was also pro-education in that many of the youth went to Lee College or local or state universities. To my later surprise, my home church was an abnormality in many sectors of the Church of God. My high school years in Alabama introduced me to some who were anti-education but there were also pastors who had graduated from Lee. I was not prepared for the intensity of the disdain for higher education I would find elsewhere.
When Cheryl and I were first married and attending graduate school at Wheaton College we were confronted with a church that considered education the enemy of the Spirit. One of the elderly saints walked up to me in the isle after service one morning, put her finger in my face and asked, “do you want to know the difference between you and me?” I chuckled and asked her to tell me. She explained, “You depend on your education and I depend on the Holy Ghost.” I replied, “My problem is that it is the Holy Ghost that told me to get this education.”
A few years later we were in Kentucky working on our doctorates. We were immediately bombarded with prejudice against higher learning. Before moving to the state I was offered a pastorate but I insisted on meeting the people and allowing them to vote before the appointment. Cheryl and I visited and I preached. The Overseer sent an eighteen year old, high school dropout as the other candidate. They voted for the dropout.
I accepted a position at the Dixie Valley Church of God as Minister of Education. On my first Sunday they had a guest speaker for the evening service. I was introduced to him beforehand as a seminary student. His sermon included a diatribe on the “pea-brained intellectuals” who were destroying the church. One of the good-natured members of the church had a tee shirt imprinted with “pea-brained intellectual” and gave it to me. We felt loved at Dixie Valley, but they didn’t seem to understand why we were going to school.
A couple of weeks later I was introduced to one of the District Overseers in Louisville. He looked at me and said, “I hear you’re going to the cemetery; I went to college once, but I learned better.” After a couple of years I started candidating for pastorates. I think I hold the record for most consecutive “no” votes in the Church of God. At every church I took time to help them talk about what they wanted and needed in a pastor. I enjoyed those visits and believe my conversations with them were helpful in their search for the right pastor. In every case it was clear they were intimidated by my education.
I knew a retired pastor at one of the churches where I was scheduled to tryout. He called me a few days before just to let me know they had talked as a church and agreed they were going to vote for the best preacher. He wanted me to know that so I wouldn’t get my feelings hurt. On that Sunday I had the flue with chills and a fever. I figured at least this time I had an excuse for not getting the vote.
I heard through the grapevine they chose someone else, but a few days later my elderly friend called and asked to come for a visit. As we sat at the table and drank coffee, he proceeded to explain, “Brother Jackie I just wanted to come by and apologize. I told you we had agreed to vote for the best preacher. When the Overseer came to meet with us we all agreed you were the best preacher, but we also agreed we just don’t want no educated preacher. I wanted you to know I didn’t mean to lie to you. We really had agreed to vote for the best.”
After I completed my doctorate a prominent pastor in Tennessee interfered with my appointment to a pastorate. (That’s another long story for another blog.) I went for months without a position of any kind. When I was told of his actions it was reported to me that he had said it would do me good to learn to live by faith; I had had it too easy, spending all that time getting my education.
That was secondhand information and I wasn’t there to know exactly what was said. I do know coming from a prominent minister in the Church of God it was the most foolish and hurtful thing ever said to me about my education. Every program we entered was with a certain sense of God’s call. It was by faith Cheryl and I moved to Wheaton without jobs or scholarships and less than a hundred dollars to our names; we worked our way through. The same faith led us to Louisville, also without jobs or scholarships, but this time with a daughter for whom we needed to provide.
At the General Assembly just past I, and my peers who with me supported women in leadership, was called on the floor an “educated idiot.” Can it be that in 2010 there remains such a strong hatred for higher education? Apparently, it does.
I once calculated how much it cost us just to get our doctorates. Including school fees, books, other expenses, and reduced income for the period of full-time enrollment it came to about $270,000.00 (if I remember correctly) that would never be recouped. In calculating lost income I used the Church of God pay scale for a church with a hundred members.
We didn’t spend so much time as students because it was easy. There were many days our electric typewriter was never turned off, sometimes for three or four days straight. We typed in shifts. While I was working on my dissertation and on staff at Westmore full-time, for over a year I averaged three hours of sleep a night. Many nights I worked through the night, showered, and went back to the office.
It was a road filled with trials, want, and challenges. It was long and arduous. Yet, I cannot imagine choosing any other path. I cherish the knowledge and skills I gained. More importantly, I learned much about myself and what I can do. But beyond any doubt, I am most thankful for my education because it was the path God chose for me. Obedience is better than sacrifice. In the words of an old gospel song, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”
August 20, 2010