Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Remembering Ken Neller

When I arrived on Harding University’s campus in August 1997, I came to change the world.  One of my closest friends at Harding once told me that when he saw me walking across campus he knew that I was going somewhere to do something.  No leisurely strolls here.  No stopping to smell the roses.  I was sure of my calling to ministry, and that calling included getting stuff done for Christ.  And I chose Harding because I believed that it was the best place to train for ministry.  I believed that the professors would train me to preach and grow churches like they did in Acts.  Fortunately, I was not disappointed.  That is exactly the kind of education that I received at Harding. . .with one exception.

I took Greek my freshman year.  This was probably not one of my smartest decisions.  However I was going off the advice of my advisor who recommended that I “get it out the way.”  That fall, there was a change in teaching responsibilities because the primary Greek professor was teaching in the study-abroad program in Athens, Greece (HUG).  Thus, my teacher was going to be the regular second-year teacher—Dr. Ken Neller.  Over the next three semesters, I was a decent Greek student, however I did not commit myself the way that I should have.  When it came to the first semester final, I translated 1 John literally into my Greek New Testament.  When Dr. Neller saw it, he politely informed me that I could not use my Bible during the exam.  Lesson learned.

During college, Dr. Neller was a professor that I liked, although he was not necessarily one of my favorites.  I appreciated his knowledge of Scripture and his compassion about students.  I spent five years as a member of Alpha Chi Malachi, the social club for Bible majors (two years as an officer).  Thus, I got to spend a lot of time with Dr. Neller outside the classroom, which I appreciated.  Yet, at the time, I considered his practical ministry instruction dated and closing in on irrelevant.  He talked very little about changing culture and implementing dynamic church growth strategies.  Instead he talked a lot about making hospital visits and developing good listening skills for counseling.  When I left Harding and thought about my ministry training, I was a little disappointed.

Yet, after nearly twelve years in some form of full-time ministry (I have served as both a congregational minister and a hospital chaplain) and nearly five years of teaching at the college level, I have discovered that the lessons that Dr. Neller taught me have been the ones that have sustained me in ministry and formed me as a professor.  Here are the “big three” lessons that I learned that have had the most impact on me:
  1. The ministry of study—As I mentioned, I was not a stellar Greek student.  I struggled then and I continue to struggle now.  Thankfully, Dr. Neller was at least able to teach me the Greek alphabet and how to use a lexicon.  Beyond that, however, Dr. Neller taught me the importance of having a strict study regiment.  “A preacher’s sermon is only as good as his research,” he said once in class.  As someone who not only preaches but also teaches preaching, I am grateful to say that this is one lesson that I live by.  I know I tire my students with my emphasis on reading, researching and studying.  Yet, our sermons are only as good as our research.
  2. The ministry of presence—When I started in ministry, I was terrified of visiting hospitals and nursing homes.  The thought of ministering to a family during a crisis or death absolutely paralyzed me.  How do I grow a church through pastoral care?  Well, to be honest, you don’t.  What you do, however, is show people that you care about them and that God is present with them.  It took me going through a year of clinical training and ministering in the Pediatric ICU at Cabell Huntington Hospital to learn this lesson that Dr. Neller had tried to teach so many years before.  Now another of my mantras is “Presence proceeds proclamation.”  I think Dr. Neller would have liked this one.
  3. The ministry of mentoring—Discipleship is a touchy word in my fellowship.  Yet Dr. Neller was an expert at it.  He did not have an elaborate mentoring program.  He did not word through a preplanned program or extensive agenda.  He simply invested his life into his students.  I probably spent more time and ate more food with Dr. Neller than with any member of the Harding community, save Dr. Bruce McLarty.  It was Dr. Neller who encouraged me to pursue higher education and seek a teaching position someday.   
When I heard the news about Dr. Neller’s passing, I thought about the last time that I really saw him.  I believe that it was a gathering for graduating Bible majors the semester that I graduated.  When it was time to pray a blessing on the graduating Bible majors (a sort of ordaining and commissioning moment), it was Dr. Neller who stood behind me and laid his hands on me during the prayer.  Perhaps it was his way of commissioning me to fulfill the dream that he had for me of someday teaching.  Now, I am doing exactly that—training the next generation of ministers.  And what is my strategy?  Study, be present, and invest your life in others.  I hope Dr. Neller is pleased with my effort. 

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