Mike Miller has been the senior pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville since 2017. 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?
• Church planter and pastor, Shannon Creek Baptist Church in Burleson, 1993–1997. This is where I earned the distinction as world’s worst church planter.
• Pastor, First Baptist Church in Easton, Md., 1997–2003.
• Pastor, McElwain Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., 2003–2008.
• Senior pastor, First Baptist Church in Kenner, La., 2008–2016.
• Associate professor of expository preaching, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 2011–2017. I also served as campus pastor 2011–2015.
Where did you grow up?
How did you come to faith in Christ?
I was not raised in church. When I was 12, I had a terrifying experience while attending church with some friends. Essentially, I was told since I was not able to speak in tongues—I begged God to let me speak in tongues—it probably was too late for me, and I would go to hell. This experience planted a seed in my heart that grew into a deep and thorough hatred for all churches and Christians. I swore I never would attend another church.
Then I met Terri. I was head over heels in love. So, when she invited me to church to hear her sing on Easter Sunday 1987, I eagerly attended. On that day, age 21, I heard the Easter story for the first time. Until that day, I thought Easter was a Hallmark holiday about bunnies and eggs. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Holy Spirit began drawing me to Jesus.
A couple of months later, I graduated college and began attending church regularly. Interestingly, this was not a church that taught or believed the Bible, but the Holy Spirit was at work. Sensing something was missing in my life, I went to see the pastor, and he shared the gospel with me. On that day, sometime in September 1987, I gave my life to Jesus. I was 22.
Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?
• Bachelor of Science in professional aviation, Louisiana Tech University, 1987.
• Master of Divinity with biblical languages, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1995.
• Doctor of Ministry in expository preaching, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2002.
• Master of Theology, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009.
• Ph.D. in Preaching with a minor in New Testament, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 2011.
About ministry life
Why do you feel called into ministry?
The story begins before my conversion. However, almost immediately after coming to Christ, I began sensing the Lord calling me to some kind of public ministry—speaking or preaching. At the same time, people in the church suggested they saw in me the gifts necessary for pastoral ministry. I had skills in leadership, communication and interpersonal relations. Nevertheless, I was firmly opposed to the idea of vocational ministry.
I had invested a great deal in my career as a professional pilot, and I was not willing to give that up. However, the Holy Spirit started stripping away my career ambitions and firming up the notion I should go to seminary and prepare for pastoral ministry.
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I do believe this is my calling, because of my skill sets, but also because I find tremendous joy and satisfaction in being a pastor. Though some days and seasons are hard and even painful, I know I am doing what God has called and equipped me to do.
What is your favorite aspect of ministry? Why?
Preaching. I love preaching. Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner depicted in Chariots of Fire, once said, “When I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.” Well, when I preach, I feel his pleasure. I like a lot about my ministry, and I love sermon preparation. But when I stand to preach, I sense the anointing of God.
What one aspect of ministry gives you the greatest joy?
People. The truth is people can be the sources of our greatest pains and frustrations, but I love the local church. I love the idea of it. I love Central Baptist Church. I love it because it is truly a community of sinners redeemed by the blood of Jesus. We love each other, care for each other and walk through life together. I really love people.
What one aspect of ministry would you like to change?
Unrealistic expectations. While this isn’t overwhelming most of the time, not only do I place unattainable expectations on myself, but the reality is people frequently expect more from us than we can deliver. And this goes both ways. I think as pastors, we sometimes expect more from our church members than is reasonable. We should probably all cut each other more slack.
How has your ministry or your perspective on ministry changed?
Early on, I think I saw people as the means to an end. I needed more people—and more people being committed—if I was going to lead the church to do what I thought it should do. I’ve come to see people as my mission and ministry.
My goal is not merely to get the people to do. It is to get them to be. Instead of convincing them to get on board with the vision, I need to point them to Jesus, their only hope. I’m not sure if this makes sense, but basically, more than anything I want people to seek, know and love Jesus. That is the end game. And of course, if people really seek, know and love Jesus, the mission and ministry are much more natural.
How do you expect ministry to change in the next 10 to 20 years?
As “regular church attendance” is now considered—by statisticians and pollsters—to be attending once a month, as opposed to once a week, we continually need to rethink how to engage our church members for the purpose of making disciples.
In an increasingly post-Christian world, cultural Christianity is on the decline. I actually think this is a good thing, even if it is painful. We will continue to lose those members and attenders who are present for nothing more than whatever cultural pressures they face. I believe we will need to focus more on deeper and more intentional discipleship, since those involved will be more and more serious about their faith. The good news is we will be deeper and more intentional with our discipleship.
Because of the increasing spotlight on very public scandals—sex abuse, pastoral moral failings and other issues—to have credibility, churches will need to operate with more transparency and accountability than ever before. This too will be painful for some, but it will be positive in the long run.
Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing your ministry.
1. Social media. While social media can be a wonderful tool for outreach and connection, it also is proving to be a means of disseminating rumors, discontent and anger. I don’t think church problems are any different fundamentally than they ever have been, but they are more public than ever. Learning how to deal with and manage people airing grievances with church and spreading false information is becoming more of a challenge every day.
2. Christian nationalism. While our church has managed to stay mostly out of the fray, people increasingly are equating their political positions and/or levels of patriotism with Christianity. I see this on both the right and left extremes, and it is difficult to navigate as a pastor to keep the focus on the Great Commission.
3. Outrage culture. People consistently are mad at someone. Because of either political allegiances or theological camps, many see anyone who disagrees on any matter as what Alan Jacobs calls a “repugnant cultural other.” Currently the enemy is anyone who is different. When our politics infiltrate the church, and when everyone has social media, the Great Commandment becomes forgotten. It’s hard to encourage people to see all other people as image-bearers of God and to treat everyone with dignity and respect.
What do you wish more laypeople knew about ministry or, specifically, your ministry?
I suppose the biggest thing they don’t realize is the ever-present immense pastoral burden. We don’t necessarily work harder than our church members, but we carry a spiritual burden that would be crushing were it not for the sustaining grace of Jesus and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. What I mean is we carry with us at all times what Paul calls “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).
When marriages fail, when people sin, when church members are upset, we take it personally. We have a constant awareness of our accountability for the spiritual condition of our church members and the health of our churches. We grieve when we fail. We never are satisfied with the quality of our work. It’s impossibly hard all the time. But since this drives us to our knees, we also experience the indescribable blessing of the presence and strength of Jesus to see us through.
What did you learn on the job you wish you learned in seminary?
I am a huge believer in the value of seminary education, but much of this job is learned by experience. I will say there are somethings I wish I had known.
• The weight of the pastoral burden I mentioned earlier. It’s real, and if you aren’t walking with Jesus, it will kill you.
• The effect of critics. I didn’t know they would be so plentiful or so mean. I also didn’t know how much it would hurt.
• The importance of your personal walk with Jesus and how hard it would be to maintain. We can think sermon prep is sufficient time in God’s word, but it is not.
• How cruel people can be to your family. I guess I will never understand it, but this is the one thing that has caused me more pain than anything.
• That when you visit people in the hospital, they want to show you things you really don’t want to see. The struggle is real.
If you could get one “do over” in ministry, what would it be, and why?
I guess the biggest is I would completely redo the way I planted the church that was my first pastorate. I didn’t actually plant a church. We baptized about 200 people in four years and saw God do great things, but it all was centered on me.
I didn’t really make disciples. I didn’t train leaders; I was hardly a leader. I didn’t implement any systems or processes. I really had no strategy. Consequently, when I left, the ministry imploded. This wasn’t just because I left, but also because what I left in no way was healthy. It never had a chance.
What is the impact of ministry on your family?
Overall, it has been positive. I have been able to put them first without much pushback at all—which I understand is not the case for all pastors—and we have stayed close to each other and to Jesus most of the time. However, the cruelty some have shown to my wife and kids has left scars—on me as much as them.
What is the most important advice you would give someone just going into ministry?
Your primary ministry is in your home. Scott Sharman told me when I entered seminary, “It’s OK to get Cs at seminary as long as you get As at home.” He was right, and I took that advice all through my ministry. I can be replaced at church. I cannot be replaced as husband to Terri or dad to Bryan, Bailey and Michael.
Why are you Baptist?
I became a Baptist by accident. But now, I am Baptist convictionally. I am Southern Baptist by conviction. This is for three reasons:
1. Our theology. In addition to our alignment with historical orthodoxy, we hold to evangelical distinctives—I see the Bebbington quadrilateral as helpful here—and believers baptism.
2. Our Baptist distinctives, such as a track record of championing religious liberty for all, a from-the-ground-up denominational structure, and a commitment to local church autonomy and congregational governance grounded in the priesthood of all believers.
3. This is the real genius of the Southern Baptist Convention. We do more together than we ever could do separately. Our voluntary cooperation for the sake of the Great Commission is unparalleled, and I am deeply committed to the Cooperative Program and to our cooperative efforts on the local, state and national levels.
I think most Baptist laypersons aren’t fully aware of what it means to be a Baptist. If they did, they would have stronger convictions regarding religious liberty for all, separation of church and state, local church autonomy, and cooperation for the sake of reaching the world for Jesus.
What are the key issues facing Baptists—denominationally and/or congregationally?
Sex abuse. This is a scandal that has plagued our denomination—and others—for far too long. It is past time we listen to survivors and implement real reforms to eradicate this blight on our churches.
Racism. Contrary to what some seem to think, racism is alive and well in some corners of our denomination. We must move past talking about racism to reconciling to one another as a result of and for the sake of the gospel.
Pharisaism. I am terribly concerned secondary and tertiary issues are being treated as primary issues. Moreover, the open hostility of those who would seek to draw our tent pegs so tight even millions of committed Baptists no longer are welcome is a terrific threat to our future.
What would you change about the Baptist denomination—state, nation or local?
For one thing, I think we need a renewed focus and commitment to local associations. That is where cooperation begins and where most of the work and fellowship happens.
For another, I would love to see only one state convention in the state of Texas. My closest friends in ministry pastor churches in both the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. We get along so well and believe the same things, and we all lament the division in our state.
Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?
Bailey Stone was my pastor. He baptized me and my wife—we came from another denomination—and influenced us both in incalculable ways. We even named our daughter after him. Bailey was the pastor of First Baptist Church in Odessa, and then the director of evangelism for the BGCT. He instilled in me a passion for the Bible and evangelism, and he showed me how to love people different than me.
Frankie Rainey was a local pastor in Burlseon and a Greek and New Testament professor at Howard Payne University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. When I was a young pastor, I would sit in his office every week, and while going through the Greek New Testament together, we would talk about life and ministry. I learned so much about being a pastor and a scholar from him.
Joe McKeever is a retired pastor and director of missions. He is still a wonderful friend and mentor. Joe helps me process difficult things I’m going through, and he has shaped my preaching by teaching me so much about connecting through storytelling. He is my main go-to guy when I need to talk or need some counsel.
Other than the Bible, name some of your favorite books or authors, and explain why.
C. Sproul is my favorite author. I especially like The Holiness of God. His love for God drips from every page and helps me love God more.
John Piper’s Desiring God has been formative for me in orienting my life to the pursuit of joy in Christ and nothing else.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers shaped my high view of expository preaching more than anything.
Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor greatly influenced how I view the high calling and responsibility of pastoral ministry.
What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?
2 Corinthians 5:21. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the “Great Exchange”—our sin for his righteousness. I know of no other verse that encapsulates the effect of the gospel as well as this one.
2 Corinthians 8:18 speaks of “the brother who is famous among all the churches of his preaching of the gospel.” I love this. Who is the guy? We don’t know. We know his message, but we don’t know his name. I want to be that guy. I want people to know my message—the gospel—but not my name.
Name something about you that would surprise people who know you.
I am terrified of heights. I get wobbly above the second rung on a ladder. Since I am a pilot, people usually are surprised by this. But as I tell them, you can fall off a ladder, but you can’t fall off an airplane.