By the Book: DTS grad learns to write a new chapter in the life of a 130-year-old church
After graduating from Dallas Seminary with a Th.M. in 1995, Matthew St. John and his wife, Christa, moved to El Reno, Oklahoma, to pastor Heaston Community Church, which sat in the middle of a wheat field. On any given Sunday about 150 head of cattle would break a farmer’s fence to congregate in the church’s gravel parking lot.
“We lived in Mayberry,” Matthew says. “It was a wonderful environment—family friendly, laid back, Americana, apple pie, and hot dogs. It was hard to leave.”
In August 2002, however, Matthew and his family, which includes two daughters—Emily, 10, and Katy, 6—traded the apple pie for some Texas BBQ and a 130-year-old story.
A new chapter
“Heaston had a reputation for taking brand-new pastors and growing them up and loving them,” Matthew says. In fact he was so content there that he never intended to leave. However in June 2001, God began to burden him regarding Scofield Memorial Church, a church he had only driven past on his way to work while a seminary student. Then when close friends called to say they felt God wanted Matthew and Christa to leave their ministry at Heaston, Matthew called Scofield the next day.
“I didn’t even know why I was calling,” he says. The chair of the pastoral search committee happened to be standing next to the receptionist when the phone rang. One year from that phone call, the church formally invited Matthew to fill the pulpit—one he would share with predecessors such as C. I. Scofield, known for The Scofield Reference Bible, and Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Seminary.
Matthew says he works with “a tremendous team. God has given us a profound measure of unity, joy, and friendship. We don’t have some elaborate strategic plan. Our attitude is that Moses probably didn’t leave widows in the dust of Sinai. But he also moved. So we’re taking our time while being very deliberate. We’re passing on a vision of how we can be followers of Christ, while sharing the good news.”
In a show of support Dr. Walt Baker, adjunct professor and associate professor emeritus of World Missions and Intercultural Studies at Dallas Seminary, and his wife, Dottie, joined Scofield Church to sit under Matthew’s leadership. “Our relationship with Matthew goes back to his student days when we prayed together,” Dr. Baker says. “Matthew has vision as a man of integrity, and we count him and his family as close friends.”
“Walt has said for years, ‘I do not teach classes. I teach people,’” Matthew says, applying the phrase to his own life when he adds, “I don’t pastor an organization. I pastor people. When you have that frame of mind, you’re going to roll up your sleeves and thrust your hands in the muck and mire, which is just people. You’re going to love them. If you really love them then you’re going to create a safe and growing environment. Jesus sought to bring healing to the souls of people, so that’s what we’re called to do.”
A central theme
Matthew has rolled up his sleeves in his personal life as well as in his ministry. “Christa and my daughters tell me regularly that in a raging sea, our home is a safe island. And that is so true. I love going home,” he says. “They are for me a safe place in which I can find great joy and rest, where my wounds can be healed, and where I can return something to them that I’ve been learning. Long before God utters the word Scofield to me, He’s going to ask me about my wife and my babies. Anybody can be the pastor of Scofield Church, but nobody can be her husband or their daddy.”
When Matthew tells members of the congregation to “be the church” in their workplaces, hobbies, and homes, he practices what he preaches. A year ago Christa’s father and mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, moved into Matthew and Christa’s home.
“It was the greatest experience of our lives,” Matthew says. “My mother-in-law died just shy of her fifty-sixth wedding anniversary, and in the bedroom right across from ours. It was so rewarding loving somebody who could give nothing back except the joy of loving somebody. For our babies it’s been rich. They would go in there and kiss her and tuck her in with the blankets. It’s been very hard, but we can’t even conceive of having done anything differently.”
A final word: advice for students and alumni
Becoming such a close-knit family has taken time. Matthew admits the first year after graduating from seminary was the toughest year of his marriage. “Here’s part of the problem,” he says. “It takes a good year or two just for the sense that you’ve got an assignment due yesterday to finally disappear. I’m serious. The intensity is so great at Dallas Seminary that we don’t realize how great it is until we’re out. Coming from such an intense environment, you never feel like you’re still doing enough even though you may be working yourself to death. We think we have to do our ministries with the same level of intensity.” Now he cautions recent graduates to slow down, catch their breath, and regain a healthy pace.
To unwind, Matthew and his wife watch football. “We are rabid fans,” he says. “On a professional level, we love the Cowboys and the Colts. But what we really love is college football. College football is real football, and the most real football is the University of Tennessee,” whose mascot is a hound dog named Blue Tick. “In the southeastern United States SEC football is what we call ‘Big Boy Football.’ People in the Big 12 are playing pee-wee football compared to our football.”
Returning to the topic of seminary, however, Matthew adds a caveat: While the pace may have been hectic, he says, “There’s not a day that goes by—I mean this very seriously—that I don’t thank the Lord for Dallas Seminary. Scofield Memorial Church sees itself as having a stewardship to help the students of the school.”
In Her Own Words: Christa St. John on What All Believing Couples Need
Matthew and I have learned over the years (too often the hard way) that staying a team—a true partnership in life and ministry—is a lot of work. Our own personal spiritual condition is the foundation for this partnership. It should be this way for every believing couple, no matter what their calling. Natural it is not. Worth it? Yes. It is first of all most important that we each lean on our Lord for sustenance. One of us cannot live our spiritual lives vicariously through the other.
We cannot nourish our family, be on the same page and properly loving one another, or shepherding the church body unless our cup is full of what the Lord seeks to give. We are each responsible as children of the King to sit at His feet and worship, pray, and be in the Word. Not because we are a “ministry couple,” but because we are His children. If we are to have His perspective, seek His priorities, and know His will, that is a must. We don’t do this perfectly, who does? We seek to do this daily. Sometimes we fail.
On the same team
Our times of transition have required so much of us that these practices were put to the test. Transition does that for most people, especially me as I don’t much care for change. During our early years of ministry in the mid-1990s, I had to get over my own expectations in order to seek what the Lord expected of me. Where was that “Pastor’s Wife 101” I wanted to take in seminary? My ideas were shaped by worldly opinions more than I care to admit. Once I realized God wanted me to be “me,” and to let go of those ideas that mattered to human beings more than Him, I had a huge sense of relief! Matthew is very good at freeing me up to be my own person.
The first priority God has given me is my family and “nest.” He will ask me about my girls and Matthew and if I loved them well and faithfully long before He asks me if I managed to plan an event well, or volunteered for this or that (yes, church included). I did not take responsibility for my own spiritual growth as I should have, and as we began ministry and started a family the stress mounted. God showed us that we told people we were a team, wanted to be a team, and maybe even thought we were a team—but we weren’t. The Lord humbled us and showed us what He required of us, and brought us first to Him and secondly closer to one another, seeking to be a team for His glory.
Take nothing for granted
The fall of 2002 brought us back to Dallas when Matthew became pastor of Scofield Church. Again, transition was a trying and stressful time, requiring a lot of us. We were leaving a smaller town and coming back to the Metroplex to raise our children. Matthew was to minister to a hurting and wounded congregation with a lot of needs. He needed to finish his doctorate and the clock was ticking.
My parents also moved to Dallas the following year. My mother had Alzheimer’s disease and because of the care she needed, we made a second move in December of 2005 to a larger home. We asked ourselves if the Lord would equip us to be, and remain, a team in the midst of these many requirements. This He did.
Through these transitions and trials, God has been our strength when we had not a drop. He has been gracious and forgiving when we have failed Him. He has provided the wisdom we continually seek from Him. He has been kind enough to confirm that we are where He called us to be and doing those things He requires of us. God has been so faithful to keep us nestled at His feet and hand in hand as partners – a team. We know not everyone is blessed to be able to say that, and it is a great gift that we are humbled to receive. I don’t take this for granted. God is good.
The mission of Dallas Theological Seminary is to
glorify God by equipping godly servant-leaders
for the proclamation of His Word and the
building up of the body of Christ worldwide.