Dr. Jason Byassee is the pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in North Carolina. Joel and I do not know Jason personally, but we have found his writings very impressive. We were intrigued to hear of his plans to enter the pastorate considering his staggering credentials as an academic scholar and a scholarly writer. At Hopeful Realism, we want to contribute in some small way to bridging the divides between the academy and the church. In Dr. Byassee, we’ve found ourselves another noble role model in such labors. Pass this along, dear readers. Many of us are in dire need for the wisdom below…
Hopeful Realism [HR]: Jason, we know you are a writer. How will that give shape to your work as a pastor?
Byassee: I’ve thought of myself as a pastor for longer than I’ve thought of myself as a writer. I’ve long been struck by the deep similarity between the pastoral and the writing life. A pastor needs to be, above all, a first-class noticer (I’m borrowing that line, but can’t remember from whom!). That is, a person on the hunt for grace as she searches the scriptures, the life of the congregation, the body of Christ through time and space. A writer also has to be a first-class noticer. It’s no accident so many pastors have written so beautifully lately—Rick Lischer, Heidi Neumark, Lillian Daniel, Martin Copenhaver, James Howell. They’re exercising the same skills in their writing they’ve long used in their pastoral ministries.
Perhaps the most important skill for a writer is a sense of the comic, the ironic, the way the world is out of kilter and so deserves deep attention, and wry evaluation. It’s the greatest joke in the world that a crucified rabbi rules the cosmos. Deep attention to that cosmos-shattering truth is the foundation for ministry, or for me, for writing.
HR: One of my (Andy) struggles as a writer and an aspiring scholar is that I sometimes feel as though local churches do not particularly value those gifts or understand their function, so I have struggled at times with guilt when devoting energy to those labors while “on the clock.” How can those of us with a perceived calling to sophisticated theological writing ply that craft within the pastoral office? And how might the pastoral office strengthen our capacities for doing theology?
Byassee: A rich and complex set of questions. One way I put it is this—both the academy and the parish are rightly jealous of one’s time. It can take an entire lifetime just to get started being a faithful scholar or pastor—for us who treasure the hyphen to think we can do both easily is more than a little arrogant. Churches can pick up on this arrogance and feel disrespected by it. Gregory the Great, among others, speaks of the way we pastors will be accountable for the souls of those under our care on the day of judgment. Perhaps there’s a bit of the sensus fidelium in lay people wanting all of our attention.
That said, you’re quite right that pastors are charged to be theologians on behalf of the congregation, and often the congregation doesn’t understand or really want that. Those of us for whom gifts of theological erudition are part of our vocation need then to figure out a way to exercise those gifts without getting in a tug-o-war with our congregations. That is, there has to be some way to show that our gifts are for the good of the church, not just of ourselves. Eugene Peterson negotiated this at his parish early in his career by telling his congregation they had his attention in the afternoons. In the morning he was reading and writing. If there was an emergency they could find him. But if not he asked them to respect his study. Now it wouldn’t have worked if they didn’t see the fruit of his study in his preaching. But indeed they did, and subsequently the whole church has in his spiritual theology, his biblical translations, his wise and raucous new memoir. Every parish is different, but my sense is for it to work it has to work like this—where the church takes a sort of ownership and then pride in the deep exercise of these specific gifts.
At the same time, the church has the right to ask us ministers to do things that aren’t our first gifts, or our preferred sort of work for the time being, and we have to respect that sort of request, even if it turns out to be a form of cross-bearing for a time. Even then we’ll be doing first order theology as we break open the scriptures to preach, teach, preside, order, evangelize, and if we’re in the scriptures in those ways that’s sufficient intellectual exercise.
HR: What practices or disciplines have you observed as a scholar that have kept you bound to the life and ministry of the church? And what practices do you intend to observe as a pastor that will maintain your devotion to “the life of the mind” and enhance your competence for speaking/writing in academic, as well as ecclesial, circles?
Byassee: The primary one has been involvement in local congregations. My wife is a Methodist pastor, and has worked on ministries of mission and discipleship at Duke Memorial UMC here in Durham. So I’ve spent the last few years as a Methodist pastor’s spouse, trying to keep the kids in order, getting them to Sunday School on time, gazing on her adoringly as she preaches or leads small groups. I’ve also taken Stanley Hauerwas’s advice, which he credits to John Howard Yoder—anyone who asks me to do anything for the church I try to say “yes.” I’m struck by the degree of ecclesial commitment among my colleagues at Duke Divinity School, staff and faculty both. Whatever else we disagree on, we’re all committed to the local church and its flourishing. That said, I’m not sure it’s been sufficient for me. I’ve still felt too far removed from the local church, which is why I’m heading back into it.
As for the local church and the life of the mind, I guess I don’t know yet. The best-read people I know are usually pastors. They work hard to stay up-to-date in a variety of fields, not only in theology and church, but also in politics, fiction, the works. I’ve often been impressed to see the peers my age in the academy, if they want to read a new book, they have to assign it for a class they’re teaching. Otherwise they don’t read. The demands for academic performance in their field, the need to publish for tenure, teach for class, serve on committees, and then see about their own lives are so great there’s no time or energy left for simply reading. Surprisingly the academy may not be a great place to deepen the life of the mind.
The academy is so fractured now, even more than when I started as a graduate student. In the early 90s one could identify clear trends in theology—Radical Orthodoxy for example. Now we’re in such balkanized camps with no agreed upon canon there’s no way anyone could keep up across the board. Ecclesial disciplines at least give one a focus in reading: if something’s not useful for the life of the church why spend time on it? Of course that criterion holds true for the academy too, it’s just easier to forget it there for some reason.
HR: Some intellectual pastors must fight the tendency to view the grass as greener across the campus fence. In your experience, is the grass truly greener in the academy than in the practical, messy fields of the parish?
Byassee: One has to be careful generalizing about the academy. Some academic settings are in real financial trouble, others are not at all. Some make space for a vibrant life of the mind and some much less so. So I wouldn’t say academia as such is better or worse. It’s like parish life that way—generalizing in a way that lumps together, say, an enormous and innovative parish like Redeemer Pres in New York with the small rural parish I once served in rural North Carolina is probably a mistake. When we’re grad students or considering being grad students we imagine working at a place where the resources are limitless, but even wealthy institutions have limitations. I remember talking to one school that wanted me to apply for a job, and they promised they would try to get me a used computer sometime after I’d been there a year or two. Lots of friends who have tenure-track jobs at reputable places still have to ask their parents for money for things or work second jobs. Grass: not so green.
Having warned against generalizations I’ll now make some. There might be more benefits in some ways (Will Willimon told me he asked where his expense account was once he became a UM bishop—to buy books, take students out. They laughed at him and pointed out he makes a salary…). In some academic settings the drinks are still free. But then again in some parish settings they are too—tall steepled pastors often make a great deal more money than the vast majority of academics. Academic life can be so fractious (the old joke: why are academic fights so contentious? Because the stakes are so small). Academia can be enormously siloed (another joke: the university is a community of scholars united by a common sewer system). At its best the academy allows us time, space, resources to explore the deepest challenges to human community and draw on all the best thinking of various disciplines to innovative service precisely there. At worst it’s a set of fiefdoms people are bound to protect. That’s true of the parish too—at best we love God and neighbor well and organize our efforts for all the baptized to exercise their gifts in the body. At worst we’re a pious club of judgmental hypocrites.
Of course the academy and the church are somewhere between extremes all the time (simul justus et peccator). The problems in both places may have more to do with the fall and human pride than they do with being the academy or the church. God has only sinners to work with after all.
What I want to fight against pretty strongly is a view that the smart seminary students should go into the academy. I often tell students they’re too smart for academia—we need them in the church. Sarah Coakley tells would-be students to do academic work only if there’s an intellectual problem they can’t work out in the parish. That strikes me as an appropriately narrow rationale. So many of us want to do academic work to prove we’re one of the smart kids. That’s not such a good reason. Of course we’re all a mash of good and bad motives on whom God will have some work to do at the Judgment.
HR: How can seminaries and divinity schools inspire a deeper appreciation for the pastoral office without compromising scholarly rigor?
Byassee: By telling better stories. A friend of mine, when she told her seminary dean she was going to take a parish and not do PhD work, was told, “What a waste.” That’s an outrageous story—but we’ve all heard it and been depressed by it. What about the pastor who spends his free time reading the Church Dogmatics, not trawling for sermon material, but wanting to love God with his mind more deeply? Or the academic whom students approach for pastoral wisdom because the love of God fills the room whenever she enters to lecture? There are such people, but we seldom hear or tell stories about them. Willimon likes to say he was immediately impressed by the specifically intellectual difficulty of being a parish pastor. In the academy you’re responsible for a narrow set of intellectual questions—you eschew breadth to burrow down deep. That’s good. In the parish you do precisely the opposite: you have to be able to say something deep about an enormous breadth of topics. In my first meetings with the lay leaders of my new church I was asked questions about why Gen X’ers aren’t joining, about how to pay for both cell phones for staff and for missions in Guatemala, about how the order of service should look and when and why to have communion . . . and they don’t even know me yet! These questions suggest not just pious niceties, they suggest a people committed to loving God with their minds, and to asking for help with doing precisely that.
HR: Finally, we know you have done a lot of work on Augustine. How might his writings and example inspire and guide you and your wife as pastors in local churches?
Byassee: I’m impressed with the enormous intellectual demands Augustine made on his congregations of largely illiterate north African peasants in the late 4th and early 5th century. He preached sermons on the admirabile commercium (granted, their Latin was better than ours…), on the Trinity, against heresies, and on every possible scrap of scripture, and he did it to lay people stopping off for morning prayer on their way to work. One way to think of these sermons is to imagine him preaching to his mother Monica—the person whose spirit and intellect he respects as deeply as any other, yet a fully three-dimensional person he’s willing (obliquely) to criticize. He takes her seriously in the fullness of her person and would never dare not bring the heat intellectually when she’s in the congregation.
Not a bad model for the sort of intellectual and pastoral interface you’re asking about.
Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, North Carolina. He is also a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School, a program dedicated to funding the imaginations of Christian institutional leaders. He writes for LEADD’s web-based magazine, Faith & Leadership, and especially its blog, Call & Response (www.faithandleadership.com/blog). He is also a Research Fellow for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary in New York (http://blog.newmediaprojectatunion.org/).
He previously served at Duke as Director of the Center for Theology, Writing and Media and Special Assistant to Dean L. Gregory Jones. He was also an Executive Director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
He is a contributing editor to Christian Century magazine, where he was an assistant editor from 2004-2008. He writes there on such topics as theology, church history, politics, liturgy, popular culture, and spiritual practices. His work has also appeared in Christianity Today, Theology Today, Books & Culture, Sojourners, United Methodist Reporter, and First Things. He serves on boards for The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, the School for Conversion, and The Other Journal. His work has been recognized with several awards from the Associated Church Press and in 2007 with the American Academy of Religion’s first place award for newswriting for outlets with circulations under 100,000.
He is the author of four books: Reading Augustine: A Guide to Confessions (Cascade, 2006), An Introduction to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cascade, 2007), Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine (Eerdmans, 2007), and The Gifts of the Small Church (Abingdon). He is presently working on a volume with Westminster’s new Interpretation series on the history of biblical exegesis.
He holds a B.A. from Davidson College, an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a Ph.D. in systematic theology and church history Duke University. He has taught at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, Wheaton College, and Northern Seminary, all in the Chicago area, as well as Duke Divinity School. He is an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. His wife Jaylynn serves as a pastor of Valle Crucis and Bethelview UMC’s. Jason and Jaylynn have three young boys, 8, 6, and 3.