“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers,

for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

(James 3:1)

After almost a decade of pastoral ministry, I am now firmly ensconced within the academic world, getting my feet wet in a New Testament doctoral program.  Being situated quite deeply within both realms of the church and the academy has given rise to many curiosities for me, leading me to wonder how those of us in either setting could learn from the other.  I have written on this in “Post-SBL (1): What Pastoral Ministry Can Learn from Academia” and “Post-SBL (2): What Biblical Scholars Can Learn From Pastors.” I want to re-visit here what I suggested in that first post.

The process of peer review is something that is largely lacking among pastors.  For academics this review apparatus is a gauntlet of sorts that seeks to ensure some form of quality control within the guild of biblical studies (or any other academic field).  Though both scholars and pastors spend most of their time addressing non-specialists (students in the classroom or laypersons in the pews), scholars are heavily pressured to operate horizontally among their peers by presenting papers at conferences and submitting high quality essays to journals.  Reading the journals and attending the conferences are rigorously trained experts who are usually unafraid to point out any inconsistencies or inaccuracies.

It is true that that this peer review process leads to an overly critical atmosphere at times.  That scholars will critique and poke and challenge makes the academy an intimidating world.  Entire publications, like book review journals, are devoted to the genre of the scholarly critique.  But while I was sitting in the New Testament seminar here in Durham, hearing a fellow doctoral candidate respond to a series of difficult questions, I found myself quite pleased with the accountability provided by peer review.  Invective and personal bashing have no place whatsoever in the academy, but since my fellow PhD students and I are hoping to teach future leaders of the church and to possibly even write commentaries that will guide their understanding of Scripture, then most certainly, someone had better be asking us hard questions!

Peer review is built into the structure of the academic discipline, but I feel as though pastors lack any sort of equivalent in that field.  When fellow pastors ply their craft of preaching, their peers are all doing the same thing at the same time on Sunday mornings and thus unable to pop in to evaluate one another or offer critical feedback.  Ordination provides some peer review, of course, but once ordained, pastors are cast into pulpits with very little structure for accountability in their teaching.  As I wrote in that previous post, peer review is actually biblical: Paul says in 1 Cor, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (14:29) and “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (14:32).  But most of us slogging away in the pulpit every week are preaching to a lay audience with a wide range of competencies, but probably not competencies in Greek, Hebrew, ancient rhetoric, Greco-Roman background, theological interpretation, or Early Jewish eschatology.  And there are few opportunities for pastors to present their work among peers.

I am not suggesting that denominations and churches install academic structures.  Pastors do not need to look like academics to demonstrate relevance—the theological academy, I believe, exists to serve pastors (and certainly not to disparage them!).  But some sort of accountability in our ministries for teaching and preaching is surely needed to ensure that we obeying the words to Timothy: “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim 4:16).

Any suggestions for how pastoral teaching and preaching can be held to higher standards by some sort of peer review?

Here are the suggestions I offered to fellow pastors in that prior blog post I mentioned above:

1] If you are serving with multiple staff members, include a time of critique (and affirmation!) in a staff or elder meeting for the sermons presented in the past week or month, humbly opening the door for your ministry co-workers to provide some accountability.

2] Find a group of fellow pastors and agree to listen to each others’ podcasts, or at least commit to listening to one podcast per month so that the pastors in that group know one of their peers will be listening to them at some point.

3] Find ways to allow the congregation to provide more feedback, perhaps picking a few mature lay leaders and charging them with the job of taking careful notes and thinking through suggestions for improvement.

4] Devote yourself to training up a congregation into such maturity that they become effective peer-reviewers.

5] Learn to acknowledge that our ultimate accountability is provided not by laypersons or peers but by God Himself.  Fear and trembling should accompany any approach to the lectern or pulpit.

Any other ideas?

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