What is the best ecclesial context for doing theology as a “pastor-theologian”: a mega church or a small church?

This is the question of my previous post, and I take up on those thoughts here focusing on the small church context…

Theology in the Small Church

The vocational model of “pastor-theologian” sounds a bit too highfalutin’ for the “1st Baptist Church of Smalltown, USA” or for the village parish somewhere in rural northern England. High-brow theological training at multiple academic institutions can leave a minister feeling licensed for “bigger and better” positions in greener pastures (let’s just be honest… and the burden of student loan debt will certainly cause some of us to look for a certain salary range).

If we pastor-theologian-types can wrestle against our personal sense of ministerial grandeur, we might find that the small church setting can be a rather exciting environment for serious theological work.

Pastors of small churches cannot rely solely on their efficient management skills: they must relationally lead as well; nor can they rely on managerial executive pastors to run the church on their behalf while they devote the majority of their time to study: they must help balance the budget while reading Barth and Calvin. A small church pastor has to get into the relational, administrative, and political messes of parish life. There is no insulating layer of a highly qualified staff.

These messes may at first be viewed as distractions from the pristine work of doing theology.

Not exactly. In fact, theology that cannot engage and address a local church’s relational, administrative, and political messes is too shallow for the people of God and for the God of the people.

And when a pastor is personally wading in the muck of the parish, that’s when the parish will listen to theology and care about it.


I’m not sure yet whether I will end up serving a local church or working in a seminary/divinity school when I complete (Deo volente!)  my PhD program. But when I was working on a Master of Theology degree a few years back, I was also pastoring a small Baptist church.

The rush and thrill of learning in a high-profile environment was exhilarating.

But if I didn’t have theology thick enough to sit in Jo’s living room after paramedics had just removed her husband’s body from her house, then the classroom experience was all for naught. If I didn’t have a theology thick enough to sit at a hospital bedside and help a nurse adjust the position of a sedated parishioner, then the impressive theological training was suffering a disconnect.

Of course, it is not entirely up to our theological instructors in the seminary and the div school to connect our theology to our ministerial labors. Ultimately, that is the job of the minister. And context helps make the connection happen.

In this regard, the small church setting was really helpful for me. It forced theology to leap off the pages and out of the libraries into living rooms, kitchens, hospitals, and graveyards.

4 thoughts on “The Pastor-Theologian and the Small Church”

  1. Amen, brother. Had a meeting with some div school professors and a student who had served an internship with us. . .she was a great example of what you wrote about here. Thanks for caring about a theology of the mind that has roots in the lives of real people.

  2. I think you’re right here, Andy. I’d prefer a smaller(ish) church to a big church as the best context for the pastor-theologian. But the one major difficulty of being a pastor-theologian who is actually producing theology beyond the parish, is the isolation factor. Probably more important than size of church is location. Invariably, the pastor-theologian will have to look outside his parish for encouragement and resourcing in the scholarly task. Being in a major city near a major center of learning will provide solid resources for a pastor-theologian, and potentially a community of intellectual peers. But being a pastor theologian at a small church in the middle of a rural community will be more of a challenge.

  3. I have had the privilege of pastoring in numerous small churches. I found the level of theological understanding there to be of an outstanding nature. No, they might not know all of the correct terminology, but they knew the truth of the teachings. One thing I think is important for a pastor of any sized congregation in teaching theology is to use language the people understand. I had a guest speaker at one church who spoke of a Greek work and commented that it was an aorist. That was wasted on everyone there except for me. It would have been great it he had just explained what the word meant–the people would have learned and he would have been a blessing.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

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