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.