Category Archives: Pastor-Theologian

books

The Media Product of the Pastor-Theologian (Theological Writing, or Faithful Congregation?)

Theologian = Writer.

That is often how we understand vocational theology. We equate theologians with academic writing. The fruit of theology is a book.

And certainly, those of us doing theology and biblical studies within academic domains are required to write.

Everyone in every job has to demonstrate some evidence of “output.” What do theologians have to show for their hard work? Books and journal articles. Academic theologians are assessed and measured by their writing output. In this model, the better theologian is the one writing the most articles and books at the highest quality.

Pastor-Theologians as Writers…?

But how well does this model work for theologians whose vocational domain is not the academy, but the local church? Are the best pastor-theologians those writing the most essays and books at the highest quality?

The hyphen in “pastor-theologian” creates quite a bit of vocational tension. To fulfill the “pastor” bit, there will be inevitably be less writing of books and articles. As Jason Byassee has commented in an interview on this blog, congregations should be allowed to beckon their pastor out of the quiet study to the hospital bed, graveside, or pulpit.

Does the “theologian” side of “pastor-theologian” therefore suffer because the “pastor” dimension limits the amount of theological writing?

The answer depends on how we define “theology.”

Congregations as Published Theology

I think we can agree that Paul could be classified as a “pastor-theologian.” As such, he did not publish theological tomes. One of the greatest Christian theologians of the early church, he did not leave us with sustained systematic reflections on the Incarnation of Christ or the Doctrine of the Church.

He left us letters. The media product of Paul the Theologian is a collection of his correspondences with localized churches.

But Paul seems to exalt another media product higher than his letters. The primary media product of a pastor-theologian may actually be a faithful congregation:

“You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.” 2 Cor 3:2

The strongest attestation of Paul’s work as a pastor-theologian was not a published monograph or collection of essays but a publicly visible community of Christians. He seems content to construct his vocational reputation not on his academic feats but on his pastoral work in forming congregations.

More could be said. And of course, the media product of a pastor-theologian need not be either theological writing or faithful congregations. It could well be both. And the disciplines of theology and pastoral ministry inform and enrich the other. As a writer, I am in no way interested in diminishing the task of writing in the pastoral office.

But as it turns out, today is my day in the chaplain’s office, and pastoral appointments await….

Untitled

St. Gregory the Great and the Pastor-Theologian | “The care of souls is the art of arts”

I was scanning the patristics section in my college library when I found this:

Gregory the Great (540–604) was one of the most influential popes in the history of the church. One of his legacies is The Book of Pastoral Rule (henceforth, “PR” [1]).

Pastoring is an ancient craft, one Gregory calls (borrowing from Gregory Nazianzus [2]) “the art of arts.” I grabbed the book off the shelf for holiday reading material.

What intrigued me is the pastoral crisis Gregory was writing into. As the translator George Demacopoulos explains in his introduction to PR, an interesting phenomenon took place after Constantine’s conversion. As the Roman populace suddenly began flooding into the church en masse, many Christians believed the collective spiritual maturity became increasingly more shallow. Living out the faith seemed more authentic back in the pre-Constantine days, when being a Christian was less popular and even socially quite challenging. So many of the more ‘serious’ Christians made an exodus from the congregations of the masses to join monastic communities and embrace a more ascetic life.

Gregory, however, was calling these ascetics back to the churches to become pastors.

Well… not necessarily all of them. He highly valued asceticism and the monastic life; yet he knew that many Christians gifted for pastoral ministry were fleeing the parish to the monastery, so to speak.

What St. Gregory had found in his own life and throughout the wider body of Christ is that the attraction of a more spiritual and studious life can actually deplete the church of her best guides and pastors.

This temptation is very real today. For some of us, the academic life seems to afford a contemplative vocation of rigorous theological and biblical study. Oddly, a love for God’s words can actually become the means by which gifted ministers leave the parish and the pulpit. (Though let us note that many an academic will say that such a contemplative existence is a gross illusion!).

I leave you with the challenge of St. Gregory’s own words:

For there are several who possess incredible virtues and who are exalted by great talents for training others; men who are spotless in the pursuit of chastity, stout in the vigor of fasting, satiated in the feasts of doctrine, humble in the long-suffering of patience, erect in the fortitude of authority, tender in the grace of kindness, and strict in the severity of judgment. To be certain, if they refuse to accept a position of spiritual leadership when they are called, they forfeit the majority of their gifts—gifts which they received not for themselves only, but also for others. When these men contemplate their own spiritual advantages and do not consider anyone else, they lose these good because they desire to keep them to themselves. Certainly, the Truth [Jesus] spoke of this to the disciples: “A city set upon a mountain cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a candle and place it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick so that it may shine for everyone who is in the house” [Mt 5:14–15]. Hence, he said to Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And when Simon responded at once that he loved him, he said, “If you love me, feed my sheep” [Jn 21:15–17]. If therefore, the care of feeding is a testament to loving, then he who abounds in virtues but refuses to feed the flock of God is found guilty of having no love for the supreme Shepherd….
…And so there are those, as we have said, who are enriched by many gifts; and because they prefer contemplative study, they decline to make themselves useful by preaching to their neighbors, and preferring the mystery of stillness they take refuge in the solitude of [spiritual] investigations
. If they are judged strictly by their conduct, they are undoubtedly guilty for the proportion of their abilities that they applied to public service. For indeed, what is the disposition of mind when one could be distinguished by assisting his neighbors but prefers his own [stillness] to the assistance of others, when, in fact, the only-begotten of the supreme Father came forth from the bosom of the Father into our midst so that he might benefit the many? [PR, I.5]

[1] St Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule (tr. George Demacopoulos; Popular Patristics Series 34; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007).

[2] Gregory the Theologian, Apology for his Flight to Pontus, Or 2.

small

The Pastor-Theologian and the Small Church

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.

Personally…

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.

mega

The Ideal Context for a Pastor-Theologian: Small Church or Mega Church?

In light of the previous post, “Will the Job Market Drive PhD Graduates into the Pulpit?“, I just wanted to think aloud with any interested readers on the ideal ecclesial setting for the vocational model of a “pastor-theologian.”

For more on how I am envisioning this model of pastoral ministry, see here and here.

I want to be careful not to promote some elitist brand of “minister” by writing so often about the “pastor-scholar/pastor-theologian.” The current pastoral leaders of the church are differently gifted and a vast range of divinely-guided inclinations are shaping their individual ministries. In using the term “pastor-theologian,” I am loosely referring to someone who engages the work of theology with all the rigor and zeal of academic theologians, but within the specific context of the parish and the pews of local church life.

But what sort of ecclesial setting is more conducive for the pastor-theologian: a small church or a larger one? There is no easy answer here because churches differ in their leadership structures, just as ministers differ from one another in their range of gifts and interests.

Pastoral Theology in the Mega Church Context

In this post, let’s just think for a bit about the potential for doing theology from the pastoral office of a mega church.

Many of our larger churches are led by CEO-styled ministers who are effective at governing and inspiring a sizable institution. This managerial model does not seem that viable for the sort of sustained reflection and quietness that attends what we normally think of as the work of theology.

Some mega church pastors, though, are permitted to devote their ministerial labors primarily to the preaching and teaching office of the church. Many of those we normally think of as high-profile pastor-scholars spend 20+ hours a week on each sermon. Their schedules are carefully preserved for studying and writing, while other manager-type ministers occupy themselves with the business of running the church.

The problem here, however, is that a pastor-scholar who gets this much time safely for reading and writing can be shielded from the daily life of the flock. Such a pastor-theologian, therefore, may not be able to do theology pastorally. Of course, if all that prep work is devoted to a sermon, then there is a powerfully pastoral element at work. Homiletics is essentially pastoral. Those countless hours of reading are usually devoted not to producing an erudite essay but a message for Sunday morning. But it should be acknowledged that being confined to a study and immersed in the works of biblical scholars and great theologians can become as much an “ivory tower” setting as the office of the professional academic theologian on the university quad.

Advantages and disadvantages abound. Any thoughts?

[Next post will be up soon focusing on the Small Church Context for Theology]

 

Pastor-Theologian: Will the Job Market Drive PhD Graduates into the Pulpit?

While brewing a second cup of coffee to keep alert in my Greek readings this morning, I found Chris Spinks’ post “Avoid a PhD?” His reflections were stimulated by Anthony LeDonne’s most recent attempt to dissuade prospective PhD candidates from pursuing their vocational dreams (LeDonne offers such discouragement on a monthly basis).

The gist of the matter is that those of us in the throes of doctoral work are loading ourselves with ungodly gobs of debt to be qualified for jobs that simply do not exist. Universities are raising tuition and increasing enrollment, but theology and religious studies professors are among the least paid across all disciplines. More and more academic institutions are taking advantage of “adjunct” professors who teach courses for very modest stipends and for whom the institutions provide nothing in terms of healthcare or other benefits.

Spinks (aptly) summarizes the advice of one commenter on LeDonne’s post in this way: “If you are not independently wealthy, or if you don’t have the pedigree to get an advanced degree in the humanities paid for, then please leave these degrees to those who can afford them.” But Spinks is concerned about the fallout, that “advanced degrees in the humanities become attainable only by the privileged.” He goes on to suggest that “if these less fortunate folks avoid all of this [financial/vocational] mess (not an unwise decision, I’ll grant), we will end up with privileged people educating other privileged people. That would be a shame.”

I am certainly among the (partially insane) unprivileged who are taking on hordes of debt to study the Bible at the doctoral level (though, admittedly, just the fact that I qualify for a student loan plan and can even dream about a PhD evidences a hefty degree of privilege). To be honest, I would issue the same advice as LeDonne, while hoping with Spinks that some less-than-privileged folks will end up teaching Scripture and theology in our seminaries and Religion Departments. I could never recommend this vocational path to anyone without massive financial backing—my regrets are rather acute right now; but again, theology should not be the domain only of the financially backed.

Though I see no solution to the debt-problem, here is one silver lining that may well be at play: not finding a job in the academy, some Christians may be redirected from the academic lectern to the ecclesial pulpit. Perhaps the job market and the wider culture’s disinterest in theology will have the effect of proliferating pastor-theologians throughout the church.

Obviously there are drawbacks here. For one, ministry is a calling and the pastoral office is not well-served if filled by a disgruntled academic whose dreams in the academy have been dashed by an economic recession. Secondly, the sort of training one gets as a PhD candidate is not necessarily conducive for promoting the sort of theological and biblical acuity required in ministerial labors.

But “calling” is often a matter of redirection, isn’t it? What some people might retrospectively call “divine calling,” might be understood at first as a “divine cornering or redirecting!” Saul of Tarsus, for instance, never envisioned how God would put his intensive academic training to use. His vocation as an apostle arose out of the ashes of a Christ-exploded vocational dream.

As for the sort of academic training involved in the PhD… well, a lot of it is simply unhelpful in a church context, sadly. But the greatest benefit of doctoral work in theology and Bible may well be the skill of reading hard texts and the discipline of thinking about them with nuance and care. And we could certainly use the fruit of those skills and disciplines in our pulpits today.

Theoretically, Christians working on PhDs are already plying their craft to the glory of God and for the benefit of the church. When the doors of the ivory towers are barred shut during the job hunt, will they turn to pulpits and pews?

That begs another question: will the pews and chapel doors be open to academically trained theologians and Bible scholars?

Hmmm…

 

 

WordsW

The Poet William Wordsworth on the Pastor-Theologian

I visited Rydal Mount a few weeks ago, the home of poet William Wordsworth.  My father-in-law was visiting us here in England, so we spent a couple of days in “the Lakes” (besides my father-in-law, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were apparently also sighted in the Lake District that week).

Rydal Mount sits just on a sloped hill affording a view of both Windermere and Rydal Water.  With the gardens elegantly manicured, inspired by the tender care the poet gave to every flower bed, stone and patch of green, the place feels like a dreamy sanctuary.

When we were leaving, my father-in-law bought me a collection of Wordsworth’s poetry from the gift shop.  I will be reading those sonnets for the rest of my life.  I was pleased to come across this one, called “Pastoral Character,” from the Ecclesiastical Sonnets (number 18):

 

PASTORAL CHARACTER, William Wordsworth

A genial hearth, a hospitable board,
And a refined rusticity, belong
To the neat mansion, where, his flock among,
The learned Pastor dwells, their watchful Lord.
Though meek and patient as a sheathéd sword;
Though pride’s least lurking thought appear a wrong
To human kind; though peace be on his tongue,
Gentleness in his heart – can earth afford
Such genuine state, pre-eminence so free,
As when, arrayed in Christ’s authority,
He from the pulpit lifts his awful hand;
Conjures, implores, and labours all he can
For re-subjecting to divine command
The stubborn spirit of rebellious man?

 

A few things stand out to me….

For one, Wordsworth’s portrayal is of what I would call a “pastor-theologian” or a “pastor-scholar.”  Note the phrase “learned pastor,” and given the way ecclesiastical structures work in England (and noting the setting of the mid-1800s), many pastors/priests would be among society’s intellectuals, though the clergy often worked well beyond the pale of where most elites worked (like in remote country parishes, for instance).

Another observation is the restrained sense of power and authority.  There is tension between exerting force and exhibiting meekness.  I think good pastors live in this tension.  The line, “meek and patient as a sheathéd sword,” is a powerful illustration of ministerial restraint.  There is a might, a sharp-steel element of danger in the pastor.  Not a danger posed to the flock, but to evil, to twisted thoughts, to deception.  The place of conflict is the pulpit; the means of engagement is exhortation (“Conjures, implores, and labours all he can”) and the authority is that of Christ.  But again, note that these images of strength are balanced with the weight of statements about meekness and peacefulness of heart.

Another observation, made from the initial lines, is that the pastor’s home (the “mansion” probably refers to a parsonage or vicarage) is a safe, open place wherein the members of the flock feel at ease.  The pastor’s home is as critical as the pastor’s pulpit.

So the pastoral character is that of a soul exuding comfort and peace while also engaging evil in the realms of the pulpit and the hearth, the chapel and the home.

Good stuff.

 

ch6

Interview with Jason Byassee (pt. 2): The Rift between Church and Academy

This is the 2nd part of our interview with Jason Byassee (for part 1, scroll down or click here).  We have written quite a bit on the idea of the pastor-scholar / pastor-theologian here at HR (see previous posts for some links).  Jason’s pastoral and writing ministry seems to hug the edges of the (sometimes over-emphasized, sometimes under-acknowledged) divide between the church and the academy.  We are glad to feature some of his wisdom here at the blog….

 

Church, Academy, and the Pastor Theologian
HR: You used to have an office ensconced within one of the most esteemed academic institutions in the land (oak-lined quads, Gothic-style architecture, and a state-of-the-art library, even!).  What do you miss about the academic setting?  And what about the parish setting has been most freeing or most constricting?  

I really miss the library. Appalachian State University, the institution without which Boone would not exist, has a good one, but trying to borrow the obscure stuff I need for my work is really hard. The interlibrary loan people see me as a guy off the street, which technically I am. It’s almost tempting to adjunct just for the library card or use of the school’s sports palace.

App is a growing and strong academic institution that’s comfortable in its skin. It hitched its wagon to the green economy stuff before it was cool. It serves its region beautifully. And it’s growing in sustainable ways. Duke is constantly unhappy with itself. It was founded in 1920 to catch Harvard, founded a third of a millennium before. You have to hustle to do that. That hustle makes Duke great. It also makes Duke constantly dissatisfied with itself, and that affects how people treat one another.

At Duke I was surrounded by brilliant people with worldwide reputations in their (very narrow) fields who rarely even spoke with one another. In the church I’m surrounded with brilliant people, not all of them academics blessedly, and I usually get to have conversations with them much more easily than in Durham. But we talk about their work—in business, medicine, parenting, academia etc. The range of conversation is so much wider. The academy is great at going deep, not broad. The work I’m doing now often goes both deep and broad. It’s more intellectually challenging in some ways, with less bluster.

I do feel less shielded from the culture now. Broader culture has become more coarse, more outraged—outrage is the only coin in fact. FoxNews and talk radio are to blame for this. People deal with me as though those are appropriate ways to do so. And the church is made up of really kind people who aren’t good at standing up to their fellow members when they’re being bullies. Who is good at that really? Sometimes that’s my job, to stand up to people when others won’t. And I don’t like it anymore than anyone else. Surprisingly academia can be more civil than that.

 

HR: Suspicion towards intellectualism and academic institutions persists or even flourishes in many local churches (and sometimes for good reason, of course).  How can pastors inclined toward rigorous intellectual pursuits promote a healthy vision of the “pastor-scholar” within local churches and the wider community of faith?

Maybe my parish is different in this—I don’t find my folks anti-intellectual at all. They don’t want me to hide in jargon not designed for them, and I don’t blame them for that a bit. We do have town-gown tensions that come out in church. Someone thanked me once for praying for Boone’s businesses. Seems obvious—they’re struggling, like everyone’s. But what she really meant was that I’m sometimes solely focused on the university in my preaching and prayer. There are other industries in town. She was gracious in pointing out a genuine oversight.

One way this comes out is in how the church receives historical criticism. On that I find folks all over the map. Some want me to affirm historical accuracy on every point; others are reading Spong. This doesn’t trouble me. I don’t trust in historical criticism either, and it’s not my job to pass judgment on ‘what really happened.’ My job is to bring Spong readers and other fundamentalists of all kind closer to Jesus. They both want to be close to Jesus in their deepest selves, under the tarnished imago dei. So I think some of the strain between theological academy and parish in modernity has been something like this, “How come they don’t want to hear about Q or deuetero-Isaiah in my preaching?” Answer: because historical re-creation cannot save. Neither should it be feared.

 

Counsel for the seekers…
HR: Granting that everyone’s situation is different, what general counsel would you offer for young women and men in the church who are intellectually gifted and dreaming of doctoral work in theology or biblical studies, yet simultaneously sense a call to ministry?

Eugene Peterson borrows from Denise Levertov a description of a dog walking, “intently haphazard.” That’s been my life. There is no single job on which to land. Pursue what lights you up. That’s a sign from God, a healthy, gospel-shaped ambition. Do it as a servant to increase love of God and neighbor. There will be more kinds of jobs in the future, not fewer, with social media’s proliferation and new forms of church and the academy’s bubble perhaps bursting on the horizon (its funding model can’t be sustained, and competitors will move in that aren’t as stupid as the for-profit industry). So study hard as an expression of love of God and neighbor. I had no idea 2 of the 3 jobs I’ve had existed. This one, which I did know about, I was both hopelessly overtrained and underprepared for. That makes it really, really fun.