What’s wrong with the church today, or why we need more pastor-theologians

Gerald Hiestand caused a bit of a stir yesterday with a post on what’s wrong with the church today (HT). Although I’m sure he would agree that there is more than one problem with the church today, his real concern is that “the theological agenda” of the church is being set by professional theologians rather than pastors. Although this won’t sound like a big deal to some people, it is. Keep reading.

Hiestand starts things off by explaining his concern:

As a pastor who cares deeply about theology, I’ve become convinced that the present bifurcation between theological scholarship and pastoral ministry accounts for much of the theological anemia facing the church today.

Specifically, he’s concerned about those who are serving as the “wider theologians” of the church today – that is, “those who are tasked with the theological care of large swaths of the Christian tradition, or even the whole of the tradition itself.” And, his concern is that although future generations entrusted that task to pastors (e.g. Athansius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, etc.), more recent generations have handed that task on to professional (academic) theologians.

But since the nineteenth-century (in North America, at least) the center of theological reflection has shifted from the parish to the university. The pastoral community is no longer called upon—as a matter of vocation—to construct theology for those beyond their congregations. Instead, our present context views the academy as the proper home for those with theological gifts.

And, he identifies at least three problems with this development:

  1. The social location of academic theologians causes them to ask question more relevant to the academic guild than the local church.
  2. Churches become theologically shallow as those with theological gifts seek careers in the academy rather than the parish.
  3. Theology loses its roots in the church and becomes overly abstract and technical.

So, of course, he concludes with an appeal for more pastor-theologians:

The ecclesial renewal of Christian theology will not take place apart from a concerted effort to reestablish the pastoral community as the church’s most significant body of theologians. The pastoral community must once again become serious about the duties of the theological task—study, prayer, writing, and theological dialog. The pastoral community as a whole must once again don the mantle of theological responsibility for the wider church.

My initial response to Hiestand’s argument is to conclude that he is absolutely right. Why is it that our doctoral programs are currently producing far too many academic theologians than are necessary for the available academic positions, while at the same time many churches suffer from a dearth of quality theological formation? It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that it’s because we have separated the church from the theological task and concluded that it can only be adequately accomplished in an academic setting, far removed from the distractions of everyday ministry.

What a travesty. Quality theology arises from constant engagement in the life and ministry of the church, as many contemporary theologians know full well. And, the theological shallowness of many churches today absolutely requires a renewed commitment to theological depth in the pastorate. Indeed, often encourage ministry-minded students to consider a Th.M. for precisely this reason. (Did you catch my subtle sales pitch?) We absolutely must stop viewing this kind of preparation as relevant only for those headed into the academy.

Despite my initially positive reaction, though, I do have to offer a couple of additional thoughts.

  1. Things may not be as bad as he suggests. I think there is a growing movement among younger pastors toward exactly this kind of pastor-theologian. I’m constantly encouraged by the theological vitality of the next generation of pastors and I think it bodes well for the future of the church.
  2. We need to retain a place for the academic theologian. Hiestand actually agrees with this and addresses it at one point in the article, but I would have liked to see it highlighted more. Just as the professional pastor offers training and resources not available to the average Christian, so does the professional theologian. Let’s make sure that we don’t lose an important resource as we seek to swing the pendulum the other way.
  3. We shouldn’t fault those headed into the academy. As one of those who left professional ministry for the academy, I think I can speak for many who discover that it can be really difficult to find a place to express one’s gifts and interests. I agree with Brian Fulthorp who pointed out that many churches are so pragmatically-minded that there’s no room for someone interested in developing a theological ministry.

In the end, though, I am still in complete agreement. The church needs more pastor-theologians and more theological depth in the church. I’m encouraged by what I think is a strong trend in that direction, and I pray that it continues. If you are preparing to be a pastor-theologian, please continue and let the rest of us know how we can help. If you are involved in academics, please make it a key part of your mission to develop the next generation of pastor-theologians.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on January 4, 2011, in Academics, Ministry, Th.M. Program, The Church, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the link Marc – I appreciate it! 🙂 Also, I appreciate your points 2&3 above- the church needs academicians and vice versa.

    I know I am headed towards becoming a pastor-theologian type pastor – I am just still very much in process as to how all that will eventually work itself out.

    One question I have – given this issue, do you think there is a more effective path towards this than another? Would you suggest a particular program over another, meaning would it be good to get the PhD in Christian Theology in general or is one in biblical studies fine though it isn’t specifically theology per se? Does that makes sense? Maybe it doesn’t matter and getting a degree isn’t the point so much as is being one who thinks and ministers with a strong theological foundation?

    Thanks

  2. I agree, the church definitely needs more pastor-theologians. I think a problem, though, is that this is not a high priority on many church search commitees; which makes it more difficult to at least get started out as a pastor-theologian (for us free church guys, esp. 😉 ).

    And I wonder what is really meant by pastor-theologian — which I think Brian’s question on further education touches on. Does he end up looking like John MacArthur, a “Bible-expositor;” or someone who is into the “discipline” of systematic theology? And then I wonder how the pastor-theologian works within the walls of the church? Does he think of it as Calvin, the church as the classroom. This is a good thing to ponder.

  3. I find it humorous to suggest we can train up a multitude of pastor-theologians without the academy. If only we were all self-motivated enough to train ourselves into theological excellence.

    Let’s take one small but important academic subject as an example. History. How is a pastor going to have enough time on his or her hands in order to compose a historical investigation from a believer’s perspective worthy of informing the church? The pastor won’t have the time or the resources available. (For those of you who think history has nothing to offer theology, I have no words.) I could also mention linguistics…

    I’m afraid I would prefer to trump Hiestand’s position and suggest the problem with the church today is the lack of theological knowledge in our congregations which cannot simply by eliminated by establishing pastor-theologians (though it would help). We need the academy and we need the pastor-theologians, but most of all and coming to the very conclusion of it all, we need believers to hunger after the words of God – to know for themselves nothing surpasses the incomparable beauty of the knowledge of Christ.

  4. Brian, I think your last comment is spot on about the point of “being one who thinks and ministers with a strong theological foundation.” That’s the goal. The degree program is simply a means to that end, though it can be a very helpful means for many people.

    As for what to do a degree in, I really think it depends on you and the nature of the program that you enter. Doctoral programs in both theology and biblical studies can be (and often are) done in overly academic ways that would not serve you well in church ministry. But, they can also be done quite well. I would look for doctoral programs with faculty who have significant ministry experience and who prize interdisciplinary interaction between Bible and theology.

    Of course, as another not-so-subtle plug, I really do think the ThM is a good degree for many people moving in this direction. It’s not as long or expensive as a PhD, but still provides more biblical/theological depth than an MA/MDiv alone.

    • Marc, it’s fine to push Western Sem’s ThM program – it’s a good one. 🙂 And one I am willing to consider…

      I think too the tie to education is important because it is where one gain the kind of training needed to be a pastor-theologian-scholar, etc. Without it, it can be challenging if not overwhelming.

      • Stay tuned for more information about the program. I’m hoping to post news about some new ThM scholarships soon.

  5. Bobby, someone needs to do a whole post just on what it means to be a pastor-theologian. At the very least, I think it does involve more than just being a good Bible expositor (though that has to be part of it). Calvin, for example, was an outstanding expositor, but knew how to engage the theological issues of his day at a very deep level (something not all expositors can do).

    • I did a post like this awhile ago, although I can’t find it with my multitude of blogs 😉 .

      Calvin was definitely a unique character in the church’s history.

  6. Stephen, he definitely wasn’t saying that we could do this without the academy. He was just pushing back against the tendency to relocate theology to the academy entirely. So, he would agree that the lack of theological knowledge in the church as a whole is a key problem, but he thinks it’s largely the result of a lack of theological leadership from the pastorate.

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