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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.