J. Todd Billings and Stephen Shaffer on the Loneliness of the Pastor-Theologian

Jason slid his copy of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation back into his book bag with a sigh. He had hoped this pastors’ group might finally appreciate his desire to slowly study the deep things of God, and his longing for theological friendship. For Jason these desires went hand in hand with his pastoral calling, but he noticed the looks when he arrived, Athanasius in hand. He had seen them plenty of times before: the puzzled and slightly defensive look of the pastor who has read only a handful of books since seminary; the impatient glance of the pastor who wants “to get on with the real work of ministry;” the weary look that says, “If only I had the time.” Even the concerned look, as if reading theology might lead him away from God, deadening his ability to sense the Spirit. Jason vowed to himself to leave his books at home next time.

Jason’s experience is common among those who feel called to be pastor-theologians. At seminary, probing conversations about Scripture and theology were everywhere: in the classroom, the common areas, the coffee shop, and his apartment. But post-seminary, the pastor’s life can be theologically lonely. Even when friendships flourish and one is surrounded with a strong community of faith, pastors can experience a profound theological isolation.

In many congregations, the discipline of theology is simply not valued. Congregations may like having a “smart pastor,” but they are unsure how his or her interest makes a difference in the church’s ministry. Theological study is often viewed with suspicion, a particular brand of nerdiness—the Baptist minister is a Spurgeon fan, the Catholic priest roots for Aquinas, and the Reformed pastor wears Jonathan Edwards t-shirts. Theology is all well and good—as long as it does not keep pastors from more important tasks.

In fact, with so many people to care for, sermons to write, skills to master, who can justify the slow work of reading theology (let alone reflecting or writing theologically)? There is no room for the church father Athanasius when marriages are falling apart, people are on hospice, and membership is shrinking.

It’s no wonder that so many pastors who feel the tug of theological reflection abandon it after a few months or a few years in the pastorate. So how can those with a vision and sense a calling to do theological work keep this vision and calling alive as they serve the local church?

Why Theology?

The place to begin is to remind ourselves why we believe theology is not just a nerdy pastime but crucial for our ministries.

At a practical level, pastor-theologians know better than most that the urgent demands of ministry are precisely when theological reflection is most needed. Theology is about living before God in our true identity: in Christ, by the Spirit, as adopted children of the Father. Ongoing theological reflection enables the pastor to see the work of God more clearly and more fully—even when the marriage falls apart, even when the hospice patient stays angry, even when the membership rolls continue to lag. Pragmatic solutions can help up to a point. But the deeper, lasting resources are found only in the Word, and theological reflection can help us see more deeply into that Word. Thus these critical pastoral moments become opportunities for pastors to help parishioners not just deal with their grief or concern, but to become increasingly aware that as adopted children of God, as those filled with the Spirit, as those who are in Christ, these trials can become sanctified events. In this way, the Word becomes an ever brighter “lamp” for our feet and “light” for our path.

Theological work can also help us keep alert to unhealthy trends in church life and ministry. Book after book target pastors and church leaders, calling them and the church to be “reinvented” in order to survive and thrive in the West today. The inboxes of pastors are filled with practical strategies for becoming more missional or more effective. Yet each new approach makes assumptions about how God is at work, and not all such assumptions are equally valid.

For example, Reggie McNeal’s notion of the church as an airport has been frequently touted to pastors: “[An] airport is a place of connection, not a destination,” McNeal writes in Missional Renaissance. “Its job is to help people get somewhere else. An airport-centric world of travel would be dull and frustrating, no matter how nice the airport is.” Inspired by this analogy, pastors are encouraged to periodically cancel Sunday morning worship so the congregation can serve the neighborhood in some practical way.

Note the theological assumption here: Jesus is more likely to be found on the street than in worship. In McNeal’s words, “The church is a connector, linking people to the kingdom life that God has for them. Substituting church activity as the preferred life expression is as weird as believing that airports are more interesting than the destinations they serve.”

McNeal’s concern for outreach and service is admirable. But his popular airport analogy is theologically shaky. It assumes that what happens in the sanctuary is secondary to what happens in the neighborhood. Worship is in danger of becoming mostly a pep rally to motivate members to serve.

Most Protestant theologians, especially those with roots in Reformation theology, teach that corporate worship is primary, because in our gathering together we receive God’s Word in preached and sacramental forms. In worship, Christ presents himself to us by the Spirit as Lord and Head of his church. In receiving God’s Word together on a weekly basis, we live into our God-given identity as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

If we’re looking for where God is active, then Sunday morning worship is not just a temporary stopping point. For we are called to dwell, abide, and remain in Jesus Christ, whom we access through Scripture. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

To be sure, this is inseparable from the fruit of obedience. “You are my friends if you do what I command,” Jesus says (15:14). This obedience should be on display both within church fellowship and to the world at large. Yet, as a place where we repeatedly feed upon God’s Word as a community, the unglamorous “church service” has a special place in God’s economy. It’s where the Triune God has promised to show up. The Son promised to send the Spirit from the Father, and this Spirit “will testify about me” (15:26). The drama of this trinitarian self-disclosure envelopes us, calling sinners like us to our true identity in Christ. This extraordinary action of God takes place, in a special way, through the “ordinary” means of grace—the receiving of God’s Word in congregational worship.

Theology then helps in two ways. First, it can help us discern the strengths and weaknesses of church and ministry trends. That, in turn, can help us better order our priorities as leaders of our church.

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Source: Christianity Today