Friday, April 04, 2014

Do pastors and theologians have anything to do with each other?

Before you read this post, I encourage you to wander over to Professor Gregory Walter's blog and check out some of his theological musings. Or read the following guest post first, and my response. We've cross-posted these reflections to compliment one another and celebrate our pastor-theologian friendship.

This question emerges from me pondering the state of theology, both academic and for the church, and its relationship to pastors. 
Do pastors and theologians have anything to do with each other?
It seems not! 
1. We're doing different things. Each of us has our (relatively) autonomous regions and expertise. Dead languages. French theorists. German philosophers. Libraries. Hospitals. 9th graders. 
2. Academic theologians are full-time theologians. Pastors can be theologians in a semi-professional way if they have the time. Pastors have many more activities than theology; teaching theology is very close to the task of doing theology for academic theologians. 
3. We may seem to only meet in practical or pastoral theology, but that focuses only on one academic theological discipline. There is far more to the theological disciplines than that. 
4. Theologians seem to write for each other and their students, not for pastors. The task of translating or applying theology depends upon the reader. Academic theology is not ready-made for congregational life. Most academic theologians receive their recognition and achievements through their writing for other scholars. They get paid to teach and research; their earnings from book sales are almost nothing. Writing for a popular audience figures very low in their incentives. And because of that, it seems that academic theologians take a trickle-down view toward pastors: they seem to expect pastors to receive and use what they create. 
5. Keeping up with theology is hard. There are sometimes more popular books or speakers who are not academic theologians that are closer to pastoral ministers. It seems that these authors are who most pastors recognize as theologians relevant to their work. 
6. Theology is slow. It takes a great deal of time to craft and build a theological work. And theologians mature slowly. Theology can't always respond quickly enough to the exigences of pastoral situation. 
7. Academic theologians aren't very interested in ecclesial politics. They've got enough to worry about in their particular academic settings. 
Is there a future for theologians and pastors?

Arkansas-Minnesota Vimeo dialogue preparing our high schoolers to see The Hobbit

Clint's response:

Do theologians and pastors have anything to do with each other?

It seems yes! Respond if you will!

1. Many (though not all) theologians have a pastor. After they emerge from the musty stacks of ancient tomes of theology into the light of day, they wander over to the local parish to pick their children up from youth group. This makes me wonder if they ever strike up a conversation with their local parish pastor about the esoterica of their academic theologizing. It almost causes me to wonder to what extent clergy invite academic theologians to bring their work as a contribution to their ministry. Theologians have pastors. Do pastors have theologians?

2. Theologians often think they are more professional than they actually are. Which is to say, theological inquiry, and quite deep levels of it, can be accomplished in all kinds of settings, even or perhaps especially avocational ones. Johann Georg Hamann, for example, who worked as a clerk in a mercantile house while devoting his free time to intense theological inquiry. And it is the case that many theologians, because of the wide variety of work their chairs or tenured positions or teaching entail (grading papers, attending faculty meetings), may actually be on a level with many others who read and think theologically. This isn't to discount the special role academic theologians play in the wider theological conversation. They typically know more languages, read more specifically and narrowly in a field, and therefore bring levels of cross-pollination and specificity to the theological enterprise many others are unable to bring. But inasmuch as academics tend to think hierarchically, placing their ph.D. and academic status above rather than in the service of the theological conversation, they introduce unnecessary problems.

3. Pastors, on the other hand, often dismiss academic theology. Lamentably, one of the most common things clergy say is, "That's too academic. I don't have time for that." Like any other discipline, you have to learn the language to really engage the topic. None of us were born knowing calculus. You have to learn and rehearse arcane formulas. Similarly, there are benefits to learning the language of theology, and even if academic theology is not ready-made for congregational life, it is the specific role of clergy to translate the important matters of faith for parish life. Clergy are the bridge. They are called to read at least some theology and translate it.

4. Keeping up with parish life is hard.

5. Lots of practical theology fails to be practical. Or, said differently, much of non-practical theology is actually more practical.

6. Parish life is slow. It takes a great deal of time and craft to build a healthy faith community. And pastors mature slowly. Clergy can't always respond quickly enough to the exigencies of theological situations. Just when we get programs in place, the theological landscape shifts. Clergy often perceive theologians as traveling light, because they can remain in their theory, without having to wrestle with praxis.

7. It is rare to hear academic theologians reflect specifically on their life in a local congregation. Theologians write ecclesiologies. It would be fascinating to hear theologians reflect on how their theology connects to the worship services they are attending weekly, or their service on a church council.

8. Pastors are sometimes unaware of how pastoral teaching theology actually is. The average theologian spends more of their time (I imagine) caring for their students, building community in the academic context, attending chapel, walking the campus, preparing syllabi and grading papers, than they actually do researching and writing academic theology. In this sense, clergy and theologians are quite alike. In either profession, one must carve out and protect time to "do" theology.

9.  Where theologians, at least ones engaged in critical reflection, may consider themselves the "grumpy" ones, vetting the truth of ideas and proposals, clergy are for the most part required to be "happy." Regardless of the relative truth of various claims and practices, the pastor still stands before the congregation Sunday morning and preaches. Since a sermon is seldom exclusively or even primarily "critical" work, the positive nature of proclamation shapes how pastors approach the theological enterprise.


  1. I should much prefer to be a humble child of God, as the homeless man I met on the San Diego Pier last summer, than a theologian so concerned with weighty matters that the love of God is nearly invisible.

  2. It's not clear to me how love of God is invisible in the work teaching theologians and pastors do. Each one has their vocation, including love of God and others, in their situation in life, whether homeless or professor.

    1. Pastors were not included in the above. We already have many faithful theologians who have left us long ago, like Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, and we can simplify things by just reading the Bible, and what Jesus speaks. It seems that many times theologians plumb the breadth of scripture and muddy up the waters. I think it is because of the prevalence of theologians that post modernist thinking and liberal interpretations of scripture have tainted the church, and one can see how some theologians do not reinforce scripture, but reinvent it instead.

  3. Seems to me you both have too narrow a view of both pastors and theologians. Many pastors are the only theologians many persons will ever meet

    1. Everyone is a theologian. It's just some do it professionally in an academic setting.

  4. Well, I think I am both. I both teach at Luther Seminary AND am an Interim parish pastor. I read "Deer Hunting with Jesus" for my pastoral work AND "Being Promised" (to shamelessly use a book from Gregory Walter.) Granted, I do not consider myself an "academic" theologian any more than I consider myself a parochial pastor. What interests me about the question is what distinction are you seeking to establish? Clearly for a great many pastors throughout history the question would be meaningless; so, why does it interest us? What I try to do in my blog ( in "Thoughts from the Prairie Table" is to look theologically and pastorally at the world. I'm not sure those are separate in the eyes of God.

    1. I think perhaps what we are trying to lift up is the two roles in many contexts have been divided, and we wonder why, and how that affects us.

  5. I think the division of the two roles is one of the great tragedies in the church. I have been pastored to by some of my seminary profs while as a Pastor I know I am often doing the work of theology in teaching, preaching, and pastoral care. My relationships in the Society of the Holy Trinity have gone farther to tell me how ludicrous this division really is. Many of those whose theological insights I truly value are parish pastors.

    1. All pastors are theologians, but not all academic theologians are pastors.

  6. 1. I tend to think that this is a sliding scale. There are many, like myself, who are full time parish pastors with PhDs. There are also many full time academics who are/ were pastors or lay ministers.
    2. There is a disconnect between writing for academics and writing for parish pastors. I think the church would benefit from more intentional writing from our teaching theologians that benefits parish ministry (and not just "practical" theology. which, btw, is pretty darn hard to write about unless you've been in the parish for more than a few years...).
    3. I disagree that our only point of convergence is practical/ pastoral theology. I think that pastors would welcome a volume on historical theology that could be read with their schedules in mind, i.e. 20 different 10 minute sessions. Some of the armchair theologian series did some of that.
    4. And, ecclesial politics... argh. Pastors and theologians in the ELCA either care too much or too little for this. And, this is a serious problem. I believe that Luther intended the magisterium to be the clergy. I think if we added teaching theologians to this group, we'd be doing pretty well. Unfortunately, the magisterium has become whoever is better at getting into positions of leadership and advancing their cause (and I heard that some were advocating bishops become the magisterium...). More thought to what is the essence of the church rather than what seems to be a good idea for a particular constituency would be helpful from our teaching theologians. An example: how many books on ecclesiology and the office of ministry from ELCA theologians can you name from the last decade? And, have these voices been heard? Then, think about the changes to our church that have happened in the same time frame. We need a more deliberate dialogue on our ecclesiology