Why Being a Pastor-Scholar Is Nearly Impossible
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'The pastor-theologian, I submit, should be evangelicalism’s default public intellectual,” wrote Kevin Vanhoozer in 2009, expounding on his 10 theses—now a whopping 55—on what it means to be both a pastor and a theologian.

Two new books have generated surging discussion on the topic. The Pastor as Public Theologian, by Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, argues that the pastorate has been and should be fundamentally a theological office. The Pastor Theologian (read CT’s review), by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, argues that contemporary evangelicalism has lost sight of the inherent connection between theology and pastoral ministry. Both books seek to reclaim what they see as a lost vision and practice.

I agree that the church needs more leaders who are both shepherds and scholars, credible and critical, in one nature. Missional-practical-theological-pastoral, as Polonius might have put it. Or, to invert a quip from Vanhoozer himself: like Paul, only taller.

But how feasible is it to be both a scholar and a pastor? I suspect many of us know individuals who, by aiming to be both a pastor and a scholar, have ended up being neither. More commonly, some aspire to be both equally, but indicate by their speech and actions—let alone by their weekly timetables—that they major in one and minor in the other.

When N. T. Wright and John Piper were exchanging books a few years ago, both insisted that they wrote as scholars and pastors, filling their books with pastoral concerns and scholarly footnotes in equal measure. But while they are two of the most outstanding contemporary examples of pastor-scholars, critics pointed out that Piper had not published any research on dikaiosunē—Greek for “righteousness,” the primary topic of their debate—for nearly 30 years, and that Wright had spent little time in lay people’s kitchens or around Alpha course tables. No doubt, there is a sense in which everyone who writes for the church should be both theologically and pastorally engaged. But the union of pastor and scholar, shepherd and academic, is elusive.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to bemoan the call for pastors who are also scholars, and scholars who are also pastors. But being a pastor-scholar is easier said than done. And many, like me, who are attempting to combine their pastoral and scholarly work face challenges and live in perpetual tension.

Before I had given the subject much thought, I had assumed that the tension was mostly a question of time. Academic research is incredibly time-consuming, and so is pastoral ministry. So doing both well is beyond the reach of almost everybody. Of course, there are exceptions. Wright is an überproductive individual who, in the last three decades, has managed to churn out popular commentaries and books, write defining scholarly monographs, fulfill various levels of ecclesiastical duties—including serving as bishop of Durham for seven years—and still finds time to travel the world to teach. In principle, however, time is no greater an obstacle for pastor-scholars than it is for, say, pastor-farmers or pastor-accountants—of which there are plenty in many parts of the world.

Now having considered the topic—or, rather, the bi-vocation—more thoroughly, I see three major tensions that make the pastor-scholar something of a unicorn.

The Specialist-Generalist Tension

Scholarship is about mastering an area of research in a way that advances human knowledge. It requires the discipline to restrict not only what you read about, but also what you speak about. Pauline scholars often give an apologetic cough before opining on Jesus, let alone on the Qumran Hodayot (psalms of thanksgiving), on the redaction (editing process) of the Pentateuch, or on philosophical views like Nominalism. If you ask a scholar about their opinion on a specific issue, and they aren’t fully sure of their ground, they will probably express some version of the old mantra: “It’s not my field.” Scholars are specialists and are hesitant to move beyond what they know.

July/August
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Why Being a Pastor-Scholar Is Nearly Impossible