The Loneliness of the Pastor-Theologian

How to find encouragement in this unique vision and calling.
The Loneliness of the Pastor-Theologian
Image: Paul Schlemmer / Stocksy

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.

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)?

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.

At a practical level, pastor-theologians know better than most that the urgent demands of ministry are precisely when theological reflection is most needed.

And for pastor-theologians, it reminds us how urgent it is for us to stay deeply immersed in the Word, reflecting theologically not only for our own edification but for the edification of our congregations. Instead of theology being a waste of time or a silly hobby, we are reminded that it stands at the center of pastoral ministry. In short, theological reflection, especially when it is grounded in Scripture, can help our congregations “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:14–15).

Three Theologically Practical Steps

Reminding ourselves of the crucial role theology plays in the life of the church—that helps, of course. But pastors like Jason do well to do three things in light of that encouragement, all of which will deepen our commitment (as well as the approval of our congregations) to theological reflection.

First, we should overtly bring theological resources to bear in the practical work of ministry. Since God is active in the world—in the hospital, in the community, in the coffee shop, and in the workplace (McNeal is right about that!)—the activity of God in those places should be accompanied by theological reflection upon it. As Athanasius put it, “For the Word unfolded himself everywhere, above and below and in the depths and in the breadth; above, in creation; below, in the incarnation; in the depths, in hell; in the breadth in the world.” If God has made himself present everywhere, it is important to think about how God is present everywhere. That’s real theo-logy: the study of God.

Thus, in our counseling, in our committee meetings, in our preaching, and so forth, we should bring not only Scripture to bear, but also the wisdom of church fathers like Athansius; Reformation theologians like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli; as well as contemporary theologians who have deepened our lives.

A friend of ours says he began to see the relevance of theology for his personal life when he sat under a preacher who often quoted C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Karl Barth to drive home the message of Scripture. It made him realize that good theology drove Scripture deeper into him and him into Scripture. And when this sort of thing happens, pastor-theologians are even more encouraged in their calling.

Theology is much more than knowing something about God; first and foremost it is an intellectual and devotional discipline that helps us know God personally.

Second, we are wise to seek fellowship with others who share this unique vision and calling. For some, that will mean seeking out a group in their community. Our friend above, for example, is part of a group in suburban Chicago that meets weekly to read and discuss theological works.

What we need to look for is a community that not only seeks to understand the words of Athanasius and others, but to know the God of whom Athanasius speaks, who will breathe life into the pastor-theologian. Sometimes that community will be a local, grassroots gathering perhaps weekly or monthly or quarterly, but others will need to look online to find such a group. Networks such as the Paideia Center and the Center for Pastor Theologians have developed reading groups and conferences to help address such needs. There are also theological blogs that can help us stay engaged theologically.

Third, we should worship as theologians.

Theology as Worship

Theology is much more than knowing something about God; first and foremost it is an intellectual and devotional discipline that helps us know God personally. That’s why worship is central to the life of the pastor-theologian. If we only study theology without engaging in worship, we will miss the point. So pastor-theologians will be wise not simply to lead their people in worship, but to fully engage in that worship. That more than anything will deepen them both spiritually and theologically.

That’s because God-centered worship is inescapably theological. When the Word of God is spoken, the people of God are led in prayer and praise. When the sacraments are received, God works in a powerful way. This is an arena where we behold the glory of God. The Triune God welcomes, promises, admonishes, and comforts us in communal worship, giving us a taste of our true life in Christ, as we call out “Abba, Father” through his Spirit. Worship is a theological space. The worship service might be unglamorous, but God has promised to be present, where he meets and nourishes his people, including the pastor-theologian. It is through worship that God shapes and forms his body deeper into the image of Christ.

In the words of the apostle Paul, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses all knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 3:17–19).

J. Todd Billings is an ordained minister and the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary. His latest book is Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table (Eerdmans, 2018).

Stephen Shaffer serves as the pastor at Bethel Reformed Church in Brantford, Ontario.

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