But what does it mean? For me, it has demanded that I should do all the work of the church in a professional and careful manner, making sure that my ministry was conducted according to theological principles that could be stated and justified. In order for a pastor to be a theologian he or she has to keep reading the work of other theologians and exegetes, keep studying, keep asking questions, keep directing the church to new avenues of thought while maintaining the Body of Christ in the solid tradition of the Protestant Reformation. In the Presbyterian church a theologian (as well as all other members) has to be Reformed, but always open to reformation by the Holy Spirit.
For a pastor to be a theologian he or she has to take preaching with absolute seriousness whether the congregation is composed of two thousand people or twenty. He/she has to be aware of current trends in biblical studies and archaeological research in order to give sermons that are always up to date and in touch with questions that people ask today. To paraphrase Karl Barth, we might say that we need to keep the Bible in one hand and Walter Bruggemann and Hans Dieter Betz in the other.
In November more than two hundred people met to discuss this very topic in two new programs that we introduced at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Antonio. Two different panels of pastors, theologians, college and seminary professors, and others met to discuss what it means in today’s church for the pastor truly to be a theologian. Beyond what has already been mentioned above, we also discussed the ministry of pastors who are academically trained (with a Ph.D., Th.D., or other advanced degree) and are still writing and publishing books and articles in their fields of research. We examined what is required when pastors are teaching as adjunct professors at nearby institutions of higher learning, or lecturing regularly at church retreats, presbytery training sessions etc. For all those involved, being a theologian exacted a price: they had to be disciplined enough to keep up in their areas of interest, maintain a high quality of pastoral ministry and be organized enough to eke out precious time to do research, writing, and editing.
At the meeting we also explored a second avenue of service. Many people who teach in universities and theological seminaries described their involvement in the church. Although they are not full time pastors in any congregation, many of them are ordained and have been pastors at one time or another. Some of them are active lay leaders. All of them expressed commitment to their denominations or faith communities and expressed how their research and writing are designed to provide materials that can be used in preaching, adult education, officer training etc. This kind of work is also costly service: other academics may denigrate their work because it is only written for popular consumption. It may not count toward their tenure requirements. Nevertheless, many of them expressed the conviction that God has called them to use their talents for the good of the whole Body not just the few who take classes or are professional researchers.
What is being considered here really is the nature of the call to ministry. Think about your own congregation. Do you encourage your pastor to utilize all of his or her gifts? Do you give the pastor time to be a theologian and keep on pursuing questions about the place of God in the modern world? Or are you jealous of time spent in this way and wish that pastors would not write books, compose music, serve on the local college board (or be active in the fire company, ambulance corps, local orchestra, etc.)?
A few weeks ago I visited a member of our church in the hospital as she was being treated for a blood clot. Her leg was very painful but she smiled from her bed and said, “I am so happy that you are going on this study leave to San Antonio, Earl.” I replied, “That is really nice of you, but why do you say that?” And she said, her face still beaming, “Because we know how much you love it.” She added, “Whenever you come back you are energized and you share your new discoveries with us in your sermons and our classes. Now be sure to listen closely. We want to learn all about the things you learn!”
When it comes to the theological basis of the church, I learned in that hospital room that our endeavor is like a three-legged stool. We stand together in our study and witness: the pastor as theologian; the teacher and researcher as a pastor or lay leader; and members of the congregation as theological supporters and inquirers.
Is your pastor a theologian? Do you encourage him or her in that endeavor?
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is the pastor of First church, Johnstown, N.Y.
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