The Pastor as Public Theologian

November 11, 2015
 “Too many pastors have exchanged their vocational birthright for a bowl of lentil stew: management skills, strategic plans, ‘leadership’ courses, therapeutic techniques, and so forth.” This is just one among many of the first ideas surfaced by Kevin Vanhoozer in his coauthored work The Pastor as Public Theologian. Theology has been sidelined for the most part and pastors have almost been urged to possess a different set of skills for the modern American church context. We, the church, prefer managers to scholars and value managerial and CEO-ish mentalities. Questions such as “how does focusing on the Trinitarian nature of the missio dei affect the church?”, “what is a Christ-shaped response to suffering?”, “is the church still relevant for today’s culture?” are de-emphasized and traded for others: “what’s the overall ROI (return on investment) if we implement this strategy?”, “what’s our 5 and 10 year growth rate for the church?”, etc. Sadly, nowadays the pastor is more appreciated for having an MBA than a MDIV. But as Vanhoozer and his coauthor, Owen Strachan point out, this is because the church has forgotten the vision for the pastoral office. And so here in their important work both authors provide a reorientation for readers (hopefully both pastors and laity) to reclaim this vision and create a richer understanding for who a pastor is supposed to be. To them the pastor is a “generalist who specializes in viewing all of life as relating to God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Better: the pastor is a theologian is an organic intellectual who is present as the mind of Christ, which animates the body of Christ.” The pastor’s role then should always be to direct individuals back to the gospel, to help one see his/her actions/thoughts/attitudes in work, home, or any other spheres of their life as relating to God.
Long forgotten is the tradition of the pastor. That he serves the congregants by standing as a point man (of a sort) and always seeks to minister the reality of Jesus Christ to them. But this is what the pastor is to be. And to do this, the authors argue, it’s crucial that the pastor be a “pastor-theologian.” That is, he must strike a balance between pastoral duty and theological study. To quote David Wells, the pastor must be “as comfortable with books and learning as with the aches of the soul.” But of course this is hard work and adequate study time often falls by the wayside when a pastor takes office. This is risky however, and could ultimately spell tragedy for both the laymen and the pastor himself. This, as they point out, can’t happen. The pastor must protect his study time at all costs so as to not collapse under the weight of pastoral responsibilities or risk being swept away by the various cultural winds. Reading through the book, though, I began to wonder if what the authors are proposing is a bit too idealistic or lofty for the typical pastor. I understand that certain churches, certain “well off” churches with substantial staff can free up the pastor to do just that, be a pastor-theologian, but I couldn’t help but think about the numerous small congregations unable to make this a reality. Is this idea a mere fairy tale for the pastor of church like this? Can a pastor really afford to suspend certain pastoral duties to engage more in study and theological reflection? This was a question (among many) I had. But as I continued to let Vanhoozer and Strachan develop their argument I began thinking differently, wondering whether a pastor could really afford to not engage in theology study and reflection. I would agree with them that the health of the pastor and laymen is just too vitally important to allow it not to be a top priority and daily discipline. While the balance may feel awkward at first and potentially create a higher level of anxiety (after all, certain tasks might go unfinished), the path forward is for the pastor to keep his study sacred. And this is the argument that is continually developed from start to finish. These authors have done well to identify a significant problem in the church today and I’m confident it will serve the church tremendously by aiding pastors to realize that helping congregants cultivate the mind of Christ is of utmost importance, but in order to be this “help” requires a commitment to theological