Ligon Duncan has given his life to pursuing both ministry in the local church and the life of the Christian mind in the academy. At age 24 he was licensed to preach in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and from 1996 until 2013 he served as pastor of the historic First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Two years ago, Duncan was appointed chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary. He serves on the boards of numerous parachurch ministries including the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is also a Council member for TGC.
I asked Duncan about his decision to move from the pastorate to the chancellor’s office, how men should sort through their call to ministry, the rich evangelical tradition of the pastor-theologian, and more.
Is it necessary to draw a sharp distinction between the offices of pastor and scholar? Can a man be both simultaneously? Or is each so specialized and rigorous that a man would be wise to focus on only one?
The whole Reformed tradition—whether Presbyterian, Congregationalist, or Baptist—has always valued an educated ministry and, consequently, pastors who are able to read, learn, think, write, and teach at the highest level. The pastor-theologian or pastor-scholar is very much rooted in 500 years of the Reformed tradition. So, yes, it can be done.
If you’re going to be a specialized scholar, you’re going to have some focus in a particular field that takes you away from a full-time pastoral role. Obviously, the hope is it doesn’t completely take you away from pastoral work. It’s good for every Christian scholar to be engaged in the life of the local church, working and serving in some capacity. So I’m very thankful there are specialized theologians. I think of Andreas Köstenberger—thank God for the specialized work that brother has done over the years. There are dozens and dozens who’ve blessed us because they’ve focused on their scholarly work. It has allowed them to do work that has served thousands and thousands of pastors. These scholars simply wouldn’t have been able to do their work with heavy pastoral responsibilities.
I obviously recognize there’s a distinction between someone who’s mainly a pastor and someone who’s mainly a professional scholar. Both of those can be pursued to the glory of God with gospel intentions and a churchly focus, and yet look very different.
You recently made a significant shift moving out of the pastorate at First Presbyterian Jackson after 17 years to the chancellor’s position at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). What were some of the factors that drove you in that direction?
It was a hard decision. I tell people it was like dying a death. I loved the church, and the people loved me more than I deserved. I could’ve done that ministry until the day I died. I was completely content and happy, and the position at RTS came somewhat out of the blue and caught me off guard.
A number of things motivated me, the first being preparing pastors for ministry. You couldn’t have taken me away from pastoral ministry except to prepare other pastors for ministry. That was a very significant motivation. The second thing was counsel from friends. Sinclair Ferguson, whom I’ve known since I was a teenager, has never given me advice about where to serve. But out of the blue, he wrote and said, “Ligon, I’m praying it will be the Lord’s will for you to become the chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary.” He ended his letter, “If not now, when? If not you, who?” I talked to Al Mohler, and before I even got the question out of my mouth, he said, “Lig, you must do this.” I started to explain it and he said, “No, you must do this”—emphatic Al. And Mark Dever—nobody cares more about the local church than Mark—told me he understood why this calling would be important for me. So counsel from good friends was really important to me on a big decision like this.
I’ve really only had three big vocational decisions in my life. In each I’ve relied on older and wiser brothers whose counsel and wisdom I valued and whose judgment I trusted more than my own. My elders at the church were terrific about this decision too. I went to them and said, “I need your counsel on this,” and their uniform response was “Ligon, we don’t want you to leave, but we think this is an important ministry.” That was a very confirming response.
How would you advise a seminary or Bible college student who’s gifted academically. loves the classroom and research, but also desires to preach the Word and shepherd a flock?
My path isn’t necessarily the right one to follow. I’ve often thought I did it backwards. I taught full-time at the seminary for six years while working part-time in a local church. Then I served full-time in the church for 17 years while working part-time at a seminary. And I can certainly tell you now, after 25 years of vocational ministry, I’m more helpful to my students because of my experience in pastoral ministry. I know things that’ll help them that I didn’t know in those first five years of teaching at the seminary.
I was serving on a church staff by the time I was 23, and I was licensed to preach when I was 24, so I’ve had a lot of experience in the church. But it’s one thing to have experience; it’s quite another to be the one on whom the ultimate pastoral burden for a congregation rests. Having that experience has helped me better serve men. My first six years of teaching were actually further preparation for pastoral ministry. And then, after 17 years of pastoral ministry, I was really ready to pour back into students.
So the first thing I’d say to young men who are gifted academically is: praise God! Be deeply appreciative to your Father that you’re gifted in that sort of way. The church needs that, other pastors need that, and your congregation will need that.
But I’d also say—unless you’re preparing to become an undergraduate teacher—you need to think in terms of preparing for pastoral ministry first and then see what opens up in terms of seminary teaching. Men who feel called to be seminary professors ought to think in terms of full-time pastoral ministry before they teach at the seminary level, even if they get their education done before they launch into full-time pastoral ministry.
Devoted churchmen are leading many seminaries today, but I’ve seen many seminaries in the past hire young scholars who have academic credentials but lack pastoral experience. And frankly, they lack pastoral instincts and a pastoral attitude. Some can have an almost condescending attitude toward matters related to teaching, preaching, and pastoral leadership. They can have a very impractical view of what it looks like to lead a congregation week to week. Often, those kinds of scholars go astray—and they lead pastors astray in expectations and preparation.
At RTS we value having faculty members who have significant pastoral experience. It’s not enough that they’re top-notch scholars. We want world-class scholars, and by God’s grace, we have them. But they also have to have significant pastoral experience; we just think that’s necessary for preparing people for ministry.
What should seminaries be doing to help these men work through this issue?
Seminaries are the perfect place for a young man to work through it. The main thing is he needs to have a good relationship with scholars on the faculty. Chances are most of the faculty will have had to wrestle through such issues, so they should be well-prepared to counsel someone at the Master’s level pondering this. Or maybe he’s started his PhD, but is trying to work through what’s next. The human resources you have at a seminary have made those decisions themselves, and they can give really good counsel to students.
Students need to let them into their lives and let them get to know their gifts, strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Scholars tend to want to hide and be with their books, but you can’t do that in pastoral ministry. And honestly, you can’t do that when you’re teaching at a seminary either. It’s not just your studying or your writing that helps students; it’s your character and the way you pour into their lives. That requires significant relational work. Take John Calvin, for example. He wanted to hide and be a scholar, but William Farel made a pastor out of him. Think how much we’re still served by Calvin doing something he didn’t feel he had the aptitude or impetus to do. He turned out to be a great pastor and leader, and the world is better for it.
Pastoral ministry requires a lot of work from sermon prep and counseling to hospital visits and meetings. If you serve as a scholar in a specialized area, then hours and hours of intensive reading, research, and writing are required. Is it possible to do both well?
Yes, of course. It’s been done well over the last five centuries by a number of men (e.g., Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, James Montgomery Boyce). There are a number of pastors in the Protestant tradition who’ve been able to make significant contributions to the world of thought and theology while focusing on pastoral ministry at the same time.
If you’re specializing as a historian, for example, there’s technical work that requires massive amounts of time in primary and secondary sources. It’d almost be impossible for an ordinary mortal to do this as a full-time pastor. So you’re thankful that a Tom Nettles worked hard to write a history of the Baptists as a seminary professor. You’re thankful for a Michael Haykin’s concentration on academic activities. But neither of these men is disinterested in the life of the local church. In fact, they’re constantly pouring themselves into the lives of their congregations. But the seminary has afforded them a particular pace and structure of life that lends itself to the production of their scholarly works. You simply have to recognize the limitations of your particular situation. I continued writing scholarly papers while I was pastor at First Presbyterian Church. I continued trying to read journals. I continued teaching at the seminary, sometimes nearly teaching a full load, while pastoring a 3,000-member church. And the only way I could do that was with the support of my elders. I had a great staff around me that enabled me to do those things—and I had an understanding congregation. You can’t do those things and visit everybody.
Part of the answer is in what a given congregation is willing to bear. Some have a vision that includes their pastor being used in academic ministry while serving as pastor. Others want a pastor who’s going to be a personal chaplain to the congregation. They’re not interested in having their pastor edit a multi-volume work, teach at a seminary, or speak at conferences. Every congregation is different. But it’s great that there are evangelical pastors who’re able to contribute to the life of the mind and teach in colleges and seminaries. That’s just another way for the gospel to infiltrate the educational culture around us. That’s a good thing evangelistically, and that’s a good thing for the church.