This is the second installment in a new series on the pastor-scholar.
For 17 years Tom Schreiner has walked the delicate line of serving as both a full-time academic and a preaching elder in his local church. He has written numerous important books and commentaries, including Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (IVP Academic, 2006); New Testament Theology (Baker Academic, 2008); The King in His Beauty (Baker Academic, 2013) [interview]; Commentary on Hebrews (B&H Academic, 2015); and his latest, Faith Alone—The Doctrine of Justification (Zondervan, 2015). In 2014, he was president of the Evangelical Theological Society.
For six years of the past ten years, Schreiner has been my family’s pastor at Clifton Baptist Church. In this interview we discuss the questions a growing number of ministry students seem to be asking as they sort through whether God has equipped them to pastor in the church, teach in the academy, or perhaps both.
In your early years of ministry, how did you work through how God was directing you to use your gifts to fulfill your calling to be either a pastor or seminary professor?
When I finished at Fuller Seminary in 1983 and my son Daniel was 1, I needed a job. I was open and eager to pastor and to teach. I desired both, so I applied to both. Then I waited. After a few months Azusa Pacific University offered me a full-time teaching job. Although I’d tried to get a pastoral position, it hadn’t worked out, so I thought: Well, the Lord is leading me to take this job. I need a position, and I’d love to teach.
Even though Azusa Pacific is a broadly Wesleyan school, they were open to hiring those with more Reformed views, so I took the position and was there for three years. I also began serving as an associate pastor, so right from the beginning I was involved in pastoral ministry as well. I was served as an elder, met with the other elders, preached once a month, and taught Sunday school each week. It was a small church plant, and we were vitally involved in that congregation.
So I’ve always loved being very involved in the church and teaching in the academy. I’ve never really drawn a sharp line between the two.
For the past 17 years you’ve served as both a professor and a pastor. Have they worked together well? Any pitfalls or downsides?
When you’re doing both you’re stretched in terms of time, so I suppose that’s a pitfall. But I think pastoral ministry may be the best thing I ever did, because nothing has helped me as a professor in the classroom more than being a pastor in a church. My academic work, which has helped me interpret the New Testament, has been vital for my local church ministry, but it was through pastoring that I began to see how what I was doing in the classroom relates to ministry and which things I should emphasize. I would say pastoring is the best thing I ever did for my teaching.
At Southern Seminary we are encouraged to be very involved in our churches, and many professors are pastors. All our professors have a commitment to be vitally involved in the local church with all its faults and weaknesses—and the church exposes our faults and weaknesses as well. The church is immensely valuable for the classroom.
How would you counsel a student trying to decide whether to become a pastor or a professor?
If a student is seeking the Lord with all his heart and longing to please him, and he’s divided between pastoral ministry and an academic career, I would ask which desire is strongest. I trust God is leading and directing him, so which desire is stronger in his heart?
But the Lord also leads by circumstances. Many who want to become teachers often find that jobs are scarce. Our professors at Southern Seminary tell every student who applies to the PhD program: “We hope you’re not counting on teaching, because we don’t guarantee you’ll get a teaching position. We hope you’re open to pastoral ministry, since we won’t engage in false advertisement and promise you’ll get a teaching job.” Ultimately, I can’t answer that question for someone else; I think it is the Lord who directs, teaches, and guides.
How might a pastor determine whether he should pursue a PhD?
First, most people don’t need a PhD. It’s certainly not necessary to be a pastor. However, second, a PhD can be helpful to a pastor. Perhaps my story will be of some help to those trying to answer this question. I was 26 years old and thought to myself, I’m too young and inexperienced to be a pastor. I felt I needed a deeper, stronger, biblical-theological foundation. I knew more study would give me more depth in teaching and preaching than I had at the time. There were important questions in my mind I wanted to further resolve. So in my situation, I think my PhD studies helped me remarkably; they gave me academic resources I could draw on, even though I may never show them to a congregation. In fact, most of the time I don’t show those resources to my congregation.
Also, there’s a simplicity on the other side of complexity I think deeper study can lead us to, whereas in initial study we may end up being too complex and not helping people truly understand what the Scriptures are saying. So I think a PhD can be very helpful. But the question is, do you have to have it? I don’t think you do. Do you have a burning desire to do it? Do you have the finances to do it? Is your wife supportive? Does it look as if it’d enhance your future ministry in certain ways? If you can answer these affirmatively, then perhaps the Lord is leading you to pursue a PhD.
Might having a PhD hinder a pastor? On the other hand, are there some training for ministry who should avoid the pastorate?
I think it’s possible a PhD could separate a pastor from his people. It’s a matter of motive and heart, and it’s possible that some pastors, after getting a PhD, could become arrogant and proud. In their hearts they might begin to view their congregation as ignorant and backward, and thus could no longer effectively minister to them. I think that’s more an issue of the heart than of the training itself. That’s a spiritual issue.
On the other hand, I can conceive of a situation in which a pastor is academically gifted but socially awkward. Perhaps they can improve enough socially to be a pastor, but yet there are some, given their social skills, who probably ought to teach instead of pastor. And they need to recognize what their gifts are.
While this doesn’t relate directly to pastoring, I remember a student in biblical and theological studies a few years ago who came to me and said, “I’m doing terribly in the languages, and they’re such a struggle to me. It’s so discouraging, and I’m trying so hard.” And I said to him, “Then God hasn’t gifted you to do that. God is directing you and leading you in a different way. Those aren’t your gifts. If you’re trying hard and you’re not getting it, don’t put that burden on yourself. Be what God has called you to be. Not everybody is called to be in biblical and theological studies, so don’t force yourself to be what you’re not. Rejoice in what God has made you to be, and find your niche. Don’t compel yourself to fit into this preconceived mold of what you should be.” He found that liberating and freeing. So in considering the pastorate and a PhD, recognize what your gifts are.
Is it possible for one person to do both well? Can a pastor be faithful in the pulpit and to his many important shepherding duties and still do the exhaustive reading and careful study it takes to be a scholar?
In the vast majority of situations, it’s impossible. The only way I could do what I did was because of the other elders in my church. There’s no way in preaching the last 17 years I did all the things a full-time pastor does. Not even close. But we had a situation with other very gifted elders who were a significant help. So if you have a pastoral team where you can divide responsibilities, then maybe you can do it. But if you’re in a church where there are one or two pastors, I don’t see how it’s possible. Even if the church is small, I think it would be enormously difficult to do both. I think it’s a unique situation where the combination works well, because pastoral ministry almost always demands more of you.
I felt that tension often. Sometimes I’d confess to my fellow elders, “I feel like I’m divided, 70 percent at the church and 70 percent at the seminary.” There’s a keen recognition, at least in my life, that there’s always so much more to do. Where you really face that is in spending time with the people, because if you’re writing, the very genius of writing is being alone. You can’t write in a community. But that means you’re absent from church members for long blocks of time. That’s not the pastoral life. So the only way that works is if you have a team of elders and a congregation who recognize that. However, that’s very rare. I would never pursue that as a model, and I never imagined I would do exactly that for 17 years. For me, there were times I wondered if I should leave the seminary and do pastoral ministry full-time. I came very close to doing that at least twice.
What should seminaries be doing to help men work through this issue?
The best way to help, I think, is to have one-on-one conversations between students and professors. It’s up to the individual to talk to his professors about it. If you know you’re wrestling with something like this, ask a professor, “Here’s something I’m wrestling with; help me think it through.” That’s the way life is in the church and in the seminary. We’re individuals; we need to talk to people. Professors have that pastoral role at the seminary as well—to help students think through issues like this.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a seminary professor. Talk to your pastor about it. There are many wise and godly pastors with whom a student may talk. One may also find answers by talking with another seminary student.