Why ‘Pastor-Scholar’ Is a False Dichotomy

Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash
Editors’ note: 

This is the third installment in a series on the pastor-scholar.

I must confess: I’m torn between two loves. I live two lives. I am a bi-vocational pastor.

Admittedly, I’m not your traditional bi-vocational pastor. I don’t work in the local mill to support my ministry. I don’t sell anything so I can give the gospel away. I am a college professor who teaches historical and systematic theology.

I am a theologian who also happens to be a pastor, and a pastor who also shepherds minds. Following Michael Kruger’s taxonomy, I am a “scholar-pastor,” someone who works full-time in the academy and part-time in the pastorate. My days are spent behind a lectern; my weekends behind a pulpit.

Dual Life

I’ve been living this dual life for 16 years. As a college and seminary student I served two local congregations that couldn’t afford a full-time pastor. For the past eight years, I’ve been serving churches without pastors and pastors without associates. And for the last three-and-a-half years, I’ve hung up my doctoral robe on Friday and donned my pastoral robe on Sunday as the lead pastor of a once dying and now thriving congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. They’re both full-time vocations. They’re both full-time avocations as well. That’s why I do it.

The ongoing dialogue about pastor-scholar or pastor-theologian, then, strikes me as both personal and perplexing. The false dichotomy some lament as existing between the two worlds—between the life of the mind and the life of the cloth—befuddles me. At its most basic level “theology” means little more than a “word about God,” an ongoing study into the mind and the mystery of our Creator. Hence all Christians are to be theologians, not just scholars. Certainly any congregation hopes for and deserves a pastor who has thought deeply about these matters as he leads them through Scripture and through life.

Yet I know the distinctions drawn by the naysayers and concerned partisans in this debate are far more nuanced. They acknowledge all Christians are called to love the Lord their God with our entire being, including our minds. Their concerns center on whether any one person can master two fields, marshaling the mental and physical resources necessary to conquer all the windmills that rise in their way.

Here too, however, I’m afraid the dichotomy falls short. They are tilting at imaginary foes. Allow me to explain (like any decent pastor) by way of illustration.

Why the Dichotomy Is False

Eighteen years ago I left the lucrative and lucre-filled world of advertising to attend college and seminary. I left longing to make a difference in the world for the Lord, hoping to advance the kingdom in his name. Seminary was to be my second boot camp (I’d been a U.S. Army Ranger in an earlier life). I was training for the fight of my eternal life. I was locked and loaded for spiritual battle.

Much to my chagrin, I discovered many of my fellow Christian soldiers were pacifists. They weren’t looking for action. They were looking for more of what excited in them the desire to attend seminary in the first place. They wanted more knowledge of the Lord. Many, I’m afraid, were consumers, not producers. It seemed they ultimately came to seminary for themselves, not for others.

But the more I learned, the more I wanted to share. The more I received, the more I wanted to give. As soon I could, I found an outlet for all the pent-up spiritual energy. I couldn’t do otherwise. So from my second year of Bible college to the end of my doctoral studies—for eight years—I took from my professors and gave to my congregations. I studied to show myself approved. Then I tested what I learned. I took it from the ivory tower and tried it in the trenches. My educational experience was practical.

Since arriving in my present field of service, I’ve sought to keep my head in the academic clouds and my ministry boots on the ground. My educational life’s mission has been to disprove the myth that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Instead my mantra has become “orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy”—right thinking leads to right action. As I learned in the military, Rangers lead the way. As I teach my students, professors lead by example.

Put Knowledge to Work

As my students know, ideas have consequences. Beliefs have implications. And as I continue my education in the world of Jonathan Edwards, the Puritans, and early Baptist life, I am constantly learning new things. I discover old ideas that may have new value in the church. Thus I research and I write. I publish before the ideas perish. Then I bring this new knowledge to church and put it to work.

Still, cognitive dissonance and theological bipolar disorder lie in wait around every corner. Like Paul, I want to be all things to all men, a scholar among peers and a pastor among sheep. My mind remains stimulated. I pray my people eat a steady diet of meat and potatoes rather than powdered milk and Cheerios. While they may occasionally gag on words like “latitudinarianism,” I can be sure they’ll never experience it. Not on my watch, anyway.

Can every pastor lead two lives? Probably not. Can every professor be a pastor? It’s harder than it looks. But are we called to make disciples and be disciples at the same time? Absolutely. Thus, there really is no dichotomy.

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