Pastors, use your Theologians

I remember writing an email to the head pastor of our (former) church offering to help in ways which matched my giftings and training as a pastor, and as a theologian. I enjoyed leading worship and playing drums on occassion, but I yearned to use my gifts of teaching and preaching.

After graduating from seminary, I had packed our family up and headed to the UK to begin doctoral studies in New Testament and 2nd Temple Judaism at Durham University. Thanks to three years of intensive language studies, massive amounts of reading, and excellent mentorship while an Intern Pastor at Grace Community Church, I felt ready to surmount whatever challenges lay before me, both in academia and ministry.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the rejection I was about to face simply for offering to use my gifts to edify the local church. That email, like many others sent before, was passed along down the chain and never heard of again. At least he had responded to this one.

The situation in the UK, however, is not as bleak as it may seem. There are plenty of churches, including here in Durham, that are eager to put their “resident” theologians to work. Opportunity abounds for preaching from the pulpit, teaching theology courses, counseling young university students, and more. This is certainly also the case in university and seminary towns, where young men and women are highly valued for what their training brings to the table.

But my concern is with the majority of churches who don’t seem to know what to do with people who have achieved specialization in theological and biblical studies. Even those of you running churches which currently utilize their theologians, I believe there is much room for you to improve as well.

This issue should be especially pertinent today, when the job market for higher education is bleak. Therefore, it’s hard for me to imagine a greater waste than highly-skilled, exceptionally-bright, and deeply-pious individuals being under (or never!) utilized in the biblical economy of the body of Christ.

So I offer a few suggestions, directed especially to pastors of churches, of how to put us to work.

1. Don’t be afraid to look stupid

Admit it. That young man or woman sitting in the pews week after week can read the entire NT in Greek, or perhaps most of the OT in Hebrew. You can’t even remember the basic paradigms for verb endings. But hey, you have Accordance!

How about gathering up the courage to call or email that young person with questions that come up in your study each week? Too embarassing? Here’s an even more red-faced proposal. Invite that person to offer feedback on your semons. Ouch.

There are numerous times I have been following a sermon in my Hebrew or Greek text, and realized that the preacher either misunderstood the syntax of the verse or missed out on key lexical associations in the text itself. These would have only strengthened his sermon, but I’ve usually been too timid to say anything (Heb 13, right?).

But wouldn’t this kind of dialogue only serve to make the church stronger? Should you as a pastor only receive critical feedback along the lines of, “That was too long, pastor,” or “Thanks, good job, pastor.” Strive for something better in your preaching, by being humble enough to recognize that other eyes may see the text better than you do.

2. Go on the Hunt

Don’t have any resident theologians in your church? Go find some. There are hundreds of men and women in the USA and UK who either hold or are earning doctorates in theology or biblical studies. So how can you get them to come be a part of what God is doing in your church?

Again, this comes back to point 1, but you have to be humble. Advertising for a resident theologian implies that you actually need somebody with skills that you don’t have. Another ouch.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

a. Facebook – Join a couple of theology-specific groups that are known for their evangelical ethos. One great example is the “Nerdy Language Majors” group, which was started by a bunch of linguistics students at The Master’s College in Los Angeles, under the supervision of Dr. William Varner. This group has now grown to include not just evangelical undergrads at Master’s, but a huge network of university and seminary faculty, postgraduates in prestigious theology departments, and famous biblical scholars from across the globe. Ask to join the group and then post your desire to recruit a resident theologian for your church.

b. Seminaries & Universities – The first one is obvious, but the second less utilized. Our postgraduate secretary at Durham’s Theology Department often forwards emails to us all from local ministries seeking to employ us for our various skills. Why not do the same? Identify schools near or far, and send the administration an email outlining what you are looking for. Usually an undergraduate or postgraduate secretary can forward these request on without department approval, so you’ve just tapped into a potentially large talent pool with one keystroke.

c. Nepotism (Word of Mouth) – Don’t forget that each member of your church has an entire network of people they know outside of your four walls. Some of them may actually know a few theologians living in the community. Or perhaps somebody’s third cousin twice removed is just about to finish their PhD at Wheaton, and is looking for a church to minister in. Bingo! Just because you don’t have to “network” to close deals, doesn’t excuse you from maximizing your efforts through relationships.

So ask yourself, “If bringing a theologian into my church will benefit us as whole, and me individually, why am I resistant to the idea?” It may be your own pride, or perhaps you’ve just never thought about it. But maybe its because of the horror stories you’ve heard about young people “going liberal” when they left for postgraduate school. That brings me to my next point.

3. Be Discerning

Sad to say, there is a trend within biblical studies for certain beliefs to be downplayed, or downright rejected. Probably the first to go is biblical inerrancy, which might work in an academic setting (it actually doesn’t, but that’s another discussion). But in the church that type of compromise is devastating.

So if the spark has been lit for you to start using your theologians, be cautious and proceed slowly. If I was a member of your church I would only expect the same. But how do you do that?

Invest time in “learning” the person. Get to know their background, get them to articulate their motivations and ambitions. Beware the individual who brags or boasts about academic achievements. Hold fast to the individuals who express a longing to see God glorified through their work.

Whatever you do, don’t be too quick to throw a theologian into any type of leadership. That can only spell disaster, and is contrary to the biblical mandate (). Be grateful that the Lord has brought this person to your church, and then be prayerful that he would use that person to bear much fruit for his glory.

4. Be Gracious

Ok, so we’re a little bit eccentric sometimes. Not all of us, but sometimes theologians can be a kind of intense. Really, who actually gets excited about studying the nuances of Greek verbal tense? What does it say about somebody’s head that they care anything at all about the Hebrew pointing system and masora (let the reader understand)?

Look who’s talking. We pastors are a frightfully intense bunch. The statistics reveal that pastors, in general, work harder for less money and (earthly) reward than almost any other job category.

Be forewarned, you will probably get one of two reactions if you take my advice in this post. Either the person will shrink and run away like a scared rabbit, or they will be all over your emails, text, and facebook until you wish they would get transferred or cut from their program and have to move far away.

Also, their first attempts out the gate might be a disaster. Maybe they will just sit in silence as you explain your hermeneutical moves in the text, making you wonder if you’re even reading the same language. They might be highly vocal, and critical, making you cringe at the thought of ever preaching again.

So be gracious. Give time for the relationship to develop. Take everything they say, or don’t say, with plenty of grains of salt. Perhaps their first time teaching on OT angelology puts the entire congregation to sleep. Ok, but they can improve with time and encouragement. They have skills to work on and develop just as much as you do.

5. Get Creative, Together

So it’s your church, and until you have the time and energy to think up creative ways to use your theologian(s), he or she will just have to wait, right? Wrong. This is Christ’s church, and just as you have your important and God-given responsibilities to lead and preach the Word, every member of your flock has the responsibility to use their God-given gifts for the edification of the whole. That includes theologians.

So invite them to coffee to discuss ideas you or they might have to help the church. Bring them along to a few elders’ meetings, then begin to solicit observations from them. Listen to their contributions in your Wednesday night home group (it’s okay for other people to get it right, or say it better than you did). Set up a weekly meeting where you can sit down and work through difficulties in your sermon text together, before you draft your homiletical masterpiece (who says you have to do all the sermon prep work alone?).

However you go about it, make it clear to them that their input and ideas are important. Don’t be the only “idea” guy in the building, even if you have the power of veto during final prep on Saturday night. You’re not the head, Christ is, and he has given every member of his body the ability to generate good ideas. Harness that incredible potential, especially from your theologians.

Summary

Pastors, use your theologians. You are not meant to do your work alone (all the time), and you are surely not meant to lead without thoughtful input, constructive criticism, and continued growth in your own abilities.

The people in your church are meant to do more than just make hospital visits and set out coffee and donuts. Likewise, the theologians in your church have been put there for more than just playing drums or helping as ushers.

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One comment

  1. I really enjoyed this reflection — sorry your church hasn’t been receptive. I’ve been more lucky with mine (so far).

    Like

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