The Pastor, the Academy, and the Possibility of Ecclesial Theology: The Center for Pastor-Theologians

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A 3,000-person church in the Chicago suburbs recently began a search for a senior pastor. “The ideal candidate for this position will not only have a heart for pastoral leadership,” the job posting reads, “but will also be committed to investing a significant amount of time each week into research and writing, with the goal of contributing original articles and/or monographs to the theological literature, as an extension of what it means to lead pastorally.” It continues: “Budget and staffing accommodations, including a paid research assistant and a clear division of labor among members of the pastoral staff, will be made so as to ensure that the right candidate is able to consistently engage in constructive theology from the context of his or her pastoral ministry.”

Hopefully you haven’t begun frantically Googling that language; it’s not a real job opening. While many pastoral candidates would jump at the chance to apply for a position like this, local pastors are not typically expected to be able or willing to contribute to theological research. For a variety of reasons, it is commonly understood that academic theology is the realm of the “academy,” scholars whose social location is most likely a teaching position at an institution of higher learning. The average local pastor is—or at least is perceived to be—either underequipped or under-resourced for the work of academic theology. Many pastors would perhaps question the benefit of being involved in conversations that often seem esoteric and disconnected from the day-to-day realities of local ministry.

The Center for Pastor Theologians (which was until recently named the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology), founded by a TEDS grad and with the involvement of faculty and a current student, is quietly working to change these expectations. It’s their conviction that both the church and the academy would benefit from ecclesially-located theologians and pastors who take theological discourse more seriously.

Founded in 2006 by TEDS alumnus Gerald Hiestand, the Center has as its goal to network pastors who share a vision of ecclesial theological engagement. This is accomplished through two pastoral fellowships of about fifteen pastors each that meet once a year at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL (about nine miles west of Chicago), at which Hiestand is senior associate pastor. Calvary’s senior pastor, Todd Wilson, is the Center’s board chair and co-founder. In addition to his pastoral duties and his role as director of CPT, Hiestand is currently working on a PhD through the University of Kent (UK).

He credits Trinity for helping him develop this vision. During a course on Jonathan Edwards taught by Doug Sweeney (Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought), he was struck by how much this aspect of theological discourse has changed since Edwards’ day. “In the seventeenth century, the theologians were the pastors,” Hiestand told us. “If someone said you were a theologian, that was the same thing as saying you’re a pastor.”

While admitting that the story is complex, Sweeney suggests that one major factor in the shift toward a split between the theological academy and the pastorate was the rise of post-baccalaureate (graduate) theological education. He noted that before the rise of graduate seminaries, pastoral candidates would either enter the ministry upon leaving college or move into the home of a veteran pastor for a time of apprenticeship and training. However, “by the end of the [nineteenth] century, there’s this big bifurcation,” he explained. “Everybody knows [at that time] that if you want to do theology you do it in these academic institutions, but if you want to have a successful ministry you learn these very populist practices”—practices meant to drive and sustain church growth in an era when tax-supported churches were being disestablished, thus offering less incentive for attendance and financial support.

For Hiestand, the shift in theologians’ social location from the local church to the academy has had significant consequences. “I’ve argued in a couple of essays that it reduces the ecclesial sensitivity of theology and the theological integrity of the churches,” he said. “I’m not saying we therefore need to go back to the days of Edwards and take all theologians and put them in the pastorate. What we are saying is that we need a more equitable split. The whole point of the Center is to inspire a new generation of theologians who see the pastorate as the principal location from which they will do their theology.”

CPT’s yearly pastoral fellowships provide a concise window into what this might look like. Each year, participating pastors are asked to read a significant work of theology—past works have included TEDS professor Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine and John Paul II’s The Theology of the Body—and prepare papers, which are then read and interacted with in community during the fellowship. The best papers from each year are then included in their journal, The Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology, which also includes numerous reviews of books dealing with the topic for that year. This year’s topic is Theology of the Body, and includes reviews of titles such as Sarah Coakley’s Religion and the Body, popular marriage books by Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll, and works by Foucault and Wendell Berry.

Additionally, each fellowship has a special guest who acts as an intentional facilitator for the discussion in different ways. Both Doug Sweeney and Kevin Vanhoozer have been guests in the past. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time there,” said Vanhoozer of his past participation in a fellowship. “I felt that this is what theology is supposed to be about—it’s supposed to be a service to people who are on the front lines of ministry. I also appreciated the fact that we were having these conversations in a devotional, fellowship context; nobody was trying to impress anybody.”

Sweeney now acts as a theological mentor to the pastoral fellowships, coming alongside the pastors and helping facilitate conversations. “If pastors are really going to provide the most significant theological leadership for the people of God, we need to do this together in a way that shows how bridging the gap between the academy and the church can work,” he said. “So I come along and I say to them: I should come alongside and do what you guys tell me to do. I should be a resource person. So they call me a mentor, and in between I’m also emailing the guys, usually about publishing advice and that sort of thing.”

The Center is currently expanding in several ways. Hiestand and Wilson have a forthcoming book (Zondervan, 2015) laying out their taxonomy of the different ways in which pastors can be involved theologically; this includes ecclesial theologians contributing to constructive theology as well as theologically-inclined local pastors able to lead their congregations into greater depth without necessarily themselves contributing original research. There are also tentative plans for a yearly pastor’s conference.

Jeremy Mann, a Kern scholar and MDiv student who currently serves as CPT’s managing director, agrees with the importance of its mission for both the church and for theological discourse. In addition to helping oversee administrative tasks, Jeremy is helping expand the Center’s work through grant writing and helping to plan CPT’s first student symposium for 2014. “The goal of the student fellowships will be to find PhD students with a guilty conscience who know, deep down, that God wants them to be pastors—or maybe they don’t know it but we’re going to help them know it,” he told us, laughing. “We need far more scholastic pastors than PhD graduates without jobs.”

Significant challenges to this vision remain. Many pastors don’t conceive of their own calling as inclusive of constructive theological work; alternatively, Vanhoozer noted that, as a generalization, there are some in the church “who either don’t value academic theology, or they may actually have a negative prejudice that the more you do it the more likely you are to be ‘liberal.’” Practically speaking, many pastors may not desire to participate in constructive theology for the simple reason that they don’t have the time and resources in the midst of balancing family and ministry. Hiestand is careful to note that it’s not their goal to suggest that every pastor should be doing ecclesial theology: “That’s not realistic, nor is that how God has gifted everybody. But we do think every pastor needs to engage as a theologian with their congregation and admit that their people will only be as theological as they are led into it.”

When asked what he would like to see happening fifty years from now, Hiestand responded with optimism, saying he hopes the Center for Pastor Theologians wouldn’t be needed. “Ultimately the goal is that the pastoral vocation would be reconceived of in more explicitly theological terms. The goal is not just to get a bunch of ecclesial theologians; the goal is that the whole vocation of the pastorate would reimagine itself along what I think are more biblical and historical lines,” he said. “Maybe the way to win is that people will have to start saying ‘academic theologian’ because it’s no longer a given that they’re in the academy.”

In his role as theological mentor, Doug Sweeney has come full circle from being one who helped birth the vision for CPT to one who now feels carried along by its momentum in some ways. He, too, is optimistic. “I go to these meetings and I’m surrounded by all of these guys who are smarter than me and just wonderful examples of pastoral ministry,” he said, smiling. “It just makes you excited about the future of the church.”

There’s no question that local congregations can only benefit from pastors who conceive of their vocations in more theological—and, thus, biblically responsible—terms. In the years to come, the Center for Pastor Theologians may well be credited with starting a movement that adds significant ecclesial depth to theological discourse.

Learn more about TEDS’ academic programs, including our Master of Divinity, which is meant to, among other things, prepare pastors who conceive of their vocation in robustly theological terms.

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