In the preface to their new book, The Pastor as Public Theologian, co-authors Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan write: “The idea for this book began with a shock (in a cemetery) and a scandal (in a seminary).” Nice word-play, no?
Explaining first the shock in the cemetery, they recount the story of an American couple observed by Kevin at Greyfriars Kirk while he was teaching at the University of Edinburgh.
The couple “was looking at headstones when the wife suddenly blurted out: ‘Look, honey: they buried two people in one grave!’ ‘What makes you think that?’ asked her husband. The woman replied: ‘It says so right here’: “Here lies a pastor and a theologian.”’”
The authors go on to explain the scandal in the seminary. One day, a student of Kevin’s approached him during office hours to ask whether he had what it takes to get a PhD.
“Please don’t tell me I’m only smart enough to be a pastor,” the student said, anxiously.
Kevin replied: “I regret to inform you that you may not have the right stuff. It takes wisdom and joyful enthusiasm to be a pastor. To get a doctorate, you need only have a modicum of intelligence and the ability to grind it out. I’m afraid you may only be qualified to be an academic, not a pastor. Ministry is a lot harder than scholarship.”
At considerable risk of sounding self-serving, these amusing stories do raise serious questions. As the authors point out, it is mostly a recent phenomenon that pastors no longer are expected to study and understand theology. (By recent I mean 100-150 years or so.) Today, theology is pursued almost exclusively by those in academia while something more like administration is expected from the clergy.
While serving on the Church and Ministry Committee in Connecticut years ago, I was continually amazed at how little interest candidates had in theology. Worse still, I was amazed at how little interest the members of the committee had in it also!
Today the call to ordained ministry is often seen more as a “helping profession” characterized by “caring and sharing.” In this, theological tools are deemed irrelevant.
It’s far more accurate to say, however, that ordained ministry is situated precisely on the frontlines of the struggles of everyday people who, whether they know it or not, are looking for ways to understand the complexity of their lives within the context of the gospel. That God plays a central role in this should be patently obvious.
Which is perhaps yet another way of saying – yet again – that the one thing the church has to offer that no one else does is [drumroll]…religion!
Grace and peace,
Thomas C. Leinbach, Pastor