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Pastoral or Academic Ministry? How a Pastor-Theologian Can Balance 2 Loves

“Since I have a love for both, should I pursue pastoral ministry or academic ministry?”

As a university theology professor, I frequently discuss this question, or a variation of it, with students. Those who ask have a deep love for God’s people. They can envision themselves pouring out their lives as shepherds in the local church; they also love the intellectual life and are pulled toward further study. Often, at the end of their graduate degrees, they must decide between setting sail into full-time pastoral ministry or pursuing doctoral programs for further formal theological training.

This tension between pastoral and academic ministry resonates with me. I’ve often said I live a hybrid life: I have a deep love for both the local church and the academy, and I’ve served as both a pastor and a professor. At times, the tension can feel lonely. But the more I talk to others, the more I see I’m not alone.

Even for those who insist on remaining active in both pastoral ministry and academia, it’s common that one field will get more attention. So how should a young person think about deciding a way forward and balancing the two loves?

Spectrum of Pastor-Theologians

As I’ve taken stock of my proclivities and helped students identify ways they can pursue ministry in light of their own, it has become clear there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to balancing a love for the local church and the academy. There’s a spectrum of valid ways a pastor-theologian’s dual love may be expressed.

There’s a spectrum of valid ways a pastor-theologian’s dual love may be expressed.

I’ve attempted to chart the spectrum between pastoral and academic ministry as I’ve observed and experienced it. You’ll see seven points on the spectrum, five of which I see as faithful options for an individual who loves both local church ministry and academic theology. The two options on the far ends ought to be avoided, but the middle five are commendable for pastor-theologians.

Options to Emulate

Note the arrows at the top of the spectrum. While every pastor-theologian should love both the local church and theology, the reality for most is that only one field will be our primary vocation. Some key questions for self-analysis are these: Do a feel God’s call primarily toward church members, students in a classroom, or fellow academics/researchers. In which type of ministry will I invest most of my time—church body/denomination, or an academic institution? From where to I expect to collect my full-time paycheck?

Answering these questions will help, out of the gate, to determine which side of the spectrum a pastor-theologian falls on. Those on the right side of the spectrum will principally see their vocation in academic institutions while those on the left will primarily see their vocation in churches or denominational ministries.

Now let’s explore each type of pastor-theologian. I’ll start with the five options in the middle that ought to be emulated.

1. Pastors Who Consume Academic Theology

This option includes pastors whose primary vocation and responsibility is in the local church. Their primary income usually comes from the church, or for unpaid pastors, their primary duties are in the day-to-day ministries of a local congregation. These pastors love theology and want to stay informed about the latest trends in academic research. They read theological books, listen to theological discussions via podcasts and lectures, and stay up to date on where the theological pulse of the broader church is at any given moment.

However, these pastors aren’t active contributors to academia. They don’t attend academic conferences or write articles or book reviews for academic journals. Their “production” benefits the life of a particular local church or a group of local churches rather than the broader intellectual development of the global church.

2. Pastors Who Contribute to Academic Theology

Like the first option, this group of pastors sees their primary vocation in the local church or denominational ministries. The bulk of their responsibility resides in shepherding congregants.

But this group still finds time and space to contribute to academic theology in some capacity. While these pastors intend to stay in the pulpit, they may also pursue a PhD, do adjunct teaching for an academic institution, write book reviews and academic articles for peer-reviewed journals, or attend academic conferences like ETS, SBL, AAR, IBR, LATC, and NAPS (even if they don’t read papers or present new research). These pastors not only consume theology but contribute to academic conversations via their lectures, writings, podcasts, and so on.

3. Bivocational Pastor-Theologians

Of the five faithful options, this one is the least frequented. Individuals in this category truly split their time between the church and the academy. It’s understood by both the local churches and their academic institutions that they’ll give paid time and energy to two fields. Examples include those who occupy formal theological residencies in a local church and those who split their time between a church and a Bible college or seminary.

4. Theologians Who Actively Write for and Lead in the Local Church

Number four takes our conversation to the other side of the spectrum. Theologians on this side see their primary vocation in academic institutions. They serve primarily as professors or academic administrators. The bulk of their time is spent among students at their schools.

But while this person spends the bulk of his time in academia, he actively contributes to the discipleship work and ministry life of his local church. He may be an unpaid elder, or much of the writing he publishes may be aimed toward the church. Because academic institutions expect faculty members to remain up to date in their field, these theologians may write academic papers or specialized monographs, but they also regularly write popular-level publications meant to disciple a broader audience in local churches.

5. Theologians Who Write for the Academy but Are Active in the Local Church

The final category is for theologians who not only spend the bulk of their time in the academy but also primarily write for the academy. These theologians spend their career energy and time in academia but remain faithful members of their local churches.

Some people might question whether full-time academic labors are of practical value to the members of the local church. But it’s my contention we need faithful academic theologians who consistently publish specialist monographs and care about the local church (even if they never pastor a church or publish popular-level discipleship resources). Often conversations that begin in the halls of academia show up in local churches a few years later. So it’s good for the church that we have faithful specialist theologians with gifted intellects who have been commissioned to shape such conversations from the start. We shouldn’t bemoan “ivory tower” theologians. In fact, the larger church needs individuals with intellectual ability to sit at the academic table and defend orthodoxy in arenas where it’s consistently under scrutiny.

Having said that, even theologians who publish the most significant theological monographs shouldn’t be exempt from an active life in the local church. The Lord has ordained the church, not the academy, to be the primary overseers of souls, so there’s no such thing as a faithful theologian who isn’t also a faithful church member.

Options to Avoid

When you look back at the chart, you’ll see two unnumbered extremes. Most students I talk to aren’t tempted to these far ends of the spectrum, but there are those in the church convinced nothing good comes from the halls of academia. Such people refer to seminary as “cemetery.” They’re convinced formal education only puffs up with pride and destroys affection and zeal for Christ.

On the other hand, there are those in the academy so entrenched in the life of the mind that they fail to see how their theological reflection bears significance for church life. Though the church is the soil from where theology ought to grow, these theologians have found the everyday life of regular Christians burdensome to their task of developing and advancing theological inquiry.

While I wish it didn’t need to be said, we should avoid both errors.

Know Yourself. Give Thanks for Others.

This spectrum of pastor-theologians isn’t perfect. Many will read this and consider themselves in between two numbers. Moreover, I haven’t even attempted to address those who serve in parachurch ministries and publishing houses. But as I continue to have this conversation with students—and in my head—these working categories help me to remember the path of faithfulness isn’t monolithic.

One of the more important consequences of this working spectrum is how it has freed me to tell students, “It’s OK to be you.” It’s easy to see someone working in one of these categories I’ve outlined and begin to think there’s only one model of faithfulness. But the Lord has gifted, equipped, and called many pastor-theologians in various directions. There may be times when the Lord changes an individual’s ministry context, moving a person from pastoral ministry to academic ministry, or from the academy to the local church. But in keeping with our gifts, there are several noble paths that can be followed to glorify the Lord and serve our neighbors.

As I worked on this article, I discussed the spectrum with one of the elders at my church and we diagnosed where we believe we each fit. It became clear I’m a “four” and he’s a “one.” My full-time job is at a university where I teach theology, but I love pastoral ministry and would like to pursue nonvocational pastoral ministry as long as the Lord allows. My pastor is full-time at our two-year-old church plant, and he wants to spend the rest of his days shepherding a local congregation. On most days, we have no desire for one other’s ministry, but what became clear as we talked is that we’re thankful for and need each other.

Pastor-theologians across the spectrum benefit from one another’s gifts.

Pastor-theologians across the spectrum benefit from one another’s gifts. Those of us in the “four” category often find most of what we read is by those in the “five” category. Those in the “one” and “two” categories tend to read what those in the “four” category write.

On the other side, those in the “four” and “five” categories are almost always shepherded and pastored by those in the “one” and “two” categories. We need each other, and the church needs all of us. However you keep together your loves for the local church and the academy, may the Lord use your hybrid love for his glory.


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