I regularly tell pastors I mentor that, “Your calling is rabbinical. You are called to be the primary theologian of your congregation. Even if your church has a handful of seminary professors as members, you are still the theologian of your church. You can’t avoid this calling, but you need to be a good and thoughtful one!”
While some commentators on the current religious landscape de-emphasize theology in responding to the postmodern focus on experience and recognition of the relativity of belief systems, I believe that our pluralistic, postmodern age calls for more, rather than less, theology, especially from its spiritual leaders. Our current religious environment calls for thoughtful, humble, and accessible responses to the insights and questions of the “nones,” “dones,” and “spiritual but not religious persons” not to mention congregants who want to know as well as experience God’s presence in their lives. The tasks of today’s ministers are manifold and often study is lost in the minutia of ministry. Still, a commitment to study deepens our preaching, gives us a wider perspective on God’s presence in the world, and enables us to more creatively respond to the questions of seekers as well as congregants.
A typical response I often receive to my affirmation of the theological vocation of pastors is the confession, often with a bit of defensiveness, “I just don’t have the time. I barely have enough time to look at a few commentaries on Text Week in preparing for my sermons. How can I read anything more?” Others respond, “People just aren’t interested in theology or bible study at my church.” In contrast to these statements, I believe that every pastor has time to study – it’s a matter of prioritizing – and that our congregants have questions, most of which are not answered on Sunday mornings.
As an example of the importance of ministerial theological reflection, my own congregation on Cape Cod, averaging 70-80 persons on Sundays, seldom had adult faith formation classes prior to my coming as pastor three years ago. When I announced that we would begin a variety of study groups, some of the old timers asserted that “No one will come to bible studies or theological reflection groups. We’re just not into that sort of thing here.” Yet, this past week, over forty people, half of them from the community, came to our adult faith formation programs. One congregant confessed that “I am finally learning about the bible and I’ve been a Christian all my life.” Another asserted, “Now I am able to integrate my faith with my intellectual questions.” Still another affirmed, “These classes have helped me join my yoga practices and interest in mysticism with my commitment to Christ.” There is a hunger to make sense of the world, and to use the imagery of Martin Luther King, the church has often been a tail light rather than a headlight in responding to peoples’ intellectual concerns.
Let me suggest the following practices for pastors who want to deepen their vocation as congregational theologians. You don’t have to be a trained theologian to embark on a journey of congregational theological education. First, make a commitment to spending at least a tithe of your time in study, over and above sermon preparation. This might amount to no more than an hour five days a week, or an hour most weekdays. If you don’t know where to start in your theological reflection, take a look at the texts highlighted in the Christian Century or Christianity Today. You might put out a question on Facebook such as “What books are you reading? What have been the most meaningful books in fiction, theology, scripture, and culture you have read?” You might also reach out to a seminary professor, asking for accessible texts for ministerial theology. A wise pastor reads theology, but she also reads poetry, fiction, and an occasional best seller.
Second, ask your congregants questions such as “What are your most serious religious questions? What keeps you up at night? If we had a bible or theological study group, what would you like the theme to be?” Virtually all the study groups I lead at South Congregational Church have emerged from questions raised by congregants. Right now, we are doing two weekly seminars on “angels and miracles” and on “conversion experiences in the bible” as a result of congregants’ interests. I make it clear that the church is called to be a place where every question can be entertained and that a living faith is a growing faith. We are, as Etty Hillesum asserts, challenged to be “thinking hearts.”
Third, find a regular time for study as well as prayer. Better yet, integrate prayer and study in your personal devotions. In the Jewish tradition, study is considered a form of prayer, essential to the rabbinical calling. This integration applies to your personal growth as well as to your teaching and preaching ministries. I remind solo or senior pastors that preaching 45 sermons each year amounts to writing a book of at least 200 hundred pages every year. At the very least, this reality challenges pastors to take their study seriously and to develop a workable, yet flexible, theology to guide their congregants’ reflections.
Pastors set the stage for congregational spiritual and intellectual growth by their own practices. Our congregants need a diet of bread and not stone or thin air! Our commitment to study enhances their recognition that we are called to love God with our minds as well as our hearts and hands and inspires their own serious thinking about life’s most important issues. When pastors claim their identity as congregational theologians, our ministries will be richer and deeper and more responsive to the cultural and spiritual challenges of our congregants face on a daily basis.
Bruce Epperly serves as Pastor at South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA. He has served on the faculties and often in administrative and chaplaincy roles at Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of over 35 books including, Tending to the Holy: Practicing the Presence of God in Ministry and A Center in the Cyclone: 21st Century Clergy Self-care.