Another letter, now opened for us all, and something worthy of conversation:
Any advice on how you were able to discern between the academic route vs the pastoral route? Do you believe it’s best to have a foot in both? Do you find that the academic community looks down on this?
For the Christian, this first question can lead to hours of deliberation, prayer, and conversation. I know it did for me. So, let me tell my story and hope that some of you — pastors and professors and otherwise — will speak up. I’m keen on hearing how any of you think about the difference between these two callings.
When I was in high school I sensed a call to the mission field, and in particular I thought it was to Germany. That was in 1971. From 1971 until 1975 that vocational aspiration shaped everything I did — where I chose to go to college, what I chose for a major, which books I bought and then read, and how I lived. In 1973 I went to Austria with Greater Europe Mission, encountered missionary work up close and personal, met some wonderful missionaries — Neil and Carol Rempel, Jake and Diane Krestinksi, and Don and Sherry White — and still sensed a green light. In 1975, now married, we went again to Austria. Then I enrolled in seminary and by the time I was there I was quite persuaded that church planting in Germany or Austria was not what the Lord had called me into (but hey, I remain fluent in German to this day!) — and it was during that time that I began to pray and ponder over whether we should orient our lives toward the academy or the pastorate. I was sensing an academic calling, but it was not entirely clear to me.
It was at a particularly stressful time of wondering whether I should be a pastor (but not a youth pastor – I had already bombed at that attempt) or professor that I asked if I could meet with Doug Moo, my seminary professor. I simply asked him what he thought I was more gifted to do — pastor or professor. He spoke into my life in a significant way though it was nothing like an earth-shattering experience. He thought I was more suited for a professor (and time has proven to me time and time again that he was right).
The difference is both dramatic and subtle. How so?
The distinction between a pastoral professor and a preaching-focused pastor is subtle; the distinction between a research professor and a people pastor is dramatic. I have known professors who really pastor students — they are in their offices all day long five days a week, and they are available at a minute’s notice, and they have given their entire lives to the students. And I have known pastors who delegate pastoral counseling, visitation, funerals, weddings, and the like to others. They seem never to be available to anyone. Who is the “pastor” between these two?
(By the way, it is quite rare for any pastor to find himself or herself in a position where they spend most of their time studying and preparing for sermons. It’s a mistake to go into the pastorate thinking that is the norm.)
If you want to be a writing professor you will need to carve out lots of time from your schedule for reading, writing, thinking, pondering, and interacting. If you want to be a “pastor” (and I don’t mean just “preacher/teacher”), then you need to be with people in an integrated way more than a research professor.
Now, do I think it is best to have your foot in both fields? No, I can’t say I do. We need to do what we are called to do. I have former students, now pastors, who don’t really like to read that much but they are good preachers and great pastors. I know professors who ought to be in their study more often and not with people any more than they have to be.
But, for the Bible or theology professor who takes her or his faith seriously, then I would say “By all means.” That kind of professor needs to see that what she or he does is entirely shaped for the Church. Professors of Bible and Theology must have both feet in the door of the Church — for such people professoring cannot be simply historical research. It is a vocation designed to benefit the Church. I have myself developed on this question — at one time I had more of a research professor mentality and now have more of a Church-focused professorship.
Does the academy look down on the pastoral work of professors? Some do; some don’t. Let me give you a sterling example: NT Wright. Think about it: he’s the Bishop of Durham and the author of 700 page books that have shaped our discipline. He once told me that for him “it was all about daily worship.” I have had a personal experience of being told that my “church books” might hurt my reputation. Frankly, that is not the issue for me: I’d rather be the kind of writer that can make academic issues more accessible and the kind of Christian that thinks that everything is about daily worship.
Hope this helps. Speak up friends.