Pastor-scholar? Not likely...

The so-called pastor-scholar...

This is a term I'm starting to feel a little suspicious about, especially if the words "pastor" and "scholar" are not going to be diluted regarding their meaning or compromised regarding the quality demanded of each "job". 


Because the longer I remain in the ministry, the more I am beginning to realize that the life of the minister and the life of the scholar are very different. The scholar is, to my mind, someone who has proven oneself at the top of one's field for many years, with publications showing one's worth. The scholar is continually on the "cutting edge." I doubt very many pastors could ever attain to such a level.


Because my understanding of a full-time pastor - note, I said "pastor" and not "preacher" - involves real-life interaction with the sheep. The sheep are not just faces in a building, but people to whom pastors must give their lives to and for. Sheep need a lot of attention from shepherds.

The life of a true scholar - note, I said "true scholar" and not "internet theologian" or self-published "expert" - involves constant interaction with the sources that he must master. The sources are not just for bed-time reading, but the scholar must give his/her life to these sources. Libraries need a lot of attention from scholars.

True, there are pastors who simply need to prepare one sermon a week and attend a few administrative meetings, but that isn't what I have in mind by the term pastor. I have in mind the solo pastor or senior minister (of a local congregation) who not only preaches (sometimes twice), but also counsels and visits and ... 

True, there are scholars who publish occasionally and attend a conference here and there, but that isn't what I have in mind by the term scholar. I have in mind those who literally give their careers to mastering their field (not someone with only a PhD dissertation). 

When you look at the ministries of men who gave themselves to their sheep, with blood, sweat, and tears, so to speak, you realize what being a pastor should entail. It is all-consuming, especially emotionally.

When you look at the work of scholars who give themselves to their work, with care, diligence, and aptitude, so to speak, you realize what being a scholar is all about. It is all-consuming, especially mentally.

And, I'm afraid to say, apart from exceptional circumstances, I just don't believe both can be done well. It was a rarity in the Early Modern Period. You usually did one or the other, but not both. And today, there's a reason the greatest scholars of Puritanism, for example, are not pastors. You might want to dabble, here and there, but dabbling might prove to be rather frustrating or, worse, rather dangerous!

No doubt, we live in an age where people are called "scholars" when in fact they are nothing of the sort (nor do some pretend to be, but that title is nevertheless cast upon them). In other words, writing a book for P&R or Crossway does not make one a scholar, even if the book happens to be very good. When you read the work of people like Irena Backus, Richard Muller, Anthony Milton, John Coffey, and Cornelius Elleboogius, you start to understand how being a full-time pastor can't possibly allow for the type of quality that consistently comes from the pens of the aforementioned scholars.

Many will perhaps disagree. However, I didn't say that I don't believe in the pastor-theologian. Now that's entirely different issue, in my opinion, which I'd like to turn to in the future. (One thinks of Sinclair Ferguson as a good example). After all, I firmly believe that the best theologians have usually had significant pastoral experience. 

But if you want to be a pastor-scholar, then something has to give. Either your scholarship or your ministry or your family or all of the above! 

We pastors can be happy being generalists, knowing a little about a lot. But knowing a lot about a little (the scholar) and a little about a lot (the pastor) seems a difficult, if not impossible, task to keep up year after year.

At bottom, I think we need really good pastors and we need really good scholars. I just wonder if the "pastor-scholar" doesn't end up compromising in one of those "arenas". God forbid it should be the pastor among his sheep.