Saturday, July 21, 2012

No one can serve two masters: academy or church

“No one can serve two masters.” Matthew 6:24

Theological colleges are pulled two ways. The university demands intellectual rigour, PhDs, conference attendance and publications. Increasingly this includes multiple layers of academic compliance.

The church expects effective mission leaders, down to earth application, ideas with legs, lecturers who can walk the talk. Often this includes multiple process around selection, formation and mentoring of students.

The contrast became clear for me in a conversation this week. One of our local ministers, a highly effective ministry leader is also a seasoned and much loved part-time College lecturer in the area of worship.

He noted that there were over 40 new books in his subject area. Which as a minister he simply had no time to read. He wasn’t sure he would be able to continue.

Who would you rather have teach? A person who leads worship every week, an effective practitioner in a complex, growing, multiple congregational church? Or a person with time to read 40 books, a university researcher?

The ideal is both. The reality is we have to choose. Do we face the university? Or the church?

(Note – Practical theology offers a way to do both. John Swinton defines practical theology is critical reflection on the actions of the church in the light of the gospel. Church and university, actions and critical reflection. However, not every lecturer is trained in this way).

Posted by steve at 11:45 PM


  1. Even if all teachers had been trained or learned for themselves to think of their subjects in such a critical reflection on Christian living practical theologian’s way there is still overload between the demands of ministry and of a world with “too many” books and journal articles.

    I think this means that either seminaries have to downgrade their academic aspirations (but that may mean loss of funding) or they have to use a varied staff.

    I also think the “old” pattern where college staff were expected to be actively involved in some ministry needs to be abandoned (though for the more academic staff this won’t be as senior/sole pastors). BUT I think colleges and staff and churches should do the same sort of serious work trying to ensure useful experience in this ministry activity as we currently do for student placements…

    BTW I think your title is great for catching the eye, but bad for guiding thought. The church needs people who serve in the academy. If not church thinking gets lax, soft and loose, and as we have seen easy prey for smart evangelistic Atheists.

    Comment by Tim Bulkeley — July 23, 2012 @ 4:58 am

  2. Great thought-provoking post here Steve…

    Firstly, in reply to Tim, I agree with your BTW comment, but it is not just limited to falling prey to evangelistic Atheists. Without any sort of critical engagement and actual thinking, Christians will not know the difference between Christianity and Mormonism/JW!

    Personally, I would much prefer a lecturer who is passionate about their subject. Linking interest with passion, suddenly that stack of 40 books doesn’t seem so big, or so the concept goes. And so for the question, “Who would you rather have teach? A person who leads worship every week, an effective practitioner in a complex, growing, multiple congregational church? Or a person with time to read 40 books, a university researcher?”, the ideal would be both – and the reality is, is that this ‘both’ is attainable. It need not be presented merely as an ideal and nothing more.

    And I cannot think of a more tangible example than Steve! As someone who has been a student of his courses, Steve had to do the research, the reading – and yet to me he was clearly passionate about what he wanted to present (especially the Kiwi-Christian link!) So is the ideal both? Heck, personally I have experienced the ideal 🙂

    Comment by Ryan — July 23, 2012 @ 9:38 am

  3. While I agree with Ryan that we will be lucky enough to sometimes find exceptional individuals who manage to find, balance and live a passion for both, I also understand your problem, Steve. Both from an organisational perspective (building/shaping an organisation on the basis of being an exception can be a dangerous thing) and from the personal perspective – here you have a person, whose work you obviously value, but who doesn’t consider himself able to be that exception that combines both. So how do we react to that? What are our priorities?

    I guess one of my remarks is that I’m less convinced than you seem to be that we cannot successfully serve the two purposes. We don’t expect any one particular lecturer to be across all scholarship in New Testament, Old Testament, worship, etc. instead we expect to combine the talents and interests of multiple scholars through the journey of student learning. Why should theory vs practice necessarily be different? Certainly the model in other parts of academia would be to bring in “professional experts” as casual academics in cases where that would be beneficial to students, without expecting or even wanting them to adhere to “full” academic notions of scholarship.

    Comment by IainM — July 23, 2012 @ 10:16 am

  4. Big difference is Tenured Academics have much higher renumeration and generally lower demands placed upon them than your Ministers/Pastors. Which makes academia far more attractive for a family. I experienced combining Pastor with Academy is very difficult if one wishes to excel with teaching/writing/publishing etc

    Comment by Greg Gow — July 23, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

  5. Greg,

    There is very little difference in renumeration in the context I serve in – academics are paid very similar to Ministers – and that’s the same I suspect in all denomational contexts.


    Comment by steve — July 23, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

  6. I would rather have someone who had experience within the last 10-15 years of leading worship every week, who still leads worship in a local setting (not the seminary) about once a month, and who knew which were the 10 books worth reading out of the 40.

    Comment by Lindsay Cullen — July 24, 2012 @ 12:09 am

  7. Lindsay, for the sake of helping me think through this, let me be devil’s advocate.

    First, the academy will want not just reading 10 books. They will also want research papers and conference presentations. They will tell the lecturer that they time they spend leading worship would be more profitably spent doing research.

    Second, what else will this lecturer teach? If they are in Biblical, they can teach other Bible books. But most student courses are not shaped around needing 4 worship courses?


    Comment by steve — July 24, 2012 @ 10:27 am

  8. Intersects with a number of significant questions that I’ve heard asked in the past couple of months:

    1. Where are the doctors (teachers/academics) of your church? (Those who work for the church to engage with critical issues of doctrine and faith and have a deep grasp of both past and contemporary theology and issues. I’ve noticed that churches/denominations that I would have expected to have that depth in ministry/theology are increasingly reliant on others from outside their context to assist them.)

    2. Do churches consider ministry to be connected to ‘life-long learning’? And if so, do they ‘put their money where their mouth is’? (Sometimes I think too much is jammed in to 3-4 years of academic study and formation which is never revisited).

    3. Who are your stakeholders? (A real question if 60,70 or 80% of your funding comes from the State. Even if you’re serving the church in principle, you’re actually beholden to those who are funding you. And also if you want your programmes to have currency in other contexts.)

    4. Why can’t I write for/resource those whom I feel called to serve? (A real issue around things like Performance-based Research Funding dictating writing for the academy and not at a more popular level, or even writing things like good textbooks.)

    Looking forward to future comments in this thread.

    Comment by Stephen — July 24, 2012 @ 11:17 am

  9. Steve, I think I was trying to acknowledge that we need people to be academics who ARE academics (that’s their day job), but they still have a living memory of being practitioners and continue to connect with that world in some meaningful way. We probably also need to recognise that training for ministry can be separated from studying for an academic award, and that the ‘faculty’ (under the regulations) which deliver training for ministry does not need to be identical with the faculty (under the university) which deliver education leading to an externally accredited award.

    The comment about knowing which were the 10 worthwhile books was more to do with the way in which (in all occupations) we get stampeded into letting others set our agenda for us.


    Comment by Lindsay Cullen — July 26, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

  10. Thanks Linz. That’s helpful clarification.

    I still reckon the practical theology cycle, if applied to a whole community of scholars, linked with a wider church community, could be really interesting –

    Take some stories – examine the missions questions that emerge – invite Biblical scholars into the conversation, seek wisdom from historians, bring back to communities . Write research papers a collaborative ventures like they do in science cf the “oneness” of so much theological academics,


    Comment by steve — July 30, 2012 @ 10:41 pm

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