by Charlie Trimm | Talbot School of Theology & Brittany Kim | North Park Theological Seminary
Pastoring and Church Ministry
A frequent path for PhD graduates is to enter church life, as pastoring involves many opportunities for teaching. Some larger churches may even have specialized roles like a campus pastor, teaching pastor, or scholar-in-residence that may be particularly suited to someone with a PhD in biblical or theological studies. Many find church life more fulfilling than academia, as they interact with people more deeply and for a greater length of time. However, far less time is typically available for publishing (unless an agreement is reached with the church when taking the position).
Dr. Dan Brendsel
Incoming Pastor | First Presbyterian Church (Hinckley, MN)
During my undergraduate studies, a good friend of mine did a summer internship with a missionary pastoring in a small village in sub-Saharan Africa. Some might argue that this man was “over qualified”: he held a PhD in biblical studies from a prestigious UK university, was fluent in some six or seven languages, and, I dare say, was generally smarter than you or me. Here he was ministering in a place that, by our standards, could well qualify as “the middle of nowhere,” isolated from the major centers of academic resourcing, discussion, and community, with a sphere of influence that was highly limited. My friend asked him if he ever felt his gifts and training were being wasted, to which he responded (I paraphrase, to the best of my memory of a conversation from two decades ago): “These precious people rely on their pastor almost implicitly. There’s no one with a university education, no fact-checking the things I say, no smorgasbord of other pastors and churches to consult or choose should my preaching and teaching be suspect. What I say about what God’s Word says, this they take very nearly as what God says. All my studies and training is not to get me some posh position in my upward climb in social standing; they are to help me speak responsibly to these people who may, much more than others, need such responsibility from their pastor.”
I have been thinking about this pastor’s comments a lot recently, as I am a few weeks out from embarking on my first senior pastor calling, in a small town, far from the resources of the college town where I have ministered as an associate pastor for nearly a decade. The role of a pastor is a weighty one. Whatever the location on the map, the authority and power (interpretive and otherwise) that a pastor wields is significant, and we are all well aware of the potential for and frequency of abuse. But some abuses may arise “innocently,” more from ignorance and naïveté than from a desire to take advantage. When I think of the reasons why a pastor would ever need a PhD, I think of that faithful missionary shepherding the flock in Africa. I think of the great tradition of pastor-scholars who led the church intellectually, as well as liturgically and morally, for most of the history of the church up until about the 19th century. And I think of my own flock, of their need for the Word, and of my role in speaking it forth responsibly. I better be darn confident that I have done my work, that I have put in the time to cultivate wisdom and good interpretive instincts, that I know what good judgments are and how to make them, and also that I have the awareness and humility to recognize the limits of my understanding in the broader landscape of scholarship and the history of interpretation. While there are surely many routes the Spirit uses to cultivate such habits and virtues, PhD studies for me have been a crucial part of that path. So I am deeply thankful to have had the opportunity to pursue doctoral work, and I am firmly persuaded that there is much (and there are many) that such intellectual labor is “good for.”
Dr. Jeannine Hanger
Adjunct Professor, Biola University (La Mirada, CA) | Scholar-in-Residence, Coastline Covenant Church (Redondo Beach, CA)
I, like so many others, began my PhD with my sights set on a university teaching position; this has and continues to be the hope. Part of how that trajectory was confirmed for me was in the opportunity to teach biblical studies in a university adjunct role. While this is not the prized tenure-track position, it is the heart of what has been my goal—to invest in students by teaching the Bible. Since my path to and through the PhD has been such a drawn-out journey, adjunct teaching has nurtured this calling and keeps me fresh by offering immediate opportunities to apply the fruits of my research. This has been a cherished opportunity and the primary way my doctoral training has borne fruit to this point.
Another way one can utilize a PhD is in the church. Or put another way, one of the ways the church may be served is by utilizing all that is gained through the specific skills acquired in pursuing a PhD. How this is starting to play out for me is the opportunity to participate in a church plant as a “scholar-in-residence” of sorts. Paired with another like-minded friend, we have been tasked to engage in study, reflection, and conversation toward advising the pastoral staff on pertinent issues related to establishing and articulating theological positions, church polity and governance, along with recommendations for roll-out to the congregation. For me, the PhD program cultivated an instinct toward researching widely and reflecting deeply on all sides of an issue, making this endeavor a very rewarding way to contribute to the local church. And it has intensely practical implications for how our fledgling community will poise itself to relate as a family both internally and as we reach out to the community in which we have been planted.
While this is (and will continue to be) a part-time volunteer role, I can envision such a “scholar-” or “theologian-in-residence” position to grow beyond this. Larger church contexts may be well-served to employ someone dedicated to bringing biblical and theological training to their congregants. One thinks of Dr. Michael Heiser at Celebration Church, who functions as the Executive Director of their affiliate Awakening School of Theology for one version of this. Less ambitious than starting a training “school,” such a role could utilize someone with a PhD to bring in and curate discipleship and equipping resources and to oversee a church’s biblical teaching content—from podcasts and blogs to the various teaching ministries of the church. Finally, a scholar-in-residence could serve in an important advisory capacity. As the wife of a pastor, I have had a front row seat to how often the pastoral needs of a congregation can overtake a pastor’s margin for the kind of wide reading and depth of study needed to remain up to date on current events, theological debates, and approaches to ministry endeavors. I can see a relevant need to employ someone who carries both doctoral training and a heart for the church. This person would be uniquely poised to serve the pastoral leadership (and by extension, their congregants), as they sit on the frontlines toward researching, reflecting, discerning, and equipping the saints in a variety of important ways.
Dr. Edward W. Klink III (Mickey)
Senior Pastor, Hope Evangelical Free Church (Roscoe, IL) | Adjunct Professor, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL)
After spending almost a decade as a professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in southern California, I resigned my position (one year after getting tenure!) and returned to a northern suburb of the northern Illinois city in which I was born and raised in order to serve as a pastor. I always felt like I could fit in both worlds—the academy and the church, even if the worlds do not fit nicely together. My Ph.D. research at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) naturally directed my trajectory toward the academy, yet I never viewed taking a professorial position at a confessional school as anything other than a form of (parachurch) ministry.
I started teaching at Biola/Talbot at the age of thirty and naively believed that I could serve in both the academy and the church simultaneously. I was mistaken. It became clear to me early on that a person would be forced to choose either the academy or the church as their “headquarters.” One would get my best time and energy; the other would have to get leftovers. My convictions also forced me to see that weekend pastoring was not sufficiently pastoral. That is, a pastor is not merely a teacher at an event but a day-to-day shepherd who knows and lives among the sheep. I saw the decision before me. I would either be a professor who serves the church in my spare time, likely in teaching roles, or I would be a pastor who serves in the academy when available. There was no middle ground. Since I could honor the Lord in either realm, I based my decision on one primary question: to which institution and mission did I desire to commit my life? Even though I loved serving in the academy and had the training and gifts to succeed, my passion was clearly for the institution and mission of the local church. Six months before turning forty years old, I took the role of senior pastor at an EFCA church and have served there now for seven years.
As I consider the nature of my pastoral role, I have been benefited by looking back in the history of the church to see the existence and practices of “pastor theologians” who would (and did) fit in both worlds and yet served as local church pastors. Over the past ten years I have also benefited from the vision and partnership of the Center for Pastor Theologians (https://www.pastortheologians.com/). With that perspective, I have strived to serve as a both a local church pastor and more broadly as a pastor theologian, with the latter happening as I continue to contribute to the scholarly discussions and ecclesial conversations. Since becoming a pastor, I have been able to participate in many writing projects. To be fair, I think a decade in the academy gave me a good foundation of writing opportunities and publishing contacts that not all pastors get. Besides several contributions to books and journals, since becoming a pastor I have finished a large exegetical commentary on the Gospel of John (ZECNT) and written a book called The Local Church (Crossway). I am also under contract for several forthcoming books, including a biblical theology on Creation-New Creation (IVP) and a theological commentary on the Gospel of John (Eerdmans). While writing clearly benefits and springs from my work as a local church pastor, I believe it also is a ministerial assignment of a pastor theologian.
I believe there is a place for pastor theologians in the church today. I can see how my Ph.D., when combined with the social location of local church pastoral ministry, provides ideal insights and perspectives into both God’s Word and God’s world. That is, a pastor theologian may be in the best position to speak and think theologically with and for the church. The pastor theologian is best suited to see not only what answers need to be given but also what questions need to be asked. In the pastoral context of weddings and funerals, pastoral visits and death-bed prayers, and the day-by-day walking and suffering with God’s people in God’s world, theology is forced to go deep enough to provide a solid foundation and yet wide enough to cover all the situations of the saints in the church. This is a high calling—not to an ivory tower but to an unremarkable local church that, when seen theologically, is an embassy of the Kingdom of God and the place in which God has specifically and eternally promised his presence and power.
Rev. Dr. Matthew H. Patton
Pastor | Covenant Presbyterian Church (Vandalia, OH)
Since getting my PhD in biblical theology, I have labored for about six years in pastoral ministry. I serve at a relatively small church of about 150 people, and until recently I was the only pastor, so I have a wide variety of duties. I do not feel underutilized as a pastor. Every aspect of word ministry (preaching, teaching, counseling) draws on all that I have learned and stretches me to the limit. I am regularly thankful for the depth the PhD gave me as I get questions of all kinds from the people of God. And there is nothing more challenging than preaching: bringing the life-giving word of God in a way that is intelligible and compelling to the people of God, as well as to perfect strangers who have no background in the Bible at all. Doctoral studies gave me a fluency in the Bible that greatly helps in this work.
I also have many special opportunities for using my doctoral-level training: I regularly teach a Hebrew refresher module for my denomination, as well as periodic adjunct teaching for various institutions. I am beginning to explore more overseas teaching opportunities. I have published three books in my tenure as pastor (one of them my dissertation), and I am now working to fulfill two book contracts, including a major commentary on Jeremiah. I also have had the opportunity to write some popular articles and to present at academic conferences. These things would not be possible without a very supportive board of elders, who encourage me to use these gifts to bless the larger church.
One important issue is balance. I have resolved always to give my church the very best I have to offer, not the leftovers. I never want them (or my family) to feel like they have to compete with my various academic projects for my attention. In many cases, my pastoral work dovetails closely with my academic work. For instance, I wrote a short study on Deuteronomy for Crossway. Before that, I taught through Deuteronomy in adult Sunday School. The discussions I had with them greatly enhanced my work. Before I publish my Jeremiah commentary, my co-pastor and I intend to preach through the book.
Another issue is isolation from other scholars. I greatly miss having other scholars to discuss issues with, and I greatly miss having easy access to a good library. Some of my work has suffered and gotten poor reviews because I wasn’t as in touch with the guild as I ought to be.
Still, I believe that being a pastor makes me a better scholar. As someone in the trenches of spiritual warfare, being a pastor keeps me focused on the pastoral issues that drove the biblical authors to write what they did. There are so many distracting questions the guild asks, which take you away from the heart of Scripture, which is Christ crucified and raised for needy sinners. The word of God really is for the people of God, who possess the key of understanding, which is Holy Spirit-wrought faith.
Charlie Trimm is Associate Professor and Chair of Old Testament (Undergraduate Division) at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. The testimonials above were first published on his blog. Brittany Kim teaches Bible classes at North Park Theological Seminary.