Pastors + Academics: Life as Crucible and Classroom


My first priest used to call the academy the “cheap seats.” Before your head explodes, know that he is also a life-long academic, a published historian tenured first at Southern Cal, then at the University of Denver and Wheaton College. Now, in his late 70’s, he teaches at a seminary while also serving his parish.

I’m incredibly thankful for academics. Some of the fondest days of my life not in the labor & delivery room were spent in the classroom. I read academic books almost exclusively. Some of my best friends and favorite parishioners have been academics. But what my pastor (and professor) meant was that academics can often view the church from a safe distance in the realm of ideas, assuming new and/or better ideas are fundamental to getting the work of the church done – or done right. Academics, by nature, stand on the stump of analysis and criticism, but that’s not the problem. The problem is when that is all they do. Academics are certainly helpful, but their resources are inadequate to the larger balance of what it means for the Church to care for souls. And to be helpful, their posture toward the Church should reflect that reality.

Being pastors puts us in the position of shepherding, after all, in an almost unmanageable diversity of experiences and knowledge (unless the pastor is so unfortunate as to lead a congregation that fosters a veneer of “having it all together” and, alas, is so content in being unbothered him/herself as to leave the prosthetic culture unchallenged). 

In my experience, most people without the stunting luxury of said veneer do not interact with Christianity based on its plausibility, but on its practical implications for their lives. Does it buoy them when they feel they are drowning in difficulty? Does it keep them humble and generous in their successes? Does it encourage them to make their words and their world better? Does it comfort them when they are burying their youngest child after a tree has inexplicably fallen on him in the back yard? (Yes, it happened.)  When it’s all said and done, will it “work?”

In over a decade of ministry, I have not seen new and better ideas, even the most profound theological ones, have near the impact that massive crises or even mild challenges produce, especially when they’ve been accompanied by a witness of the goodness and sovereignty of God at work beyond all explanation. I have rarely seen my words, rooted in solid ideas, have the impact of just being there at 2am when a teenager’s cutting has become life-threatening. Most people simply don’t live in the world of ideas most of the time. They live in the world of what works. Good marriage. Contentment at a less than ideal job. Wisdom with resources, in parenting and through conflict. Peace.

So many people are not in “the classroom of life.” They are in the crucible of life. 

And this is where academics can often create difficulty for pastors. The vocations are just so far apart because of context (classroom), duration (until graduation) and the aforementioned distance. The academic crisis is often one of knowing, not enduring. The pulpit is not simply a lectern. It’s a beacon, ideally, of hope. More than that, the altar, from which the body and blood of Christ are distributed, speaks a far better word than any of us. That should humble both pastors and academics enough to imagine how we can live, teach and care in concert with the mystery of the Eucharist and the ability of our liturgies to shape more than our ideology. To shape our souls beyond what we can qualify.   

Called to ministry, I wanted to study exegesis. The good Dr. and Father suggested I add some spiritual formation to my academic track. I’m glad he did and that I did. My right eyelashes fell out my first year of ministry because of the stress. 

Occasionally, in a hard moment, my mind returns to what lingers there from a particular course entitled History and Theology of the Care of Souls. I have buried first-born, still-born babies. I have cried out to God in search of comfortable words for the funeral of my best friend’s wife. I have sat with the mentally ill and had nothing but tears and prayer as my resources. The list goes on. But prayerfully peering into that history of caring for hurting people, and its biblical basis, helps me greatly. So, I’m thankful for my academic priest. 

The primary gift any academic can offer a pastor is help wrapped in humility. Because help, in the end, is the life’s work of a pastor. That’s our calling. Sometimes it feels like an impossible task. The medievals called it the “cure of souls,” but there is no curing the soul this side of Christ’s return. There is only caring for it. And if academics and pastors can link arms to care amid the diversity of crises, in the crucible of life so many of us hope to somehow escape, then I believe we can converse with great fruitfulness. 

I love ideas and want more of them. I love well-written theses. People need them and people need to teach and write them, because they can point us to what’s good, beautiful and true. They can help us sort through what isn’t. And in the context of the church, humility around such things will locate us all in our primary, shared vocation as a priesthood of all believers. 

What has been your experience, as a pastor or academic, in partnering (or attempting to partner) in the care of souls in the church context? What have been the challenges? 


13 thoughts on “Pastors + Academics: Life as Crucible and Classroom

  1. As I neared the end of my PhD program, I got a very clear sense that I needed a good deal of field experience as a pastor to complement my academic training. I think professors of surgery have to be skilled both in theory and practice, experts both in the classroom and the operating room. That sort of formation is something we can learn from, if we have the patience for a long residency. But we have all the time in the world, don’t we?


    1. Mike, exactly. So how can we draw on each other’s strengths? I would think that having academic congregants would be a resource for pastors, rather than a threat. And, realizing that academic expertise doesn’t mean that one understands God, faith, or Christian existence in ways that pastors have to engage daily would allow pastors to be a resource for academics, rather than a slight.


      1. I don’t know how yet. I feel like the only way for me to figure it out is to embody it. I can tell you that I’ve gotten a lot of buy in from my folks with pretty advanced theological and historical-critical stuff. I’m coming to think that one of the primary tasks is to translate these ideas out of academese. No need to abandon terminology. Lay people don’t mind terminology. But they’ve got no patience for that typical style of writing we academics often hide behind to protect our fragile egos and avoid doing the hard work of being more poetic. The ideas of philosophy and theology are exciting, empowering, and inspiring. At least until our prolix diselocution problematizes the undertaking. (See what I did there?)

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  2. Seth Cain

    In terms of field experience, it’s easy for us to believe pastoring is 80% study/pulpit, 10% pastoral care – unless you can staff it, which I think is ill-advised for any preacher who intends to do so with humanity and connect at the heart level. To this end, bedsides are as important as books. The other 10% or so is administration / management. This “balance” stems from how we are trained, I think, spending the bulk of our time learning biblical and systematic theology as knowledge to teach. I’m inclined to believe it shouldn’t just be for teaching, but for our awe and spiritual motivation. That’s the only way I can imagine a church being not just a glorified religious lecture hall, but a community inspired to take up the mission of Jesus in some sort of kenotic way. And to Aaron’s point, I think philosophers can be hugely helpful as conversation partners in thinking together through the hard sayings and historically contentious doctrines, among other things. Academics have a lot more time to explore!

    For what it’s worth, I’ve found storytelling to be a happy medium between the technical and the practical. Sometimes it allows people to arrive at the intended conclusions before I’ve been able to unpack them and invest them with the more advanced concepts. The stories are a great “vessel” to hold the concepts and even terminology they might not otherwise find useful.

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    1. I’ve been an academic all my life wishing academic philosophers and religionists wouldn’t be so afraid of seeing their vocation as poetic, in the sense of articulating new and strange realities might hold the struggling student while leading her forward into the unknown — the domain of so much religious and theological thought. I want my writing (and class-room talking) to grip and prod and please the way a good sermon does. I think of James and Thoreau and Emerson and Kierkegaard as philosophers who are preachers, and good ones, though none of them preached in a church.
      Funny I should happen on your blog today. Sunday I gave my debut sermon in the local church I regularly sing in. I was bringing my love of Thoreau into a church he rejected. But then, he would have rejected university teaching, too, and universities by and large reject him as a thinker. He doesn’t buy into academic jargon and abstraction. He has a strong sense of writing as care for others in both theological and practical ways (though not everyone sees this).

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      1. Ed, your work is a testament to the religious poetics that good philosophy can foster. I wish I were close enough to have come and heard you preach. I recently wrote an essay entitled “Can Kierkegaard Preach?” And I did so purely in order to respond to a student who asked whether a pastor who read Kierkegaard could bring someone so notoriously opposed to the established church into the pulpit. My answer was that absolutely he could, but that it might be a sermon that most congregants and pastors, alike, would be unwilling to hear. As far as I am concermed, though, “Preach it, Kierkegaard!”


  3. I once characterized Kierkegaard’s Discourses as sermons — they’re beautiful and wouldn’t offend the established church (though HE offended the established church, for many other reasons). I have a minority view that Kierkegaard says very little about what the doctrine of the church should be; so if any in the congregation wanted to have doctrine reinforced in sermons (rather than have them “story-telling interpretations of scriptural passages) they’d be disappointed. Of course if he had ever become a pastor, he would almost certainly bring his acerbic attack on the show-off wealth and pomp of the hierarchy into his Sunday sermons.

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  4. Robert

    Seth Cain’s post is eloquently presenting James 2:14-26, faith without works is dead. As Cain puts it, “Academics, by nature, stand on the stump of analysis and criticism, but that’s not the problem. The problem is when that is all they do. … The primary gift any academic can offer a pastor is help wrapped in humility. Because help, in the end, is the life’s work of a pastor.” Cain circles back to the importance of good academic work in his closing, writing “[it] can point us to what’s good, beautiful and true [and] can help us sort through what isn’t.” I think there is a lot behind these closing thoughts that I would enjoy seeing flushed out. I realize I’m asking a lot of a blog post, but I’d like to see two things addressed.

    First, comments on why gaining a better, deeper understanding of Truth matters. If, as Cain writes, what people really care about is does Christianity “work”, why does Truth matter? A pragmatic argument for faith in Christ is difficulty to square with the circumstances of many believers today and throughout history.

    Second, Cain emphasizes that it is the role of the Church to help, but it is often guilty of hurting. I suspect this is a subtext of the “what isn’t [true]” statement. I’d like to see it addressed head on. To come down from the academic ivory tower means having the opportunity to help, but also the inevitability of doing some harm. A friend of mine recounted being told in medical school that “if you want to practice medicine, you will eventually kill someone — not necessarily through negligence, but possibly through circumstance or through simple ignorance, you will kill someone — and you need to make peace with that now.” I can imagine a similar talk being given to anyone beginning pastoral practice. I see the importance of the academic in some cases being like that of a medical researcher. Helping Churches do less harm through increasing understanding.


    1. Seth Cain

      Thanks for the comments, Robert. To your first question: Scripture (and the ethos it inspires) tells a story of how the world is intended to work and how it can be understood in its present state – in need of renewal / recovery. Christ, long foretold, inaugurated that work. The Church advances it. Christ will ultimately consummate it fully. In that, it provides an account of why suffering exists and how it can be understood even in the present and for those who are subject to systemic ills or even devastating circumstances. So, epistemologically & eschatologically, the truth and what works are knit together. Like my friend whose wife suffers from ALS but knows her present state is not the final word (or her final worth), we have a transcendent truth that makes living with even suffering “work.” And she, with only her eyelids to communicate the children’s Bible curriculum she writes, knows it. It fits into the larger narrative of God’s work of renewal. Further, the implications of the Truth also allow my friend to work out his life – bodily, mentally & emotionally – when she cannot be a wife to him in ways he might otherwise feel entitled, unto and beyond her imminent death. As with James 2, faith and works are in relationship because of this guiding narrative, both in spite of and by means of your present circumstances. For James, alas, it would be persecution, imprisonment and beheading.

      To the second: Christians, at our best, know we are both “already” and “not yet.” All of our failures as “ministers of reconciliation” are accounted for in our ongoing need for constant personal and corporate recalibration that require the humility of our Christ. Christians don’t transcend the failings of humanity, but work them out bodily in our awareness of them (having Solzhenitsyn’s line between good and evil running down the middle of each of us). Sadly, Christians often lose their Christ as the centerpiece of the larger narrative. And when we do, we not only lose our initial bearings, but also find ourselves unconcerned with the initial destination or the humility required to keep lauding it. Most of the NT epistles are a matter of church discipline. Christianity, like your med school friend, budgets, so to speak, for our failings. The problem often comes when we can’t (or won’t) see them, own them. Henri Nouwen coined a term for Christians: “wounded healers.” I would add “wounded, wounding healers.” This is simply part of our story in the “already, but not yet” and requires humbly pointing away from ourselves, to Christ. So your point is well taken. Academics help us retain the guiding narrative and the humility it inspires.

      I hope this addresses your questions.


  5. I recently graduated with an MA in philosophy from the Institute for Christian Studies and have since begun working as a lay minister. The transition was more natural than I expected, but I find myself struggling with similar conflicts that seem to inspire this blog. Like the author of this post, I too struggle to understand the interdependence of the academy and the “church”. How do I address real practical problems when I can’t stop saying things like “intersubjective” or “mutual recognition”? Thankfully I don’t find this struggle as much a burden as it is an exhilarating challenge. In addition to this practical challenge, I’m also torn internally. I struggle to balance my desire to advance academically while simultaneously remaining active in the ministerial work that gives meaning to these studies.

    There seems to be a kindred spirit here in this blog and that excites me.


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