Continuing on my reflections on ecclesial renewal as it relates to Keller’s proposal, let’s keep talking about the problem of how to revitalize the lost ecclesial office, “doctor of the church.”
What we know is two-fold: First, there are problems within the church concerning evangelization and discipleship that doctors would be well-positioned to help address. Second, there are broader cultural renewal problems, such as the revitalization of the Christian mind and the problem of Christian social doctrine, that doctors could also help resolve.
We can add a third item to the list: We have a high number of young academics with varying degrees of connection to the local church who might actually be able to do some of this work.
So why doesn’t that happen?
Three reasons immediately come to mind:
- younger academics and theologians tend to be geographically concentrated around large cities and universities
- we don’t have a financially viable model for supporting doctors
- the relationship between pastors and would-be doctors is often fraught due to a variety of factors, including the cluelessness some would-be doctors have about the brass tacks of discipleship and church life, competing priorities between pastors and would-be doctors, and a mistrust between the two that can come from doctoral arrogance, isolation, and unteachability, pastoral insecurity (and unteachability), a bit of both of these factors, or some other source altogether.
I think sitting with the question of pastoral frustration with theologians in their churches is especially important. Pastors spend a good chunk of their time, or so the pastors I know best tell me, on a variety of decidedly non-intellectual tasks. You’re doing hospital visitations, meeting one-on-one with congregants to provide spiritual direction and counsel, prepping sermons, and often mediating in disputes between church members. Moreover, if you’re in a smaller church, your job may include a good many other things as well. One good friend of mine once spent much of his week assisting a congregant who was a bit of a cat lady, who didn’t have any local family, and who had an unexpected health crisis. So his week was spent moving back and forth between the hospital visiting her and spending time at her home trying to re-house dozens of cats. When that is what your day-to-day life looks like, it can be more than a little irksome when a more academically inclined congregant comes to you with complaints or frustrations about the lack of theological formation happening in the church.
In the first place, as a pastor you’re probably already frustrated about this and don’t need any reminders of yet another task you could (should?) be doing. In the second place, hearing a grad student or someone working in an academic line of work complaining about this can be quite alienating and cause you to question whether you’d even want this person helping on that problem since they are so clueless as to what day-to-day pastoral care looks like in your church.
Of course, lingering in the background here is a concern many pastors have, which is that they’re not as sharp intellectually as they were in seminary, their languages are a bit rusty, and they’re way behind on their reading, and they may well feel a bit threatened by a congregant who reads more than them, knows more than them, or both.
How do you handle that problem? I don’t have any easy answers and I don’t think there are any one-simple-trick type techniques to use here. I think probably the answer is “prayer, humility, and attentiveness to the needs, concerns, and day-to-day struggles of the other person.” If both the pastor and the academic parishioner can come to the table with a respect for the other’s work, understanding of the other’s struggles and their desires, and an intention to work together to serve their church, then I expect a lot of these problems will be imperceptibly dealt with as the two simply work alongside one another, figuring out problems as they go.
So let’s try to get practical here and talk about how to resolve some of the other problems. Obviously we’re not going to solve them in a blog. But the purpose of these posts is to just think aloud about the problems in hopes of producing better conversations.
Ultimately, the nature of these problems is going to be so heavily localized and related to specific city and church settings that there is unlikely to be one solution to the problem. Rather, different cities and congregations and denominations will all have to figure out for themselves what this should look like. But, again, I think we need to figure this out because right now the doctors could offer a great deal with regards to evangelization and catechesis as well as some broader cultural projects, and in most cases I think we are under-utilizing the talent and people we have.
Single Churches Hiring Doctors
One of the most obvious strategies here would be for large, well-resourced local congregations to hire someone to serve as a “theologian-in-residence” or “doctor of the church.” This person would likely be in charge of the church’s Sunday school or education hour offerings as well as perhaps leading some book studies or discussions during the week. They could also potentially facilitate an Alpha course at the church or simply teach the church’s own version of an “Introduction to Christianity” class designed for spiritual seekers and others who are curious about Christianity.
Depending on the church’s priorities, denominational status, and some other questions, it may also be desirable for this person to have a certain amount of research time built into their position not necessarily so they can deliver groundbreaking papers at AAR or ETS but more to insure that they have time to stay on top of the various discourses that are relevant to the life of the church. This aspect of the job could allow them to assist the preaching pastor with sermon prep, for example. But it might also allow the person in this role to do some L’Abri-type work within the local church, hosting regular film discussion nights or giving and hosting weekly lectures.
Why won’t this work? Well, there are many reasons.
First, this strategy basically only applies to megachurches, which though they obviously exert major influence in American religious life are actually a very small share of the overall number of churches in the US. For most small churches, when they have money to hire additional staff it should probably go toward hiring pastors to help with the spiritual care of the congregation.
Second, another challenge, as we mentioned above, is that the priorities of a doctor and the concerns of a church sometimes do not align very well. To take two contemporary examples, it is not hard to imagine someone in a doctoral office wishing to lead a discussion concerning sex and gender issues in which they use Oliver O’Donovan’s work on the topic as part of their own research and find that it filters into their own views on the matter. This could lead to significant conflict within the church for a variety of reasons.
Supposing the topic of surrogacy came up, a doctor who (rightly!) views the practice as immoral and corrosive of a Christian understanding of the body may run into sharp opposition to their views in many churches, including many well-off conservative megachurches which likely have members who have not been well taught and have used surrogacy or IVF to have children and will, understandably, not appreciate these practices being critiqued.
On the other hand, younger outreach-minded missional congregations that have perhaps slow-played the Christian teachings on gender and sexuality in their preaching may find that having a class on the issue led by someone conversant with the tradition on the topic leads to immense conflict within the church as many members who were affirming and simply hadn’t realized the church was not or hadn’t resolved the conflict between their own views and their church’s will respond badly to the clarity that such a class would create.
In both cases, my view is that being clear about the church’s teachings on these matters is preferable to living in ambiguity or ignorance. But for churches that have long been unclear on these matters, bringing people toward the truth is likely to be a long and complicated process which will require patience, listening, and helping people feel understood and respected even while they are being instructed in ways that challenge and correct them. And often young academics are not the right ones to do that kind of work.
Put simply: It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a well-intentioned but somewhat relationally inept theologian drops some bombs in an education hour and soon the whole church is in uproar. Pastors aren’t wrong to fear such a scenario and that may cause them to be hesitant to create a job of this sort.
Another option here is for study centers to try and employ several people fit to serve in this role and then to design their roles in ways that not only benefit the university, but also help them better serve the local church.
The obvious downside to this strategy is that it will only be operable in places with study centers which means, usually, university towns. The other issue is that because this person would be employed by a study center rather than a church, their incentives and job description are both going to incline them to orienting their work toward universities rather than churches. Given that there is often already a fraught relationship between the theological academy and the church, this added complication will likely only make that problem worse.
One interesting option I’ve been thinking about more is what it might look like for a group of churches in a city to collectively support the work of an ecclesial doctor. I imagine the simplest way of doing this would for the doctor to basically support-raise via local churches so that each church is giving money to some sort of non-profit endeavor that pays the doctor’s wage. This removes the obvious logistical nightmares that you might stumble into if several churches were all trying to formalize an employment relationship with the same person.
But the idea here is that you’d have a small number of churches pooling their resources to employ one qualified person to work full time in this doctoral role. In that role, the person could lead book groups and Bible studies, give or host regular lectures, and meet regularly with people wishing to deepen their intellectual understanding of the faith. In other words, this person’s job would look very like the job of the hypothetical doctor employed by a megachurch. However, in this case the person is being employed by several local churches, which may help to make it more feasible for doctors to find work apart from living off the largesse of a megachurch.
Theological Think Tanks
Finally, theological think tanks like Davenant or Theopolis might help address this problem by employing doctors under their auspices and then making their work available to local churches. Indeed, this is more or less exactly what the Davenant Teaching Fellows gig does. As far as I know, this model has been the most successful to date in terms of financing ecclesial doctoral jobs.
The challenge in each of the last three proposals is how to make sure the ecclesial doctor is well-anchored in a local church, is understanding of the pastoral and care problems in the church, and is respectful of and even deferential to the pastor of the church as they seek to go about their own work. Here the financial model is likely to be both blessing and curse. It’s a blessing in that no individual church is being asked to employ the doctor and inherit all of the complex questions that can come with that role. The curse is that because the doctor’s paycheck isn’t coming from the local church it can be easier for their work to be detached from the local church.
My hunch here is that the only ultimate solution is trust. Trust makes work cheaper and simpler. This is perhaps the inverse of a point that Matt Anderson has made to me on many occasions over the years: One of the quietist ways that sin steals from us is the time it costs us to deal with sin. When a church discipline case flares up in a church, it consumes enormous amounts of the pastor’s time and emotional energy. The flip side to this is that when people trust each other, much of the time you spend checking up on each other, navigating conflicts, and making sure your work is aligned is freed up for other things. Trust is a kind of currency within institutions and communities. When trust is high, it is often the only currency you need. When trust is low, you’ll find yourself needing other types of currency, often in the form of time or literal cash, to make up the difference.