The Pastor-Scholar: Contemplations on the Possibility

Almost anyone who has been convicted of the great theological problems influencing the modern American church would confess that now, perhaps more than in the past century, the church needs trained Christian leaders to diagnose and confront current issues. I have been under the persuasion that the church needs pastor-scholars—pastors who are scholarly in their endeavors. However, recently my perception of that notion was challenged by a piece written by Andrew Wilson in Christianity Today. Wilson argues that while it is possible that a few may become pastor-scholars, most who try to combine the endeavors will do neither. Wilson approaches the term “scholar” as one who is highly trained in one specific area.

At first, I highly disagreed with Wilson. However, the more I have read his article, the more I have felt that there is a need to revise the term “pastor-scholar.” I would like to argue that we need highly trained pastors to engage the church and the community around them, that it is possible to have pastor-scholars. However, I would like to suggest that we qualify the term towards another direction. First, let us look at the challenges facing one who pursues the tag “pastor-scholar.”

The Challenges of a Pastor-Scholar.

Wilson writes,

“But how feasible is it to be both a scholar and a pastor? I suspect many of us know individuals who, by aiming to be both a pastor and a scholar, have ended up being neither. More commonly, some aspire to be both equally, but indicate by their speech and actions—let alone by their weekly timetables—that they major in one and minor in the other” (Wilson 2015,

I understand fully where Wilson is coming from. I am currently a pastor of a small, rural church and a full-time seminary student.[1] Luckily, our church only has one service on Sunday and a Wednesday night Bible study each week. I say luckily because I normally spend a minimum of 6 hours in preparation for each service. With the incredible workload from school as well as the pastoral responsibilities of visitation and the like, in addition to caring for my family; my time is stretched. Thus, there are specific challenges if one seeks the term “pastor-scholar.”

Time. As noted earlier, scholarship and pastoral leadership both require an exorbitant amount of time. While there are some who can manage the task (i.e. N.T. Wright, John Piper, etc.), most will find this to become a taxing challenge.

Generalist-Specialist. Scholars are deemed specialists in one particular field. Wilson understands scholarship to be “about mastering an area of research in a way that advances human knowledge…For scholars, praxis is the tail, research is the dog, and the former is not meant to wag the latter” (Wilson 2015, Pastors, in contrast, must become generalists, concentrating on broad topics and being studied in several areas. As you may even note about this website, we deal with a variety of topics. Such is a generalist approach.

University-Church. In addition, as noted by Wilson, the scholar will need to spend a great deal of time at the university in research. The pastor will need to spend a great deal of time with the congregation. Thus, one may find oneself stretched when accomplishing both.

Despite the difficulties, the modern church screams forth, “We need pastors who are equipped to face the challenges from theological and political liberalism, secularism, and the like.” So why should one even consider being an academic pastor?

The Need for Scholarly Pastors.

There are at least two reasons that trained, scholarly pastors are needed in the modern climate. Think of these reasons like the two-sided squads of a football team. A football team needs a good offensive squad and a good defensive squad. Likewise, trained pastors are essential to offer the same.

Theological Offense.

A good, grounded theology offers a great offense for modern Christians. The Christian needs to know what it is that Christianity purports. Bob Dill, a member of our congregation, said just this week, “Our great failure in the church is the lack of training that we offer new Christians” (Bob Dill, conversation). It seems as if the modern church accepts new converts and then allows them to fly off on their own without the least bit of help before pushing them out of the nest. This demonstrates the great need for theology in the church. Bruce Riley Ashford and Keith Whitefield provide two observations pertaining to theology,

“First, Scripture anticipates theology because it reveals truth about God and furthermore provides the true story of the whole world…Second, Scripture anticipates theology because it invites humanity into the drama of redemption by provoking change in the people of God and calling them to know and love him” (Ashford and Whitfield 2014, 4-5).

Does it not seem like an integral responsibility to provide a solid theological foundation for the church? Jesus himself when meeting with the two men on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection took time to explain the theological reasons behind his own life, death, and resurrection. Luke records that Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).[2] In order to provide theological training, the pastor will need to be trained himself.

Apologetic Defense.

In football, it is said that a good offense wins games, but a good defense wins championships. Likewise, the pastor will need to be able to defend the truths of Scripture to be able to make a great impact on the faith of those to whom he has been assigned. Again, this may require a generalized approach. The scholarly pastor will need to have the means to defend the faith historically, scientifically, and/or philosophically. Hopefully, one will note the great reason for a pastor to be at least “scholarly” in his approach. Despite all of this, one can still appreciate the challenges to be considered a “pastor-scholar.” Perhaps the entire difficulty is originated semantically. Could there not be a reason to establish a new category?

The Need for a New Category—“The Pastor Theologian?”

Michael Kruger offered in his piece “Should You Be a Pastor or a Professor? Thinking Through the Options” six categories of the pastor-scholar which are,

“1. The Pastor…the average…pastor who is theologically-trained…but not engaged in any meaningful study/research”…2. The Pastor-Scholar…individual [who] has an interest in theological and scholarly issues that goes beyond the average pastor mentioned above…3. The Pastor-Scholar who is active in the scholarly world…4. The Scholar-Pastor who is active in the church…a full-time professor/academic with a Ph.D., but still very much engaged with the local church and with pastoral ministry…5. The Scholar Pastor…a full-time professor and has a real heart for the church and for pastoral ministry, but is not as actively engaged in it himself…6. The Scholar…a pure scholar [who has] secondary interest in how it might impact or be used in the church” (Kruger 2015,

I feel that Kruger offers a better assessment than does Wilson in this regard. Seeing as how Wilson’s primary issue was with the term scholar and what that entails, perhaps a better term for the “pastor-scholar” is the “pastor-theologian.” The “pastor-theologian” would fit in the second category of Kruger’s paradigm. However, I think it needs to be said that being a pastor-scholar is not as impossible as Wilson purports.


Andrew Wilson provides a great article on the issue of what is called the “pastor-scholar.” While being a pastor and a scholar is a great challenge, there are many individuals who fill the qualifications. For instance, I could name numerous scholars at Liberty University who engage in top-notch scholarship while also being involved in local pastoral ministry. Other pastors-scholars from other universities would also fit the bill such as Phil Fernandes. Others throughout history fit the bill as well, such as John Calvin, John Wesley, for a time B. B. Warfield, Martin Luther, and many others. Thus, while it may be a challenge to be a pastor-scholar, it is not an impossibility.

Perhaps for those of us who are striving to become scholars and are also engaged in pastoral ministry we would be better served by the title “pastor-theologian” since we are involved in academic work, but not yet qualified in one specific area (such as those who hold a Ph.D.). Perhaps the greatest problem with Wilson’s assessment is in his assumption that specialists cannot speak on generalist terms. It may well be said that scholars are even better to evaluate general areas of interest due to their training. Also, if one acknowledges the New Testament setup, the pastor is among many others in the church who do the task of ministry. Part of the problem may also be found in ministries that expect the pastor to be pastor, preacher, counselor, electrician, plumber, gardener, carpenter, financial guru, and so on (see Acts 6:2).

Regardless of which category a pastor finds oneself, may the pastor be found to continually deepen his knowledge through the study of Scripture and theological pursuits. As Paul writes, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

Sources Cited

Ashford, Bruce Riley, and Keith Whitfield. “Theological Method: An Introduction to the Task of Theology.” A Theology for the Church. Revised Edition. Edited by Daniel L. Akin. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2014.

Dill, Bob. Conversation with author. September 30, 2015.

Kruger, Michael J. “Should You Be a Pastor or a Professor? Thinking Through the Options.” (July 6, 2015). Accessed October 3, 2015.

Wilson, Andrew. “Why Being a Pastor-Scholar is Nearly Impossible.” (September 25, 2015). Accessed October 3, 2015.

 [1] God-willing, I hope to graduate December 2015.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).