The gap between pastors and academics
I was riveted by the sessions at American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature conference but I couldn’t help wondering how the latest scholarship would influence pastors.
I was blessed to be at AAR/SBL, from which I write this. This conference has offered a feast of ideas. It has hosted hundreds of sessions covering a variety of topics in theology, religion, and biblical studies. It’s exhilarating to hear cutting-edge thinking. Despite some misgivings, I feel blessed as a pastor to be a witness and participant in these conversations. At this particular conference, which is geared toward academics, I was one of just a small group of pastors, however, and I think more pastors would benefit from attending.
Pastors are public theologians. What we teach and offer can have a significant influence on our congregations. Thus, it’s incumbent on us to keep up with the latest developments and continue to grow.
Of course, pastors tend to work long hours, can’t travel to conferences regularly, and typically don’t have time for post-graduate work. Those who read one book a month are doing very well. There’s only so much time in a day.
How might we make scholarly study more available to them? Many haven’t done continuing education after seminary. Some burn out from the demands of their Master in Divinity program. As a result, we end up recycling ideas in our teaching and preaching that are outdated– or worse.
The issue of access to scholarship isn’t just practical; I think it’s also political and sociological. I was so happy to meet other Anabaptists and Mennonites here—friends old and new. My lanyard listed my institutional affiliation as West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship. I was one of the only participants with a church on their nametag. That felt a little odd.
There were times when the jargon bandied about was intimidating and I felt like a visitor at the academic table. On one level, everyone was sincerely welcomed, but at another level I felt, throughout the conference, a kind of gap between academics and pastors.
At times the new scholarship felt remote from the realities of day-to-day pastoring. In fact, academic dialogue turns a lot of pastors off (one scholar said most pastors think scholars are too “critical”)—and unfortunately, they may be the ones who need most to learn from it. Academic concerns can seem elitist to pastors, while pastoral concerns seem mundane and lacking in intellectual depth to the academics.
This division is unfortunate because the matters at hand are of great consequence. How we read the Bible is crucial. Theological developments and creativity can affect our churches in positive ways. Addressing issues faced by our congregations—e.g. anti-Judaism, Christian Nationalism, disability (all topics on the agenda here), is essential. One could say our very democracy depends at this moment on how we understand the gospel.
I don’t have an answer to the academic/clergy divide, but I want pastors to know that their intellectual interests are valid and can be useful to their ministry. I want us to believe that new ways to pastor and to learn are available. And I want pastors to feel how vital their jobs are as shepherds. We are informing our people, and often against forces trying to deform them. I think it’s essential that we keep forming ourselves, and I wish the academy would help us along the way.
The debate about whether universities should try to remain ivory towers of thought or teach practical skills to a wider public is an old one, but we shouldn’t lose sight of it.
As for me, I hope this won’t be my last AAR/SBL.