In the first two parts of this series I pondered the future of Christian education as relates to the local church. More specifically, I proposed that congregations may benefit from the doctrine wars taking place in Christian educational institutions. I am quite aware that many of the debates that have caused problems for professors in colleges and seminaries exist in churches too: debates about “inerrancy,” the impact of critical scholarship, the compatibility of evolutionary theory with the Christian narrative, gender roles, and so forth. I think the major difference between finding employment at a college or seminary and finding employment with a church is that there are far more churches. The number of Christian liberal arts colleges or seminary presidents and board members is dwarfed by lead pastors. Theoretically, if education is an important part of discipleship, then there may be more of an opportunity for newly minted graduated of doctoral programs to use their talents and gifting in a local church setting rather than in the traditional classroom.
I could be wrong.
I think one thing that scares most pastors when considering the hiring of a recent graduate of the University of Durham, or Duke University, or Wheaton College, or Fuller Theological Seminary is (1) this person might undermine my authority on doctrinal matters and (2) this person might be unable to translate his/her academic speech to the people in the pews.
As far as the first point is concerned, let’s make this simple: There are bound to be prospective employees whose doctrinal views come close to that of the pastors. It may help to hire someone from the same institution where the pastor graduated. For example, if a pastor did his M.DIV or D.MIN at Dallas Theological Seminary he might want to browse the list of students graduating from their doctoral programs. On the other hand, pastors, if you can’t work with someone unless they affirm every single view you hold on everything from how to understand Genesis 1 to various points about eschatology then maybe you need to reevaluate how doctrine functions in your church–I will leave it at that.
As I noted in an earlier post, when I was teaching at my church in San Francisco I had the trust of the pastor. He did provide oversight, as it was his responsibility to do so, but we had an open and honest friendship. He knew I wanted what was best for the church. He wanted the same. Likewise, he knew that in San Francisco there are a lot of critical, skeptical thinkers. As someone who is both critical, skeptical, yet a Christian, I was an asset to the church, not a threat. I was helpful when it came to discipling those on the margins or evangelizing those with strong reservations about Christianity. My pastor was humble enough to know that Christian mission demands unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity through and through. Now, I know that “the essentials” differs from church to church. I won’t pretend that this isn’t so. I do think that when I browse the “We Believe” sections of many churches that there are far too many boxes to check. If you are part of a denomination, fine, you have to adhere to this or that. BUT some of these independent churches with statements on how to interpret the six days of creation go too far, plain and simple. (Personally, I think local, independent churches should start with the Apostle’s Creed [maybe the Nicene Creed] and then discuss practical matters of ethics [gender roles, homosexual partnerships], liturgy [communion schedule, music styles], and mission. This allows the Spirit to mold an ethos in the church whereas rigid doctrinal statements are prone to ruin potentially fruitful missional partnerships.)
As to the second point–the main point–what can a pastor do to make sure that the teacher s/he hires isn’t so academically minded that s/he is not ecclesial good? Well, churches “preview” pastors by having them come preach. Maybe a church could have a potential pastor come teach and preach? This would allow them to observe the teacher’s social intelligence.
Listen, I understand, it makes little sense for a teacher to spend an hour on Wednesday evening talking about the JEDP theory of the development of the Pentateuch or the Synoptic Problem. Sure, there are people in the church who think about these things and it would be great to have someone who is informed about these matter who can sit and talk with these inquisitive minds, but teaching church groups is far more complex, i.e. a church is (usually) not a seminary classroom. When I taught at churches in San Francisco and Portland many people in my classes where their latter years, some fighting illness, some were developmentally delayed, some were addicts, some were homeless. For most, it didn’t matter if the 2 Peter borrowed from Jude or Jude from 2 Peter. I’m sympathetic to pastors who care for people who have hard lives, but who want them to grow in their knowledge as Christians without being squished by the weight of theoretical topics like whether the author of the Fourth Gospel knew of the Gospel of Thomas. (Though, as I’ve said, there are people in local churches who do read widely and who do ask these questions and it helps to have someone who is not afraid to address their inquiries.)
I mentioned some of the ideas I had for educating and discipling a church in Pt 1. Potential hires may need to present the senior/lead/executive pastor with their goals and desired outcomes. People applying to teach at colleges have CVs so maybe something similar would help.
Let’s make this a conversation if you are willing. If you are a pastor, or if you foresee yourself pastoring, or if you are invested in your local church and these things matter to you, then maybe you can answer some questions for me:
(1) What would concern you about hiring someone academically inclined to be a director of education or teaching pastor at your church?
(2) What do academic types need to know about local congregational life?
(3) What do congregations need to know and what type of information do you think would distract them?
(4) What are some doctrinal essentials that are not negotiable (or what does an incoming teacher have to affirm that you affirm for the partnership to work)?