Essay / Education

Pastoral Theologians Part 1 of 2: A Living Theology

Read Part 2 here.

There is great momentum toward the vocation of theologian pastor—a pastor who cares deeply about studying theology in a careful and sustained way. I hope there is similar momentum in the opposite direction, toward pastoral theologians. Lord knows we need them! Theologians who are deeply pastoral as theologians, weaving together Christian doctrine with Christian practice, training their students to use theological tools to navigate everyday life and its challenges, and pastoring the students who come to them for mentoring, caring not only for their intellectual but spiritual well-being.


The reason I hope there is momentum in this direction is how badly my students hurt. They have been raped again and again, attempted suicide, served prison time, had abortions, done and dealt drugs, engaged in rampantly promiscuous hetero- and homo-sexual activity, fallen into deep depression, attempted homicide, suffered domestic abuse…. And the problem is, this is no generic list is of “sins” and “sufferings.” Every item on this list comes from my first-hand interaction with the student who committed or suffered these acts. Each of these was a student at a Christian university. All of these stories have come to me in less than four and a half years of teaching.

My students hurt. They ache. And rightly so. While many, thank God, don’t know what Grindr is, and think of paper and scissors when they hear someone has been cutting, the amount of pain I have heard in my short career as a teacher fills me with dread that so many more of what appear to be nice, privileged students, are nothing like that beneath the surface. They ache. And just to be fair, many ache from less sensational traumas, that are still very real and very powerful in their lives.

What might be some of the implications for theologians? One option is to go about our task, confidently and joyfully proclaiming the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, guiding our students into the history of the church, exegesis of the Bible, and church doctrine (among other topics). The premise here would be that there is nothing like the truth of the Triune God and the history of his dealings with his creation and his people to meet the needs and hurts of our students. And surely we should do this. But I would like to suggest that we can (and should) do more.

Showing We Know

If we want to connect with and possibly (no, hopefully!) minister to the hurt of our students, we must show that we know about hurt. To them, we’re just old people who have spent way too much time in the library, and know way too many fancy words. The thought that we do normal things like wash dishes, mow the lawn, hang out with neighbors, and struggle to raise our kids well doesn’t necessarily register with them while we’re giving a lecture on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. While they may respect us for the love of our craft, that does not necessarily flow into willingness to share hurt.

So I tell stories. I weave in references to prostitution in Les Miserables. I mention divorce, abortion, or other painful topics. But most of all, I tell them the stories of my students, greatly modified to the point of being generic, so as to protect those whose stories these are. But they can feel and trust that there is a difference in these stories—because as I’m talking, I am remembering the real thing, and they can feel that. And I don’t leave anything out.

If a student writes me an email, telling me “how fucked up” she is, I tell my students about that email, where my student told me “how fucked up” she felt. The danger is that I am doing this only for the sake of a show, or being crass. But I’m not. I don’t do it lightly, and I don’t do it often. But I don’t leave out those details. By sharing them, my students (at least some of them) get the sense that I might be someone who is safe to talk to. Someone who won’t be threatened by foul language, and far more important, won’t be threatened by things and situations which need foul language to be properly described.

Anything, from my own story or those stories I have heard, to let my students know: I know about hurt. I’m willing to talk about hurt. You’re safe talking to me about that hurt.

Weaving the Hurt into the Theological Task (Not Just Theodicy!)

Weaving illustrations of and references to pain into my discussions (I teach Socratically) is but a first step. It is only the first step because it is only tangentially related to the theological task itself. Unless we are discussing the doctrine of sin, references to hurt may be appropriate, but they aren’t directly demanded by the task at hand: to teach theology. In other words, they are useful, but not essential.

A second step is to weave hurt into the theological task itself. This is a good deal more complicated. It can take many forms, but in this case I will develop just one, by telling a story.

While in my doctoral studies, a friend of mine called wanting to process a difficult experience he had just had. Walking through the library of our seminary, he had passed a student watching porn on his laptop. We talked about it for a while, and for the life of me I don’t recall the content or outcome of the conversation. But I’ll never forget the fruit of that conversation.

Shortly after that, I was asked to cover a class for a professor who would be out of town, on the topic of the Trinity. For the first half of the class, we discussed the major terms and concepts from the reading, working through the material in an attempt to understand the doctrine. But toward the end of the class, I told them of my friend’s experience, and asked them how the doctrine of the Trinity gave us any resources to explain what we might say, think or feel in such circumstances.

Class became electric—not because we were talking about porn, but because the doctrine of the Trinity had a chance to come to life, not only for its own sake, but in the midst of sin and hurt. And the wonderful thing about it was, as we sought to connect these two things, the attempt led to further and deeper questions about the Trinity than we had had in the first part of the class. Because now the students weren’t merely working with concepts and names—they were asking how the Triunity of the Triune God whom they loved and worshipped might give them pastoral resources for a difficult situation they could readily imagine.

In my experience, one of the best ways of bringing doctrine to life is to bring it into contact to life, and demand that doctrine prove its worth in the midst of the hurts and harms of life, whether of the everyday or more dramatic sort. And this is NOT because doctrine only matters inasmuch as it provides pastoral resources. Far from it. Doctrine matters because of the triune God it seeks to faithfully represent.

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