Scholars or Pastors or Both?

Scholars or Pastors or Both?
Photo by Jasmine Coro / Unsplash

It's been long noted that seminary and Bible college don't do the most incredible job of preparing you for the leadership challenges of ministry.

I have mixed feelings about this observation. My undergrad alma mater Bethel University (neé College) axed its Biblical Studies program in the 2010s. You read that right—the denominational college of the Missionary Church no longer allows you to earn a bachelor's degree in studying the Bible. Cool cool cool.

Why? Well, there were a few theories in the air. Theory One, put forward by the school's public relations department, was that Christian Ministry simply "sold" better as a degree to prospective students—and parents who wanted to ensure their child's degree was ✨marketable.✨ The college was having financial troubles, so it needed to put its energies into the majors that brought in the most students. Biblical Studies wasn't one of them.

Theory Two, believed by alums of the Biblical Studies department, was that the Biblical Studies department was canned to enable the firing of a tenured professor who chaired the department. This professor's theology did not align with the fundamentalists gaining power in the denomination. Thanks to the pressure from the denomination's president, Bethel had already edited its belief statement with the specific purpose of forcing a philosophy professor out. Professor Philosophy made the mistake of not believing in a historical Adam and Eve, so he was out. It wasn't unreasonable, therefore, to think that the powers-that-be would target other profs to give the pink slip for making grave mistakes in theology, like believing in female equality or wild shit like that. The Biblical Studies professor in question was tenured and thus couldn't be fired outright. But they found a loophole—get rid of the entire Biblical Studies department, and you don't need that professor anymore. Magic.

Theory Three for why the Biblical Studies department was #canceled at a friggin' Bible college was due to comments made by pastors at the denomination's largest church. Nappanee Missionary Church would receive interns from both Bethel University's Biblical Studies and Christian Ministries departments. The staff at Nappanee would complain specifically about the Biblical Studies interns: "Bethel is creating scholars, not pastors." As if this were a terrible thing.

I'm into my second decade of ministry, so I can understand the concern that biblical scholars are not to be confused with pastors. Someone coming out of undergrad or seminary with the Greek New Testament memorized won't automatically be great at caring for you at a graveside or know how to fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a volunteer-driven nonprofit.

But I've also seen the results of the leadership-obsessed approach of Willow Creek, Life.Church, Elevation, Saddleback, et al., and I'm not impressed. The ways leadership gets taught in churches are often just reinforcing endless optimization, toxic productivity, and personality-driven hierarchy. I basically agree that "the church should be the best-run organization in the city." "Best-run" ought to mean "cares for people the best," but it usually just means the largest and most profitable. If leadership doesn't equate to care, then it's not leadership worth following.

I do think it's been overstated how poorly seminaries prepare students for the realities of ministry. At least in my experience, we came out at least modestly prepared for budgets, board meetings, and counseling grieving people. On the other hand, pastors end up in situations they are dramatically underprepared for, running HR, therapy centers, and God knows what else.

If your school's Biblical Studies program leads to "scholars but not pastors," you may need to change the way you study Scripture, not dump the degree altogether. Scholars of Scripture should be growing in their ability to care for others or, in my opinion, they're not really scholars of Scripture. The way you know you're studying Scripture well is if it's leading you to become a more loving, compassionate person. And while becoming more loving and compassionate won't automatically equate to leading a board meeting effectively or performing a wedding in a way that's not embarrassing for anyone, it also will protect you from becoming one of the many thousands of jackass pastors who cover up their inabilities with hubris and authoritarianism.

Studying "leadership" on its own may lead to better results on a spreadsheet and more effectively-led board meetings, but who knows how many hurt people will be left under the bus along the way. An emotionally-intelligent approach to leadership that leads to character formation centered in inclusion and love (what Daniel Goleman and Miche van Essen call "resonant leadership") pairs excellently with studying Scripture that has the goal of becoming a loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled person.

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC