Theology and Parish

Samantha L. Miller

Last month I came across a complaint on the internet. It was pretty standard as internet complaints go, but it stayed with me because it was a complaint I have heard often from pastors and students, and it gets to the heart of what I understand myself to be doing as a theologian and teacher.

The complaint was about an interview published by Christian Century this summer, a conversation between William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas about the work of pastoral care. The complaint I saw was not one of the lengthy critical comments on the Christian Century page but a comment on Twitter. The author, a pastor, wrote that academic theologians talking about pastoral care was invalid. The sense of the statement was that academics don’t have the experience of doing pastoral care and therefore should not talk about it. I understand the complaint in one way: Pastoral care is a practical thing, and to only theorize and never practice puts one in a category of less expertise in the area than someone who practices it. I also understand that Willimon and Hauerwas are challenging the current practice of pastoral care as they see it. Pastors who are in parishes and other ministries doing pastoral care may feel they and their ministries, their vocations, and in some cases their identities, are being challenged or even attacked.

At the same time, I wonder about this complaint. If practice is the only thing that matters, then why do we send pastors to seminary at all? Why don’t we just treat pastoring as an apprenticeship or on-the-job training? As an academic theologian, I feel my own vocation challenged by this complaint.

The complaining pastor assumes that anyone who practices pastoral care automatically has more expertise than anyone who has not practiced, whether or not they have studied theology, including practical theology, at a theory level. Leaving aside the issue that Willimon has served churches (and is a professor of practical theology), there is a category distinction here. Practical and theoretical expertise are both important, and they are not the same kind of expertise. Indeed, each kind needs the other.

Willimon and Hauerwas are speaking out of their vocation as theologians, offering a critique of certain current church practices and a vision for Christ-centered pastoral care. The job of a theologian is to serve the church. When I was in seminary and graduate school, I had an older pastor friend who often told me, “You’re on loan from the church. We’re giving you time to study, but you have to come back to us with what you’ve learned.” The theologian holds the truths about who Jesus is and what Jesus calls his church to be and to do and tries to understand how all the strands hold together, even when all they can know about how they hold together is that it is a mystery. Then the theologian offers this to the church. Sometimes the offering is a book to build up the greater contemplation of God. Sometimes the offering is a commentary that helps a pastor think about her sermon text. And sometimes the offering is a call to remember that Christ and Christ’s kingdom are the whole purpose of the church.

Often I hear from pastors and students that because I don’t pastor a church I can’t tell them not to do this one thing in worship or how to talk to people who are hurting, right in front of them. I don’t understand what they have to do. My knowledge is theoretical and doesn’t work in practice. I agree that pastors absolutely have a harder job. People are more complicated than books. Moreover, I need pastors to tell me what they’re doing and facing so that my theology remains honest. Yet there are things that are true, things I can know, things that God has revealed about the universe, and these things should anchor the church. Christians are not just people who like to hang out together on Sunday mornings; Christians are people who worship and follow Jesus Christ. If I can’t tell people about this anchor, this foundation, and suggest that all of our practices have to work toward this, then we should no longer require that pastors go to seminary.

If I can’t talk about church or pastoral practices from my expertise, then yesterday’s church history class on Gnosticism and Marcionism would have been pointless. Instead, after discussing the second-century heresies and why second-century Christians said those two ideas were problematic, I talked with my undergraduates about how these ideas show up in churches today. At the end of our conversation, one student said, “I’m going to start reading more from the Old Testament. Christians need this to understand who Jesus is and what salvation means!” Another student said that she would think about this at funerals, and if she had to give a eulogy would be careful not to talk about the spirit being released but instead talk about the resurrection of the body because it’s more hopeful. Seems to me theology still matters.

Posted Oct 04, 2021

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