“I’m on the side of pastors.” These were words to me from a theology professor while seeking counsel about whether to pursue pastoral ministry or academic theology. I was, after all, enrolled at a theological seminary that exists to train students for ministry. My professor was humble and gracious, reassuring me that there was nothing wrong with graduating with my M.Div., serving in ministry, and never finding a way into academic theology. He was a theologian on the side of pastors. As a professor of theology, he trained local theologians for the local church.[1] 

Every pastor is a local theologian. The theological life does not find its pride of place in the academy, but in the church. The church is the premier place for theological practice, for there the Spirit ministers to the people of God through the Word of God.

That’s not to say that your average pastor is the same as trained scholars who have made theological reflection and writing their life’s work. The church needs formally trained theologians, and we should praise God for them. But the pastoral life is necessarily theological. Since the church is the premier place for theological practice, pastors should make it their pursuit to be as faithful as possible when thinking and speaking about God. 

Todd Wilson and Gerald Heistand have distinguished between three types of pastor-theologians: Local, Popular, and Ecclesial. Their acknowledgment of the local theologian freed me from thinking of the theological life in exclusively technical terms. Since then I have aspired to cultivate this theological life, but until recently without clear priorities and direction.  In what follows, I would like to offer five priorities for the local theological life. 

  1. Personal Holiness

Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14) and so without holiness one should be hesitant to think and speak about God with authority. Gregory of Nazianzus raises this concern, “It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness.”[2]

For Gregory mere intellectual preparation falls short for the aspiring theologian. The necessary preparation involves the whole person, “body and soul.” Proper thinking and speaking about God comes from properly formed persons who are in submission to God and his Word. 

2. Prayer

When we pray we are in communion with the triune God whom we think and speak about. The life of prayer assures the theological life is not one of intellectual assent, but affection, adoration, and communion. It is not enough to enjoy talking about God, we should long to commune with God. Prayer is the means of increasing our love and knowledge of God as we seek to commune with Him. Christopher Holmes captures this beautifully, 

Prayer denotes ‘inexpressible devotion’ to the one who does not need us in order to be. Prayer is not simply the fruit of love but the means by which love is further kindled. Prayer is the crucible that determines what we say about God and how we say it.” [3]

A private life of prayer is vital, but so is corporate prayer on the Lord’s day. The pastoral prayer ushers the congregants into God’s presence and serves as a didactic example for lament, confession, intercession, and thanksgiving. This time not only informs the intellect, but forms the heart.  Corporate prayer is a means of “perfecting the appetites” of the congregation, so that they desire God more and more.[4] Over time congregants are formed as a people who pray without ceasing.

3. Pursuit of Intellectual Community 

Every maturing moment in my life took place in community with others. If local pastor-theologians are going to continue to grow in their ability to think and speak about God, it is important to pursue an intellectual community to foster that growth. For many, this is the most challenging priority. There are not a lot of fellowships or institutes coordinating these types of opportunities for the average pastor. Online networking has some benefits, but there are limitations as well. Pastors may very well find members who can provide this, but for most it will involve looking outside the congregation. 

This means it may be necessary to create opportunities through more informal communities like reading and discussion groups. So whether it be in informal reading groups or formal fellowships, look for ways to learn with and from others. This community does not necessarily need to be among fellow ministers, but will be most helpful if made up of those who share a common interest in thinking well about theology, church, and culture. 

4. Private Study and Contemplation 

A pastoral and theological life must prioritize time for study and contemplation. The pastor’s task involves knowing and heralding God and his works in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In order to do this faithfully, time must be given to the Scriptural texts, exegesis, reading, and theological reflection. Although it takes discipline, protected time to read the Scriptures and faithful readers of Scripture throughout church history reaps great benefit.  

The practice of contemplation frees us from the constant current of content and allows us to listen to what God is saying to us in his Word. In order to listen we must embrace a habit of both solitude and silence. I confess to be a work in progress in this regard, but I hope to find more peace as I adopt habits to this end.  

By contemplation I don’t mean a Zen like state, but an intentional act that allows for thoughts to develop and mature. A simple act like walking provides an opportunity to think. Likewise, writing forces you to wrestle with words, phrases, and concepts as you attempt to best communicate your ideas.[5]

5. Pastoral Practice: Word and Ordinances

Eugene Peterson defines a pastoral work as “…a ministry of word and sacrament.” This is the primary task of the pastor: to minister through the preaching of the Word of God and to minister through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Prepared for opposition Peterson recognizes the difficulty of this sin-plagued life and asks, “But in the wreckage what difference can a little water, a piece of bread, a sip of wine make?”[6]

A great deal. The question we need to reflect on is this: who will do the ministry of Word and Sacrament if not the pastor? Of course, there are many good and important things a pastor could do, but why do them when there are vital tasks a pastor is called to do.

In response to the expected opposition Peterson writes, “Yet century after century Christians continue to take certain persons, set them apart, and say, ‘We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel…This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.”[7]


Not every pastor will finish a PhD, become a professor, or contribute to an academic journal. A robust theological life still awaits them because the premier place for theological practice is not the academy, but the church. By pursuing these five priorities all pastors can cultivate the heart and mind of a faithful theologian for the edification of the church and the glory of God. 

[1] The professor was Dr. John Hammett of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

[2] St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and ChristThe Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Claudius (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimirs Press, 2002) 27.

[3] Christopher R. J. Holmes, A Theology of the Christian Life: Imitating and Participating in God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021) 51.

[4] Christopher R. J. Holmes, A Theology of the Christian Life, 141. 

[5] I owe these thoughts to conversations with Shawn Wilhite. 

[6] Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 23. 

[7] Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles, 24. 

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