pondering pragmatists

December 9, 2004 | 2 Comments

I just read a quote in an interview with NT Wright over at a blog I recently found called Gower Street. He was asked about how he came to be one who is a well regarded theologian and has continued, at the same time, as a practicing minister. Here’s his reply:

I’m not sure that it is a question of arriving at a dual vocation; it’s just always been there. Well, maybe not always. I was aware of a call to ministry when I was quite young. … When I was at seminary in my early twenties having graduated I remember talking to one of my advisors about my desire to do both pastoral work and scholarship and the advisor saying very firmly ‘well, you’re going to have to choose which you want.’ And I thought then and think now thirty-five years later that he was wrong, that I have been right to combine the two. And it has meant at times living on the fault line between two tectonic plates, but that is part of the deal as far as I’m concerned. I think both the church and the academy have suffered from the disjunction. I think it’s important that some people at least get to that particular place of pain, which is a place of, as it were, cultural pain. Not least in North America, maybe more in North America than England. My advisor was there representing more of a North American standpoint than a British standpoint, because I sit in a study at home where the great portrait on the wall is J.B. Lightfoot, who was one of most famous ever bishops of Durham and also one of the five leading intellectuals in Europe of his day. He embodies the fact that you should be bringing this stuff together. And that is an incredible model to have day by day.

I have several good conversations recently with some friends who were wrestling a bit over what being in ministry needs to look like. The issue at hand was that they spend a lot of time doing things, with little time to even wonder why they do them, or if they are the best thing to do. It seems to me that ministry as a vocation has become more about acquiring a skillset and putting it into practice. There is often little time for actually wrestling through theological issues, because there is always something to be produced or done.

As one who leans toward the pondering side, I admit it has always been to my benefit to have the pragmatists around who just want to get it done, but we need to leave room for both. We need to always be wrestling, always questioning, always pondering, and always growing. The day we have everything figured out is the day when our effectiveness begins to recede. We need to be pondering pragmatists who are always trying to understand how God is shaping his kingdom, and what we can do to help him put it into place.

NT is Wright. 🙂 Theology and practical ministry are not mutually exclusive. They need to be equally embraced. Out of the tension that is created will come the true beauty of God’s redemptive work in this world.

  • david

    it does really seem that in pastorship one is suppossed to figure out his theology and then ‘go get it done’ and not spend his life swining back and forth (teatering on the fault-line).

    Im no fan of allowing oposing truths to coexist as truth, but it does me good to here a model of teaching that says after it is all done there are two eighty year old dudes siting on either side of most issues, both of whom have studied, pastored, loved, and prayed more than most likely i ever will. This doesn’t lead me to pointlessness, but it helps me remember that wisdom and temperance and grace and curiousity ought to be in the mix and as a teacher one is only ever answering the best he can up to that moment, very rarely definitively. sense?

  • I have often said to people that I did not go into ministry because I secretly harbored an ambition to become an accountant. The point is that there are a great many things which militate against a growing life of the mind and spirit as a priest/pastor, most of which clamor for attention as being rather urgent, and which, I suspect, will kill your soul in the long run. Bishop Tom is certainly (w)right that there is a false dischotomy between pastoral work and scholarship, spirit and mind. My worry is that in the church we might be tempted to choose neither.