In my early academic career, I assumed being a pastor was a liability to my teaching. Perhaps it was my own perception of the academy or the true prevailing ethos, but my pastoral background seemed like a hindrance. I was too practical—not intellectual enough. I was too biased—not objective enough.

However, after a few years of teaching, rather than a hindrance, I view pastoral ministry as a benefit to my teaching.  In many ways, good pedagogy flowed from my pastoral tendency. What follows are four elements that mark a pastoral imagination in the classroom, and how I’ve seen them impact my own teaching.

Integrated and Wholistic

Good teaching, like good pastoral ministry, involves the whole self. It is unwise as a pastor to section off parts of one’s life—this is my professional life versus my personal life versus my academic life.  In pastoral ministry, one teaches from the integrity of one’s life. Our teaching is downstream from our life.

As life is integrated, so is knowledge wholistic. One of the beauties of academia is going narrow and deep within a specific subject. This specialization is the heart and soul of research. However, being trained in pastoral thinking, I want to take my narrow interest and connect it across a broad field of knowledge. Rather than reduce knowledge to its most simple form, I want to expand and enhance the mystery of human knowing. If I fail to connect how this piece of knowledge fits into the whole, then I have a simplistic understanding. In a similar way, ministry requires connection of theology to a varied and diverse congregation. How does this narrow passage or topic relate to a businesswoman? A homemaker? A mechanic? What difference does it make? This same integration skill encourages interdisciplinary thinking for a wholistic knowledge. How does my piece of theology fit into other fields? How does science affect my theology? How would theological anthropology come to terms with psychology? My academic interests run as wide as the concerns of God. I care to know more, because God is infinitely complex and cares about all of creation. While academic knowledge is deep and narrow, at some stage I want to connect it to the pastoral width.

An integrated and wholistic understanding also leads to how I view students—which has everything to do with how we treat one another.1 One biblical qualification of a pastor is hospitality, and it’s also an element of good pedagogy.2 As we think about hospitality in our homes, we ought to take just as much care to make our classrooms a welcoming space. Hospitality is an offer of welcome to weary and tired and confused students. It’s in this welcome that students can be open to trust and share. It’s also what good ministry is made of. In essence, hospitality is not about a meal or fine china but about bringing one’s whole self to meet another whole self. What happened the previous night, or the everyday burdens of life are not secondary to an educational space but primary. Students are more than future employees or brains-on-a-stick; they are image bearers of God. To ignore the whole self would be like giving a theology lecture and ignoring the care of your neighbor. Sure, you said true things, but you failed to care. As Reformed theologian Calvin Seerveld suggests, “The core of a school, one could say, is the teacher-student pedagogical relationship exercised in a community of trust.”3 Truth, after all, finds its etymology in trust. I view the classroom as a community of scholars on the search for truth, and we need each voice to better arrive at a closer, clearer understanding of truth. We bring every aspect of ourselves to the task. As such, there’s an understanding that life beyond the classroom matters—that students are more than the sum of their grades or performance.

Education as Craft

Professing with a pastoral imagination means being disciplined in the craft of teaching. Pastoral care and teaching requires practice and learning from the exemplars gone before us—much like craft. Craft, as the late pastor of pastors Eugene Peterson suggests, must respect the material at hand. He writes, “The material can be a pork loin, or a mahogany plank, or a lump of clay, or the will of God, but the work is done well there is a kind of submission of the will to the conditions at hand, a cultivation of humility,”4 Whereas we are prone to self-expression, good teaching needs self-suppression for the building up of others. I’m willing to let my teaching point or class lecture be interrupted by a student need or question. If I don’t cover all “my” material, but a student is helped—that’s the art of teaching. It requires a submissiveness to each class to hear how each responds, each age challenges, each class interprets. As a skilled butcher knows which parts to keep and where to cut from years of practice, so a good teacher knows how to “read” a class, remove certain elements, add clarification elsewhere, etc.—like pastorally knowing a congregation.

Comfortable with the Contaminated

In The Moral Collapse of the University, Bruce Wilshire argues that academics emphasize particular purity rituals. There are certain formulas that define and guard each field of study. Pollution is the mixing of things that ought to be kept separate. One such mixing is the highly trained academic and students. Wilshire argues that the academic fields are typically viewed as the “head” of an organic body, while other professions file below—maybe hands or feet. With the corporate identity of “head”, it is best not to get too close to those things that may defile, lest you be contaminated. Part of our professional fields are based on this purity and distinction. We’re scholars and academics—not lowly lay people. He writes,

I don’t think it is far-fetched to hypothesize that some of the neglect of undergraduate students can be laid to their living in unwelcome intimacy with professors and polluting our pure intellects; that we load them unwittingly with our ‘projected’ aversion to the messy, unruly, backward, and dirty body—particularly the underside of it.5

However, as a pastor, I attempt to see this body dynamic a bit different—perhaps like Paul in 1 Corinthians. Professors play a role, but we need the whole body. We cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you!” There’s an organic unity. Though I may prefer to think of myself as Jesus throwing my pearls before swine, a Christian institution knows that its health is dependent upon its weakest members. As a pastoral professor, we teach with an eye towards the least of these. For those of us involved in more teaching heavy institutions, these undergraduate students are not potentially polluting, helping them more fully bear God’s image is one of our key purposes. In so interacting, we benefit from those different as a community of scholars. Their thoughts and words enrich my life—even if, or especially if, students challenge my field of study.

Goals and Ends

Finally, I think there is something stabilizing in pastoral ministry that stems from being unimpressive. At least in most churches in America, serving in a pastoral role is not sexy. It’s mundane. It’s ordinary. And the Spirit of God meets us here. In a similar way, I view my scholarship as serving the ordinary church, not just contributing knowledge to specialists. Yes, I know: contributing to specialists in our academic fields is important—all the more important for credibility’s sake in our cultural death of expertise. However, I would argue that specialization is not primarily important. My work is for the support of faithful people living non-academic lives. I don’t mind being a popularizer or synthesizer or translator—that’s basically my goal. I don’t need to be the smartest guy in the room. I want to be the most comprehensible. If I can’t take a complex argument or point and teach so that someone understands it and helps them, then I’m a bad teacher.

Conclusion

To be clear, I am not the model of any of these priorities, but pastoral ministry has trained me to think along these lines. There are all sorts of ways I fall short of these standards. There are some days where I view students as necessary burdens on my otherwise cushy academic career.

And to be fair, I am not claiming that every professor ought to function—or even can function—by a pastoral imagination. We need specialists. Every class is not a therapy session. Sometimes, we need to cover material. At some institutions, classes are too big or otherwise impersonal to make solid connections with students.

But I do want to suggest that while there are other gestures of professing, the pastoral can assist the Christian professor’s posture of teaching.

For more on Teaching and Christian imagination in CSR see: https://christianscholars.com/teaching-and-christian-imagination/

Footnotes

  1. For more on this see Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 143.
  2. For more on hospitality in pedagogy, see Carolyn Call, “The Rough Trail to Authentic Pedagogy: Incorporating Hospitality, Fellowship, and Testimony into the Classroom” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, Ed. David I. Smith and James K.A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 61-79.
  3. Cal Seerveld, Rainbows for a Fallen World (Toronto, CN: Toronto Tuppence Press, 2005), 141.
  4. Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989), 100-101.
  5. Bruce Wilshire, The Moral Collapse of the University (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 171.

Alexander Sosler

Alex Sosler is Assistant Professor of Bible and Ministry at Montreat College near Asheville, NC.