The Confessions of an Academic Clark Kent Peter Beck

October 24, 2016

I must confess: I’m torn between two lovers. I live two lives. I am a bivocational pastor.

Admittedly, I am not your traditional bivocational pastor. I don’t work in the local mill to support my ministry habit. I don’t sell anything so I can give away the Gospel. I am college professor, a faculty member who teaches historical and systematic theology to legions of young people by day and the Bible to others by night.

I am a theologian who happens to be a pastor. I am pastor who also shepherds minds. Following Michael Kruger’s taxonomy, I am “scholar-pastor,” someone who works full-time in the academy and part-time in the parsonage. My days are spent behind the lectern, my weekends behind the pulpit.

I have been living this dual life for sixteen years. As a college and seminary student I served two local congregations that could not afford a full-time pastor. Since changing seats in the classroom nine years ago, I’ve been serving churches without pastors and pastors without associates. For the last four and a half of those nine years, I have hung up my doctoral robe on Friday and donned my pastoral robe on Sunday as the lead pastor of a once-dying and now thriving congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. They’re both full-time vocations. They’re both full-time avocations as well. That’s why I do it.

Thus, the ongoing dialog about pastor-theologians strikes me as both personal and perplexing. The false dichotomy some lament as existing between the two worlds, between the life of the mind and the life of the cloth, befuddles me. At its most basic level “theology” means little more than a “word about God,” an ongoing study into the mind and the mystery of our Creator. Hence, all Christians are to be theologians, not just scholars. Certainly any congregation hopes for and deserves a pastor who has thought more deeply about these matters than they as he leads them through the Bible and life.

Yet, I know the distinctions being drawn by the naysayers and concerned partisans in this debate are far more nuanced than that. They acknowledge that all Christians are called to love their Lord God with their entire being, including their minds. Their concerns center on the question of whether any one person can master two fields, marshalling the mental and physical resources necessary to conquer all the windmills that rise in their way.

Here too, however, I’m afraid the dichotomy falls short. They are tilting at imaginary foes. Allow me to explain by way of illustration (like any good pastor).

Nineteen years ago I left the lucrative and lucre filled world of advertising to go to college and seminary. I left longing to make a difference in the world for the Lord, hoping to extend the Kingdom in His name. Seminary was to be my second boot camp (I was an Army Ranger in an earlier life). I was training for the fight of my eternal life. I was locked and loaded for spiritual battle.

Much to my chagrin I discovered many of my fellow soldiers in Christ were pacifists. They weren’t looking for action. They were looking for more of what excited in them the desire to go to seminary in the first place. They wanted more knowledge of the Lord. They were consumers, not producers. They ultimately came to seminary for themselves rather than others. They sat in a stew of new knowledge day after day and never shared it with others.

I couldn’t do that. The more I learned, the more I wanted to share. The more I received, the more I wanted to give. I wanted to be a theological Clark Kent during the day and Superman by night. As soon I could, I found an outlet for all the pent up spiritual energy. I couldn’t do otherwise.

So, from my second year of Bible college to the end of my doctoral studies, for eight years, I took from my professors and gave to my congregations. I studied to show myself approved. Then I tested what I learned. I took it from the ivory tower and tried it in the trenches. My educational experience was a practical experience. Knowledge works that way.

Since arriving at my present field of service, I have sought to keep my head in the academic clouds and my ministry boots on the ground. My educational life’s mission has been to disprove the myth that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Instead my mantra has become “orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy” – right thinking leads to right action. As I learned in the military, Rangers lead the way. As I teach my students, professors lead by example.

As my students know, ideas have consequences, beliefs have implications. As I continue my education in the world of Jonathan Edwards, the Puritans, and early Baptist life, I am constantly learning new things. I discover old ideas that may have new value in the church. Thus, I research and I write. I publish before the ideas perish. Then, I take this new knowledge to church and I put it to work. The church is, after all, always reforming, so why not start with the Reformers?

The truth be told, however, it’s not easy being Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. Cognitive dissonance and theological bipolar disorder lie in wait around every dark corner. Like Paul, I want to be all things to all men, a scholar among peers and a pastor among sheep. Sometimes my cape sticks out from underneath my suit coat. Sometimes I drive into the church parking lot with my mask still on. But, it’s worth it. My mind remains stimulated. My people eat a steady diet of meat and potatoes rather than powdered milk and cheerios. While they may occasionally gag on words like “latitudinarianism,” I can be sure they’ll never experience it. Not on my watch, anyway.

Can every pastor lead two lives? Probably not. Can every teacher be a Sunday professor? It’s harder than it looks. But, are we called to make disciples and be disciples at the same time? Absolutely.

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