The Pastor as Theologian

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Praxis is the mixture of reflection and action; it is the activity of theorizing and practice (Freire 2000). The pastor is a practical theologian and their job incorporates thinking in community about God and moving that community toward seeking the character of God in both systemic and individual lived realities of daily life.   Good pastoral theologians possess the ability to speak meaningfully and truthfully about broad topics of ultimate social concern rooted in a deep understanding of the nature and character of God. A true pastoral voice attempts to speak well of God, and to live a reflection of God in world. The role of the pastor theologian is, however understood in whatever tradition we embrace, is in some shape or form about bringing people face to face with the reality of God, responding to God’s invitation in their lives, and shaping their existence by the eternal truths revealed in sacred text (Strachan 2015). The pastor theologian understands their role not only as leading the worship life of a community, but shaping the thought life of a community with an eye toward active engagement in the world.

Church is a countercultural enterprise which models an alternative set of values and practices to those of the larger world (Allen 2008). Christian communities should not seek to leave their home cultures; rather they remain in them subverting and subduing anything that deters human flourishing in order to bring the realm of God into manifestation within that culture (Volf 2011). Theology is that discipline which has the responsibility of continually examining the proclamation of the church in light of Christ. The task of theology, then is to critique and revise the langue of the church (Cone 1997).  Pastoral theologians focus the community on transforming themselves and the world in light of Gospel narrative. Churches need the preachers who proclaim the Gospel to be theologians who are skilled at interpreting it. Reflecting theologically keeps preachers present to attend to the realities the Gospel is meant to impact, enabling them to take an ancient text and make it applicable to contemporary circumstances (Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody 2018).  This is the only way the church reveals a community bound together by their willingness to journey into the meaning and mystery of God. The place where disparate parts of our humanity can be bound together and then kept from being separated again (Spong 2001). 

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As a practical theologian, the pastor must engage the community in making connections between their life experiences and their current worldviews.  The pastor challenges everyone to think critically about the roles their family histories, ecclesial formations, and social contexts have played in the way they engage the world (Francis 2015). This is done in light of a clear understanding of the person and work of Jesus and the intent of the Gospel.  Insomuch as theology seeks to understand, to interpret, and to impart the Word of God and its meanings in various historical, cultural, and social context, the task of the preacher is to preach a new world into existence (Bond 2013).  A text cannot be understood apart from the world it creates in the imagination of the hearer. Its effects- social, emotional, psychological, and otherwise – are vital to any extraction of meaning, since that meaning has no productive existence outside the mind of the hearer (Townes 1997). The pastoral theologian acts as a co-creator of the work by supplying the portion of the text that is not written but implied. This is a powerful task in that it sets the frequency of understanding and action in any given community. 

It is of the utmost importance that we have pastoral theologians who have been steeped in a theological education that looks beyond the walls of the academy, historically truncated faith genealogies, contemporary institutional communities of believers, all of which have been guilty of centering the self as adjudicators of reality (Hopkins 2007).  We need pastoral theologians who see themselves not just as CEO’s or life coaches but fundamentally as prophetic voices holding up the folly of the culture and pointing that culture toward a preferable future that is rooted in the realm of God – a future that centers the love of the Divine for any and all equally and without dissemination. We need a generation of pastoral theologian who are on fire with passion for human flourishing who are committed to the whole council of God.

Non schola, sed vitae,

Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor 
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY

Works Cited


Allen, Ronald J. 2008. Thinking Theologically: The Preacher as Theologian. Minneapolis: Frotress Press.

Bond, Adam L. 2013. The Imposing Preacher: Samual DeWitt Proctor & Black Public Faith . Minneapolis: Frotress Press .

Cone, James H. 1997. Black Theology and Black power. MaryKnoll: Orbis.

—. 2018. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Francis, Leah Gunning. 2015. Ferguson & Faith Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community. St Louis: Chalice Press.

Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury.

Hopkins, Dwight N., ed. 2007. Black Faith and Public Talk. Waco : Baylor University Press .

Spong, John Shelby. 2001. A New Christianity For A New World. New York: Harper Collins.

Strachan, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen. 2015. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic.

Townes, Emilie M., ed. 1997. Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope Salvation & Transformation. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Volf, Miroslav. 2011. A Public Faith. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress.

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Dangerous Times

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Our human siblings of the dominant culture far too often insist upon continuously descending to their lowest estate by committing acts of terror in houses of worship. These terrorist acts seek to dehumanize minoritized people and separate them from any notion of Imago Dei. In  the Christian and Jewish traditions, Imago Dei is the theological concept (based on Genesis 1:26-34) that God made the first people in a way that very much resembles God’s own self. The doctrine purports that humanity is made in God’s image and, therefore, the individual is of sacred worth (Lightsey 2015).  Further, the doctrine of Imago Dei postulates that humanity in its authenticity is united with God in character and nature—even if brokenness and sin, in some theologies, has transgressed this original nature (Ruether 1993). This same concept is found in some form in every major religious tradition. In light of this, our task—as people made in the image and likeness of God—is to overcome the temptation not to love and appreciate all those whom God has called good (Lightsey 2015). Supremacist terrorist choose to carry out their egregious acts of mayhem and murder in places of worship precisely to eradicate any hope that marginalized people will see themselves as anything other than objects subject to the control of their will. 

Black Churches, Synagogues, Temples and Mosques provide marginalized people the space to give voice to their deepest feelings and expression of their theological prophetic imagination. These minoritized spaces with their own forms of religious worship is a world uninvaded and unmolested by the gaze and governance of the dominant culture (Frazier 1974). Religion poses the biggest threat to systems of domination because it emboldens the adherents to see themselves as powerful subjects rather than oppressed objects.  The Black church was held as the exemplar institution in the Black Community to resist the opportunity-hoarding of the dominant culture in ways that further disinherit Black people.   Opportunity-hoarding, a practice of the dominant group, keeps good things like

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education, jobs, and capital within their social network (which is most often predominantly white). This habitual way of acting reproduces racial disadvantage (Glaude 2016).  In this way, most religious spaces that serve the marginalized function in ways that promote this life empowerment to the community. The solidarity fostered within these religious communities threatens the dominant power structure to the degree that they are willing to turn these Holy sites into sites of terror.

Arrogant elitism and shameless privilege have come together in the most traumatizing way in our culture and the blatant manifestation of it has come to bare in shootings, bombings, and burnings of houses of worship. Much of the current horror that has been inflicted upon religious sites is connected to a sense of entitlement that has grown among the privileged. When you have been in power and privilege for an extended period of time, anything that seeks to decenter your extreme advantage feels to you like persecution. The response to this rage is manifesting in murder. This is not a new phenomenon, particularly here in the United States of America, where the foundational economy was built on a structure that depended on cheap, exploitable, rightless labor and required the subordination of a whole race of people.  

The mere suggestion that those people be given basic human rights was called an attack on the southern way of life (Anderson 2016). The cowardly burning and bombing of churches has long been the path of weak minded people steeped in a culture of dominance and supported by theologians who are complicit in the worse form of spiritual abuse.

So, I write to remind the church of our primary task in this hour as we face the reality of a culture of hate. The purpose of our religious spaces must be to assist people in plumbing the depths of their own humanity, where transcendence, mystery, being, and even love are discovered, and to bring those qualities found in the center of life into the world (Spong 1998).  Our communal gatherings must formulate patterns and rituals that bear hope for the liberation of all people.  We must not shy away from being the moral voice of the nation and the world, calling all people to carve out a culture of resistance, that speaks truth to power and disallows the principles of justice and holiness to be hijacked, abused, and overlooked. We must have the courage to find the truth in our traditions and then have the courage to be true to the truth. 

Non schola, sed vitae,

Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor 
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY

Works Cited
Anderson, Carol. 2016. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury.

Frazier, E. Franklin. 1974. The Negro Church in America . New York: Schocken Books.

Glaude, Eddie S. 2016. Democracy In Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. New York: Crown Publishers.

Lightsey, Pamela R. 2015. Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology . Eugene, Or: Pickwick Publications.

Ruether, Rosemary. 1993. Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press.

Spong, John Shelby. 1998. Why Christianity Must Change or Die. New York: Harper Collins.

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