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10 Practical Steps for Living as an Ecclesial Theologian

Categories Ministry

The Pastor-Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd WilsonAs we begin another seminary school year and restart our church ministries post-summer, I’d like to recommend a vision of pastoral leadership and ministry that’s sorely lacking in the contemporary church:

The pastor theologian.

This vision is offered to future pastors and existing pastors alike by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson in their new book The Pastor Theologian.

Their vision “represents a return to the day when pastors wrote theology that was richly theological, deeply biblical, historically informed, culturally aware, explicitly pastoral, and prophetic.” (86)

In particular, Hiestand and Wilson advocate resurrecting the pastor-theologian model exemplified by Irenaeus, Augustine, and Calvin: the ecclesial theologian.

Here is an overview of 10 practical ways you can live this calling to benefit your ministry and the wider church.

1) Get a PhD

The first critical part of being an ecclesial theologian is doing PhD preparation, for three reasons:

  1. Training. “The PhD offers a regimen of disciplined training that would be very difficult to get independently.” (104)
  2. Networking. “Working on a PhD will broaden your network of relationships with other thinkers and scholars…” (104)
  3. Publishing. “The PhD remains the intellectual’s best calling card.” (105)

2) Staff to the vision

“Building a staff that values theology will go a long way toward creating a robust theological culture at your church.” (107)

Like-minded partners serious about theological scholarship will help you overcome the isolation of your calling. It also helps with ongoing theological reflection and application.

3) Get networked

While you may not be able to hire a staff of like-minded comrades, you can lock arms with like-minded pastor theologians in your area, denomination, and even across the internet.

Finding other pastors or even local professors who are committed to theological scholarship will “open doors to publishing opportunities, stimulate ideas for research, provide access to resources, and give much needed encouragement.” (108)

4) Guard your study time with a blowtorch

Wilson was given this advice by one of his mentoring professors.

“Guarding your time with a blowtorch may at first blush seem selfish…But for an ecclesial theologian, it can also be a means of survival, a way of staying true to what you believe the Lord has called you to do for the good of his church.” (111)

They recommend dedicating the undistracted morning to reading, studying, and writing.

5) Read ecclesial theology (and other stuff)

“If you want to write ecclesial theology, you need to read ecclesial theology.” (113)

The authors recommend reading theologians like Augustine and Basil, Calvin and Luther, Wesley and Edwards, Bonhoeffer and Barth. They also advocate reading classic writers—like Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Melvile—to master the English language. And seasoning your reading with avocational fields of study (e.g. biology and sociology) can broaden your field of vision and lead to new lines of theological thinking.

6) Refer to the place where you work as a “study”

Ecclesial theologians don’t have offices—they have studies. Having such a mindset fosters not only your own work but also your congregants expectations.

“Offices are where people make phone calls and type emails and have meetings. But if you refer to the place where you work as your study, your congregants will come to have a different set of expectations—more in line with the sort of work done by an ecclesial theologian.” (116)

7) Build study-and-writing leave into your schedule

Dedicating large blocks of time longer than a few hours for studying and writing is crucial: “A dedicated week, focused exclusively on a reading or writing project, allows one to make more gains in one week than is possible in four or five one-day units. The continuity of thought and the space to brood without distraction are precious commodities.” (117)

The same can be said for sabbaticals, which is why Hiestand and Wilson encourage you to start talking such blocks early.

8) Recruit a pastor-theologian intern

Nurturing the next generation of ecclesial theologians is also important. As with other areas of ministry an internship program can help.

Exposing up-and-coming pastors to the ecclesial-theologian vision means “engaging them in the customary conversations on leadership, preaching, and pastoral care. But it also means that we engage them in our respective research projects.” (118)

9) Earn buy-in from your church leadership

Perhaps the chief concern of aspiring ecclesial theologians is to get their church leadership to buy into this unique calling. What is the best way for getting it?

“Your church needs to see the value of theological scholarship in your ministry, not simple hear you argue for it. This means you must begin by being a good pastor who loves your flock and desires to see the gospel flourish in their lives.” (120-121)

10) Let the necessity of love trump your love of truth

Ecclesial theologians are “first a pastor, and only then a theologian.” (85) Which means you should consider what you do in light of your peoples’ needs.

“Even though Augustine was a brilliant theologian who bequeathed to the church a rich legacy of writings, he was chiefly motivated by the on-the-ground needs of his congregation. Augustine let the necessity of love trump his love of truth.” (121)


May these 10 practical ways of living as an ecclesial theologian encourage your ministry and expand your vocational vision.

Engage Hiestand’s and Wilson’s book yourself to reimagine pastoring along theological lines—for the good of the church.

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