Why Senior Pastors Must Be Scholarly And Pragmatic

by | Jun 29, 2021 | Church Leadership, Pastoral Burnout

My very first ministry internship was with a pastor who, by his own admission, wasn’t really into scholarly study.

“Brian,” I remember him telling me; “you’ll find that the guys out there leading the big churches are pragmatic leaders. That should tell you something.”


When Church Fads Backfire

What I remember most about him however was his penchant for getting carried away with the latest church fads to try to spur church attendance.

When I showed up that summer he was well into a “get everyone to the church at 5 am to pray for exactly one hour” kick.

I heard through the grapevine that some well-meaning person slipped him a book on prayer (I believe it was TV evangelist Larry Lea’s Could You Not Tarry With Me One Hour) and that was all she wrote.

For 13 weeks straight I would get up at 3:45 am, take a shower, get dressed, and then make the 55-minute commute to the church building just in time to hit my knees and join the faithful.

For 60 minutes of prayer.

On my knees.

Every flippin’ morning.

For 13 weeks.

I kid you not.

“The Koreans are doing it and their churches are growing like wildfire,” I remember him telling me.

“That’s great,” I said, “but can’t God hear us just the same at 9 am? And does it need to be a whole hour? My knees start killing me after 20 minutes. After 30 minutes I’m getting cramps. And after 45 minutes, honestly, I’m contemplating converting to Zoroastrianism. Besides, is this really the way prayer works anyway?”


Why Senior Pastors Must be Scholarly and Pragmatic

That summer made a profound mark on my outlook on ministry. Besides the long list of really great ideas I took away from that experience, I felt challenged to try to navigate a course for the kind of spiritual leader I wanted to become.

I left that experience feeling like I had to make a choice: become a pragmatic pastor or a scholarly pastor. Something inside me, even at that young age, made me realize that I could just be myself and try to be both.

Now, some twenty-five years later, I lead a church four times the size of that church where I did my internship. Not a day doesn’t go by where I don’t sympathize with the pressure that the pastor was under to produce numbers and results. Believe it or not, a few years ago when our offerings were sagging I flirted with a “get everyone to the church at 5 am to pray for exactly one hour” kick!

But I’ve learned that being scholarly and theologically attuned has kept me from not just terrible fads, but terrible heresies, both of which are equally dangerous.

Over the years I’ve tried to interject a few key things into our own staff culture to try to maintain balance.


How Senior Pastors Can Be Scholarly And Pragmatic


1. Part of the screening process for paid staff members as well as potential elders is a questionnaire with an extensive list of theological questions.

That sets the tone right from the start, letting any potential team member know that we are just as interested in their understanding of the Arminian/Calvinist question as we are in their ability to cast vision.


2. Our staff reads books together on a regular basis.

From time to time we’ve inserted business books like Good to Great or Organizing Genius into the mix. But just as frequently, if not more, we’ve read books like James Dunn’s Jesus’ Call to Discipleship. Soon I’m going to have everyone work through Michael Green’s Evangelism in the Early Church. His first two chapters should be required reading for any staff.


3. We’ve laid down the expectation for all ministry staff that furthering their theological education is essential and mandatory.

This is particularly important for churches that have a staff like ours who were all entirely hired from within the church. Of course, because it is mandatory, the church pays for it. But we think this is an investment that will pay rich dividends for years to come. In 2016 I’m hiring a retired seminary professor to lead one-day intensives for our staff, every other month, on different biblical and theological topics.


4. We purposely try not to dumb our services down theologically.

In yesterday’s sermon, I quoted German theologian Martin Niemoller, went into the Greek origins of a word in a passage, and shared a story from the “Confessing Church” of the Nazi resistant movement. A non-churched, irreligious, spiritually blank-slate guy walked out the door, winked at me, and said, “Best one yet.”

I guess if truth be told, I am so focused on scholarship in the local church because, like the pastor of my first internship, I am a pragmatist at heart.

As a pragmatist, it’s just been my experience that people far from God as well as those within the flock love being a part of a church that is focused on going deep as much as it is wide.

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