A Model for Learned Pastors

by Roland M. Kawano

Dr. Kawano is pastor of St. Andrew’s Japanese Congregation in Toronto, Ontario.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 23, 1980, pp. 70-75. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There is growing need for the learned pastor in the parish. Little substantial writing is now being done by those whose work is parish ministry.

It is a common axiom among pastors that we rarely find enough time to study, to keep up with the pastoral and theological literature either for personal satisfaction or for the sake of those whom we serve. The harassed pastor runs from Eucharist to vestry meeting to funeral to counseling appointment, rarely having time even to take care of correspondence. And when there are finally a few quiet moments, he, or she is too fatigued to begin any serious study, either to prepare for the Sunday sermon or to address some current problem in biblical studies.

The closest many pastors come to serious reading may be to peruse a current issue of The Christian Century or Christianity and Crisis, or perhaps the Witness, Christianity Today or the National Catholic Reporter. If the Anglican Theological Review or Worship finds its way into the parish, the pastor may pick it up to see whether a former seminary professor or bookish classmate has an article or review in it. It is a labor to get through even the précis and perhaps the first paragraph of the article.

But pastors may sit up and take notice if, while leafing through the journals, they find articles by parish priests. They will quite likely see that articles by parish-oriented clergy have a different slant on them -- just as scholarly, but perhaps more readable. It is something as yet undefined that stimulates the pastor to keep reading and to investigate further.

Academic Disenchantment

There is growing need for the learned pastor in the parish. Little substantial writing is now being done by those whose work is parish ministry. When I recently visited a seminary in search of information about this problem, the dean told me that the best thing now would be for the learned clergy who are seeking university and seminary positions to return to the parish. Good pastors were needed, he said, but the learned ones tend to leave, gravitating to positions in teaching institutions.

We then discussed, an article by John A. Miles, Jr., a former professor of religion and now a religion editor at Doubleday. Titled "The Return of the Learned Pastor," it was published in the May 1977 issue of the New Review of Books and Religion. Miles argued that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, many young people whose vocation was the ministry chose to become professors of religion. During that period the universities were hungry for talent, and they could afford the kinds of salaries and fringe benefits to attract young people. But today those who have labored through graduate school are finding few openings in the academic world.

Even for people already within the educational institutions, life is not stable. In numerous cases men and women are failing to receive tenure or promotion. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, head of the English department at New Jersey’s William Paterson College, finds that it is all too easy to be pushed off the academic ladder because too many are competing for too few jobs. She remarks: "One of the most depressing aspects of my job as English department chairwoman is to read the hundreds of applications from people who are often more qualified than I was when I entered the profession, and to have no job to offer them."

Though Dr. Mollenkott tries not to give advice to the jobless, she has these words for the job-hunter: "I can only express my hope for those currently in a devastating job market to find peace through an attitude akin to Sir Thomas Browne’s ‘Thy will be done, though in my own undoing.’ Often a phoenix rises out of one’s apparent or temporary undoing; we can only pray for that" ("The Dumbfounding of Academic Survival," Christianity and Literature, Spring 1976, pp. 36-37).

Such a situation leads John Miles to suggest that now may well be the time for "a new generation of students to take refuge in the ministry." The parish ministry does have its own difficulties -- too few openings, low salaries, an often harried life. Nonetheless, Dr. Miles speculates that a learned group whose orientation is pastoral may grow up alongside -those other learned groups whose orientation is primarily academic.

In sensing this new shift, Miles does some serious thinking about the possibilities of reflection and writing in the midst of an environment that can be quite harassing: "For serious, students of religion, then, the question becomes a practical one: does the ministry provide more peace and quiet -- and more time -- for reading and thinking and writing than does academe?" Miles thinks the answer is affirmative. After all, it does not matter where one does one’s reflecting, so long as one has the peace and quiet in which to do it.

Different Arenas?

But another seminary dean I consulted did not agree; his comment on Miles’s article was a chuckle. Of course, one always wishes that learning and reflection could take place in the parish, but that does not happen very easily in this day. Perhaps the complexity of our society and its need to compartmentalize knowledge and experience simply demand that scholarly learning be located in one arena while practical and clinical studies, like pastoral ministry, take place in another.

My own pastoral professor, Urban T. Holmes III, now a seminary dean himself, makes the point (in The Future Shape of Ministry [Seabury, 1971]) that the parish priest was once the one person in the community known for his learning. For instance, parish registers, containing the vital information of birth, baptism, marriage and death, were the responsibility of the religious. But these records have all been transferred to the state authorities. Today the parish priest may be as educated as ever, but there are many in the congregation and the community whose education is as good or better. And certainly the pastor’s image and once forceful role in community life and in learning are no longer what they once were (pp. 87, 139).

The problems created by the gravitation of the learned clergy to academic centers is clearly demonstrated in one community that I know well -- that of Japanese Episcopal clergy. Of the approximately 20 active Japanese Episcopal priests, eight hold earned doctorates, and a ninth is working to complete his. All nine of these men have had pastoral experience in the parish, but none is there now. Six are teaching in universities, seminaries or divinity schools. One is chaplain to an Episcopal school. One is a chemist at the National Institutes of Health. The remaining one, however, has returned to the parish. In the main, these individuals fit the picture painted above; learned clergy leave the parish to serve elsewhere.

There has tended to be, at least in this small community of Japanese clergy, a tension between the learned professionals and the parish priests. Several of the latter have told me of their antipathy toward those who went off to schools of higher learning in the period following World War II when the Japanese were leaving the American concentration camps and the clergy were being utilized to help with resettlement difficulties. (The tension here may have been a matter of infighting, as well as an expression of the high regard the Japanese have for learning and education.)

Obstacles to Staying in the Parish

But what of those learned pastors who are already in the parish? One Protestant minister told me of his own struggle to complete his doctorate while doing parish work, of the frustration because he could scarcely fit in even one day a week to work on his dissertation. His project was to apply the principles the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire sets forth in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed to some actual parochial situations and then to write up the experience, but he lacked adequate time to do good work. On top of those pressures, there was resistance in his parish to his spending any time working toward the doctorate.

Another pastor, after completing doctoral studies in Europe, decided to seek a parish position rather than accept a professional appointment in his field. Subsequently, his experience and his doctorate propelled him to a high position in his denomination. He has become an administrator but has not published in any significant way.

I cite these two examples to show that the learned pastor faces some perils in the expectation of doing adequate reflection, reading and writing in the parish.

I came to understand the extent of the migration from parish to teaching institution during my seminary days. I had originally wanted to stay in my home diocese for my training as a priest. Though vocations to ministry can come anywhere and at any time, many individuals receive such calls in situations where they are effective at ministering; i.e., the home parish. Recognition of their gifts is one step toward realizing a sense of vocation to the ordained priesthood. But postulants must leave the milieu in which they first "found" themselves and their vocation -- cut their roots, so to speak -- and pack up and move off to a seminary or divinity school.

In seminary I learned another aspect of this vocational puzzle: the men who dared to teach us Bible, theology, pastoral care, contemporary studies, history and liturgy were all men who had left the parish. Some of them still preached on weekends, but their major occupation was teaching. They had essentially given up the parish as the ground of their basic activity, yet they were our masters, presuming to speak of the parish while giving us the traditional intellectual seminary curriculum. They had somehow grown beyond the parish, yet they were attempting to teach us how to minister in it.

While the divinity school or seminary functions as part of the total complexity called "the church," it is ironic that those who presume to teach seminarians how to become parish priests are no longer parish priests themselves. Many priests in academic positions are not worried about this dichotomy, however; someone has to do the teaching, and someone has to do the parish work.

Presenting a Model

If the context of the parish is significantly different from that of the university, then we would expect the kinds of writing and reflection that come from the parish to differ in tone and attitude from those that emerge from academe. John Miles has such expectations, and goes on to explain: "The new writing might not appear for a few years; there is no way to predict what it will look like. But I, for one, expect it to be good, and as an editor, I intend to be watching for it."

Rather than guess at what directions such writing will take, it would probably be more fitting to the shape of the parish experience to speak about what such writing might consist of. For this task it is to the writing of Simone Weil that I turn. Weil may seem, on first glance, an odd choice for a writing model for learned pastors, for she was not a pastor in any traditional sense, nor was she a Christian in a formal sense. A French Jew from a learned family, she refused to be baptized. She explained this refusal as in part a desire to identify with the oppressed. Had she chosen baptism, it would have been into the Church of Rome.

A second glance, however, shows us that Weil’s writing, especially in her later years as World War II approached, grew more and more distinctively Christian in tone and content. But if one is inclined to put her in the Christian camp, another is certain to point out that her thought, by her own admission, has Gnostic aspects, a strong tendency to regard the Old Testament as a lower type of literature than the New Testament. Weil also explained that she found spiritual inspiration equal to that of the Bible among the Greeks and the Hindus, where traditional-minded Christians seldom look. She even learned Sanskrit in order to read the Upanishads and the Gita.

It is only obliquely for the peculiar Christian focus, which gives a sharp edge to her writing, that I wish to turn to Simone Weil. Two other aspects form the core of the model which I propose. One is her passion for reflection and the other her ability to write topically.

A Passion for Reflection

In Simone Weil: A Life (Pantheon, 1976), Simone Pétrement, a lifelong friend of both Weil and her family, documents this passion for reflection. It encompasses all aspects and arenas of life which Weil touched, and so she wrote on Marxism, the trade unions, her experience of working in a factory, various aspects of French political life. The last gained her Charles de Gaulle’s comment: "She’s out of her mind" (F. C. Ellert in the introduction to Oppression and Liberty, by Simone Weil [University of Massachusetts Press, 1973], xii).

Weil’s was not a sedentary passion. It was, rather, an active one: to investigate and learn, even within certain areas in which she was poorly qualified to begin a search. But that passion to become involved, and then to reflect upon that involvement, became significant in her short life. The driving force to be identified with groups in distress was perhaps a part of her need to draw away from the more comfortable life of her childhood and youth. It was the identification with her own people, during her one stay in England, that eventually brought her short life to an end. She would eat only as much food as those in occupied France had which was not enough to nourish and strengthen her; this, we are told, in large part caused her death.

Such active involvement and passion for reflection are significant for pastors. By the very role they play in the parish, pastors are thrust into involvement and identification, usually with every level of society. They are associated with their parishioners not only in their social state but also in each rite of passage that the family or individual experiences, whether it be birth, adolescence, marriage, trauma, unemployment, or dying and death. This role of identification in pastoral care is a given and is simply one of the roles that parish priests are called to fulfill.

Thus what Simone Weil desired by insistent preoccupation and by her need to be identified with something other than she was, pastors are thrust into by their very role. They cannot escape it. They may not like it -- and in some ways it may be especially repugnant -- but they cannot ignore the involvement. Some aspects of pastoring are what Weil calls "afflication" (malheur) -- a bearing of a burden that one does not particularly desire, but that one bears nonetheless.

Although ordinary pastors engage their parishioners at all these levels and through the rites of passage, they do not necessarily, take the time to reflect on those involvements. For learned pastors, the circumstances are different. Their particular gift would be to reflect seriously on the actions and identifications of their ministry, to discern not only their strengths and weaknesses, but also the particular ways in which one act weaves its way into the whole fabric that makes up the parish community.

This passion for reflection in the pastoral role might be more simply summed up as the gift of theology, for theology is the study of God, and therefore of God’s creation. Thus, theology becomes a reflection on the existence about us: serious at times, passionate usually, but certainly not always with a glum look upon one’s face.

Pastoral reflection is more than a recounting, a verbatim report of what took place between the parishioner and the pastor. That is but a beginning. The pastor deals in small community with what the sociologist, economist and anthropologist deal with in larger and more general terms. The pastoral reflections always center on the particular, on its bitterness, its fruits and joys. In the parish experience, the particularities of death, sickness, birth, joblessness can be handled only by experiencing them wholly or by avoiding them. Of the latter, some of us are guilty.

Out of reflections on the particular, reflections that can be more universally appreciated take shape. For instance, it is reflection on specific aspects of human nature that gives bite to any question of ethics, turning that whole inquiry away from dullness and boredom into one that is exciting of itself. From hearing a particular biblical text expounded. we are able to see how the preacher’s mind works, how he or she grasps the faith, and how firmly.

And negative situations, in which the bitterness of humanity is exposed, can often be heuristic and helpful. For instance, I was once involved in a troublesome matter that would have been very embarrassing to the victimizers had they been publicly exposed; the victimized, however, had undergone far more than just embarrassment. Despite all the complexities involved, other people would have been helped if all the details had become public. As it was, they remained hidden.

Journalist Jim Stentzel has reflected on this kind of dilemma: "The reporter’s instincts are to nail ‘em, the Christian’s instincts are to ‘love and forgive em’" ("The Ethical Dilemmas of Investigative Reporting" [Sojourners, August 1977]). Another suggestion was to use the story technique in this case. Telling the tale in similitude of reality, with the identity of both the victim and victimizer concealed, would serve to provide a projection of reality that was more than a didactic lesson, a way that would lead to criticism, understanding and appreciation.

Topical Writing

To have spoken about passionate reflection on the particular is already to have entered into the second aspect of the model drawn from Simone Weil -- that is, writing topically. For many, indeed, of Weil’s writings are essays on topics. This is a form she learned early from her professor of philosophy, Alain (Emile Chartier), of the Henry IV Lycée. Disdaining presentation of any systematic schema of his thought, he professed, rather, that through his writings on various topics (topos) the reader could grasp how the writer’s mind functioned -- and that was what is important. Explains Simone Pétrement: "He thought a system is a paltry thing and that a thinker’s strength can best be seen in the way he tackles specific problems" (op. cit., p. 30).

Simone Weil was particularly affected by this reasoning, and even after she left the Lycée, she continued to prepare papers for Alain to read. Her essays dealt with those particular topics which fiercely grasped her imagination and in turn compelled her to examine related areas to ascertain their bearing on the topic.

Topical writing in this manner closely parallels what the pastor is already doing in the weekly sermon. Basically, it consists of reflection on a text (usually drawn from Scripture) -- a text expounded in relation to the needs of the listening and waiting congregation. Granted that there are too many boring sermons with little reflection, either on the text or on the people, the same can be said of too many articles that appear in the scholarly journals. Scholarly papers and dissertations occupy space in libraries, whereas sermons can be -- and often are -- forgotten without a moment’s discomfort.

For the pastor, the sermon teaches -- indeed forces -- clear thinking. Pastors cannot assume that their audiences understand and read at a certain level of theological erudition. It is their duty to speak, without condescension, to different levels. C.S. Lewis once proposed, as part of ordination examinations, a section in which the seminarian would be asked to "translate" a selection of theological prose into common-usage English. Lewis felt that this ability was as much a sign of the student’s readiness to minister as anything else. As I remarked, this is not condescension, but rather a sharpening of a particular faculty. Far from being the one individual in whom a deposit of faith lies, the pastor is rather a communicator and an educator whose task is to lead or draw out from the people the manifold gifts and expressions that lie hidden, like seeds ready to germinate.

A Context for Reflection

Pastors need a vision not so much of where the church is going but of where it has been. Since we simply do not know or see enough of where we have been, we are often unable to measure where we are right now. We become too easily frightened by the new half-truth, the latest façade, the contemporary ritual. Ignorant of our beginnings, our roots and our struggles, we are often left stranded and anxious for the morrow. The vision of where we have been frees us to deal with the variant problems of where we are, and though there may be some uncertainty over the next step, there need be no fear. Then we learn that there is indeed room in the pastoral life for the kind of reflection that is necessary if the pastoral art is to continue at its best.

Any reflection has a context -- true indeed for Simone Weil’s topos, which formed the subject matter for the turning of her mind. The context was not always natural to her, for she frequently investigated new areas and various groups of the oppressed. To understand and identify with them, she thrust herself upon them. For instance, in New York, in the year before she died, she attended a Baptist church in Harlem and was the only nonblack there. Had she stayed in the United States, most likely she would willingly have shared the life of the black people.

With the pastor, the context is a given. Although one expounds on a different text each week, the context is more than the particular book out of which the text is taken and the particular tools of language and commentary to which one has reference. It is also the particularities of parish life that are thrust upon the pastor -- sickness and death, marital conflict and infidelity, aging, or something simpler like a leaky roof or a broken window. Unlike Weil, who was intent on sympathizing with different oppressed groups, the pastor does not need to seek out contexts, for they are thrust upon him or her. They are the given, and it is a function of one’s duty to respond to them.

The pastor’s life, for the most part, is not a sedentary one, and in this way it relates to some of the most central aspects of Simone Weil’s life. Wanting passionately to know, for instance, what the life of the factory worker was like, she left her schoolteaching and went to a factory. For her it was an experience of affliction, of learning to bear without complaint. A woman who normally was not given to holding her tongue, especially in the causes with which she sympathized, here she had to. Submission was the common - condition of the worker -- not only to the authorities but also to the machine -- a submission which she found particularly difficult and bitter, if not brutal. For this singular identification meant that she could not protest but must be silent. In addition, she tells us, her burden lay in the fact that she could not stop thinking; yet only by ceasing to think and reflect could she increase her output of piecework, and thus become a more productive worker.

This phenomenon has parallels in the life of the parish minister. Among the professionals -- veterinarians, physicians, teachers, dentists, lawyers and so on, all of whom perform certain knowable and understandable functions -- pastors, with all their education, often seem to fit only in the interstices. They have no significant place unless they become more like the professionals; that is, unless they carry out teaching or other such functions. In which case, becoming more like the other professionals means being less like a parish priest.

A Pivot for Pastoral Activity

But the parish ministry, for all its ambiguity, contains those elements which can be the context for the learned pastor seeking to find himself or herself and to help others find themselves. Certainly reflection is a passionate exercise, one that provides a pivot or an axis upon which so much of the rest of the pastoral activities can turn. The lack of reflection is the sign of a thoughtless uncertainty, of not-knowing the next step to take. But writing that grows out of reflection can be an indication of the reflection’s liveliness and of a desire to communicate the passion.

In Waiting far God (Harper, 1962), Simone Weil speaks of giving one’s loving attention to an object or situation and learning to wait upon it. For example, in her desire to learn to pray, she approached the Lord’s Prayer in this way. The pastor is called on to give this same kind of loving attention to parish life and to many individuals and situations. It is out of such attention on particularities that the learned pastor is able to write.

For the pastor reflects, not necessarily on wide and learned reading, but within the particular context which is the life and shape of one’s parish, over which one is asked to be shepherd. It is out of this energizing life that passionate reflection takes place. A writing emerges that is distinctive because its base is centered not in the university or in seminary politics and the demand to publish, but rather in the impulse to communicate reflections about this ongoing life.