Why a Pastor Should Have a ‘Study,’ and Not an ‘Office’
Live into your role as theological leader of your church.
“Let’s meet in my study.” That’s what I tell folks when I’m arranging a meeting at church. Never, “Let’s meet in my office.” Never. By all that I hold dear, never office. A minor thing, it might seem, the moniker used to designate one’s place of work. But the distinction is important for my own self-understanding. And it’s important for the folks at my church as well. But to grasp why I hold it all so dear, a digression is in order.
A theological vocation
Insofar as the job of a pastor is to help people live well, the pastoral vocation is an inherently theological vocation. It cannot help but be, since theology and ethics are inexorably connected. As goes our thoughts about God, so goes our lives. We human beings choose to live a certain way because of what we think about the reality we perceive around us. This connection between our beliefs and our actions is an ancient truth taught to the church by one of the greatest pastors of all time—Augustine. Augustine was the fifth-century bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and his thought was seminally influential in shaping the basic contours of the western Christian tradition. He is arguably the most important Christian thinker after Jesus and Paul.
Theological study isn’t something a pastor fits into his schedule when he’s completed his pastoral duties; rather theological study is the pastor’s duty.
For Augustine, the ultimate end, or purpose of humanity is love directed toward the one true Good—namely God (for a more thorough discussion of this topic see The Pastor Theologian by Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand, pgs. 54-56). This love then guides our actions and sets our wills in motion. Yet love does not arise in a vacuum, but through our convictions about the Good. For Augustine, we ultimately desire that which we deem to be in our own best interest. Yet this belief can be right or wrong. When our belief concerning the Good is in keeping with the truth—namely that union with God is in our own best interest—our affections and our wills are rightly ordered. But when our belief is misplaced, our affections and our wills are likewise misplaced.
Thus for Augustine, God has given human beings a mind so that we can “become capable of knowledge and of receiving instruction, fit to understand what is true and to love what is good.” Right understanding of the Good, then, is necessary as a means of rightly orienting desire. He continues, “It is by this capacity [i.e., the capacity to understand] the soul drinks in wisdom, and becomes endowed with those virtues by which, in prudence, fortitude, temperance, and righteousness, it makes war upon error and other inborn vices, and conquers them by fixing its desires upon no other object than the supreme and unchangeable Good.” For Augustine then, understanding gives birth to love, which in turn directs the will. Thus a key to right living is to grow in one’s capacity to rightly believe and understand the true nature of the Good. And it is here that the discipline of theology plays such a vital role in Christian formation.
Much of the hard work of theology is to critically examine the conscious and sub-conscious beliefs that shape and govern human activity. Theology, as a discipline, attempts to make sense of the world in which we live, of God, and of ourselves. It teases out the connections between ideas and actions, and helps to create new ways of imagining reality—ways that are distinctly Christian; or, we might say, distinctly real. At root, Christian theology attempts to say right things about God, ourselves, and our world in ways that shape belief, birth love, and orient human beings toward their true purpose.
Indeed, there is no aspect of human existence that stands at a remove from the work of theology. Ideas have consequences, and it is uniquely the job of theology to sort out these consequences. In this sense, sound theology acts a sort of spiritual director, helping the church navigate belief with a view to love and good deeds. Notably, when theology falters at its task, the people of God are handicapped in finding their way to right belief. And when beliefs go astray, desires are misplaced, and ethics stumble.
Theology is vital for pastoral ministry
It is precisely at this point that theology is so vital for pastoral ministry. Insofar as ethics are ultimately connected to belief, and insofar as it is the job of the pastor to shepherd people into wise living, the pastor’s work is necessarily theological. When pastors fail to take theology seriously, their people are cut off from one of the chief matrix’s that help shape and resource Christian conduct. To put not too fine a point on it, when evangelicals are floundering ethically, it is—at least in part—because we are floundering theologically. And if we are floundering theologically, it is because our pastors are failing to lead theologically. However much we might (rightly) value the contributions of evangelical academic theologians, it is the pastoral community, not the academic community, that guides the church theologically.
Yet taken as a whole, the pastoral community seems to have forgotten this. We are managers, visionaries, counselors, fund raisers, encouragers, communicators, organizers, and therapists. But we do not generally conceive of ourselves as theologians. Anything but theologians! The contemporary currents, both in the academy and the church, tend to push against the inherently theological nature of pastoral ministry. Theology is for the academy, we are often told—explicitly or implicitly. Those who love people and praxis should go into pastoral ministry. Those who love theology should go into the academy (a detailed examination of this divide is the focus in The Pastor Theologian).
The lifeblood of the pastor
Early in my pastoral career I worked at a large multi-staff church. I had gone into work a bit early to read my Bible and pray. My time of reflection went a bit longer than usual, bleeding into the proscribed “office hours.” One of our executive pastors walked down the hallway of our department banging his hand against the wall, shouting, “I want to hear some ministry happening in here, people!” He was a fun loving pastor and mostly kidding. Mostly. In that ecclesial context the sort of ministry most often prioritized sounded like keys tapping, phones ringing, copiers copying, and people in meetings. All the sounds one would expect to hear in a corporate office environment. But theological reflection, the lifeblood of effective pastoral ministry, cannot thrive in an environment that is marked exclusively by frenetic activity.
The lifeblood of the pastor—whether the congregation realizes it or not—is a steady intake of rich theology, prayer, and Bible reading. Pastors shouldn’t feel guilty about prayerfully reading (during the work day!) Calvin’s Institutes, or Anthanasius’ On the Incarnation, or Augustine’s On the Trinity. Theological study isn’t something a pastor fits into their schedule when they complete their pastoral duties; rather theological study is the pastor’s duty. For the good of your congregation—for the good of your preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing, indeed for the good of your own soul—it is crucial that you not neglect to feed yourself.
And thus we return to the nomenclature of the pastor’s work place. Does a pastor work in an office or a study? Despite prevailing trends to the contrary, a pastor should have a study, not an office. Semantics matter. If you call your study an office, the people in your church will have a certain set of expectations regarding what you do during the day. 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, you and your congregants will gradually come to have a different set of expectations—expectations more in line with the sort of work done by a pastor who understands the important role that theology plays in the life of discipleship and formation. The room with all your books, the room where you read the Scriptures, pray, and write—that room is your study. Start referring to it as such and your people will come to expect that prayerful theological reflection is part of your calling.
There’s more to being a pastor than theology, of course. But there is not less. Not every pastor needs to make fresh contributions to theological scholarship (though some should). But all pastors need to take seriously the inevitable theological responsibility that attends their vocation. Your people are looking to you for theological direction, whether they know it or not. And you are giving them theological direction, whether you know it or not. The direction you are giving them is shaping their lives, week by month by year.
Live into your role as the theological leader of your church. And use your time each week in your study (not your office) to deepen your theological competency, that the Lord’s people might grow in faith, deepen in love, and flourish in obedience.
Gerald Hiestand is the co-founder and part-time director of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He also serves as the Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois. He is the author, with Todd Wilson, of The Pastor Theologian.
 This orienting task of theology is particularly vital insofar as there are many things that shape human belief. Our past experiences, our relationships, our bodies, our habits—all of these send us messages (often mixed) about who we are, who God is, and what it means to live the good life. For more here, see James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009). A chief task then of theology is to peer beneath the surface and identify the mistaken beliefs that give rise to the misplaced affections and subsequent erring ethics.