What the Pastor-Scholar Has in Common with an NBA Star

One of the most important ministry lessons I learned during my time at Bible college came from an NBA player.

I did my undergrad at Moody Bible Institute, located in downtown Chicago. Lots of NBA teams practiced at MBI when they were in town to play against the Bulls. I walked up to a window with a view to our three-court gym, and there was Vince Carter, knocking down threes.

He had the “this is no big deal” look down. He was wearing sweat pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Big, fatty headphones poured who-knows-what music into his ears with an 8 ft. long cable that found its way to a personal DVD player, which dragged on the floor (those were the thing back then).

Carter nailed a three, stepped to the left. Nailed a three, stepped to the left. The flat, gray tunes machine followed him like an obedient chiuaua as the ball boy fed him bounce passes.

Little by little, he traced his feet all the way around the 3-Point arc, swishing three after three after three.

With his left hand.

For those of you keeping score at home, Carter is a right-handed shooter.

This means he took the time to develop and perfect a shot that he never, ever intended to use in a game.

What does that have to do with being a pastor-scholar?

How this relates to pastoral scholarship

Do you limit your theological and biblical study only to what you teach and preach?

For some pastors, this could be because he is busy. But my guess is that most “study-only-to-teach” pastors find the extra learning to be unnecessary and superfluous.

Besides sounding like an 8th grader learning algebra for the first time (“When am I ever going to use this in life?”), this pastor sounds like someone who doesn’t treasure Jesus, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).

The ironic – and hypocritical – thing is that no pastor would accept this attitude from a professional in any other field.

When you go to the doctor for a check up, do you expect the language your doctor uses to be the extent of his medical vocabulary? Of course not. You assume that he has a vast amount of knowledge that he is drawing from as he explains why your back hurts. It is his firm grasp of that extensive knowledge that enables him to speak to you in such plain terms.

As spiritual physicians, pastors should expect no less from themselves. What we teach on Sunday morning should draw from an ever-growing trunk of theological knowledge.

That means, to mix metaphors, learning to shoot theological three-pointers with your off hand.

The problem with the word “scholar”

The word “scholar,” unfortunately, is wrought with negative connotations – “stuffy,” and “boring,” not to mention, “unkempt beard,” and, “oversized cardigan.”

You may be thinking, “I don’t want to turn into one of those guys.”

Or maybe you simply don’t think you’re smart enough to be a “scholar.” You think of the studs who taught you in grad school, and you say, “I could never do what they do.”

I couldn’t agree with more (with regard to measuring up to former profs and roomy cardies).

So let’s do a little redefinition: a scholar is nothing more, and nothing less, than a constant learner.

A pastor-scholar doesn’t have to write books, articles, or blogs. He doesn’t have to be invited to speak at conferences. He doesn’t even have to be brilliant.

A pastor-scholar likes learning for the sake of learning.

A pastor-scholar recognizes the value in being impacted by the learning process, even if there is no test to pass or sermon to preach.

A pastor-scholar trusts that his learning will come in handy when he least expects it, just like learning to shoot lefty threes probably helped Vince Carter capitalize on this unexpected pass.

Remembering your Coach motivates you to raise your game

So the lesson I learned from an NBA player was that if I want to be the best pastor I can be, it will take raising my game in areas of my personal and pastoral life that no one else will see.

We don’t “compete” for our congregation, we compete for Jesus. When we get that the wrong way around, it is easy for us to expect less of ourselves. Our people don’t expect us to be well-rounded theologians.

But when you remember that Jesus is the one you serve, your desires change. It makes you want to know his word, the history of its interpretation, and its theological significance better than any professional athlete ever grasped a playbook.

And you even carry a “this is no big deal” attitude with you as you go about your theological business. Because your identity is not “I’m a pastor-scholar,” it’s “I follow Jesus.”

(Image credit)


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