At a recent luncheon, the Talbot faculty were reminded about the culture of academia, a culture that permeates Christian universities as well. The typical academic conducts research by herself or himself alone. Any paper or book that results may be reviewed by colleagues, but still the research is the product of one mind alone. Sometimes there are books that contain contributions by various researchers, but each article typically has also a single author. There are exceptions to the rule—books or articles that are co-authored. They are still exceptions, though, and not the rule.
In my own academic career, I have discovered that my best work has been produced in tandem with someone else. Here are a few of many examples. One of my first articles was about “creativity,” which I co-authored with an accomplished musician. Music is a highly creative activity, and the interactions we had as we pieced together our article resulted in something neither of us could have written on our own. Another time I worked with an MA student on furlough from an assignment with Wycliffe Bible Translators. With his linguistic expertise and my training in Hebrew exegesis we wrote a paper for a conference sponsored by SIL (the academic branch of Wycliffe). Most recently, a former student and I completed a manuscript for a commentary on Daniel. He is a pastor and focused on the homiletical part of our work, but again there was a synergism that helped us to better conclusions in both the exegesis and the theology and homiletics.
The culture at Talbot actually encourages this kind of synergistic work among the faculty and even among the faculty and students. Courses are sometimes team-taught; stipends are given for study groups; and a general sense of collegiality among the faculty encourages collaboration. The word we hear is that our situation is rather unique among theological schools. Oddly enough, competition and striving for recognition often become virtues in the very places where humility and love should be primary.
Pastors can also choose to prepare their sermons in isolation or cooperatively, even with the laity. On occasion I have visited a church, and somehow the pastor discovers I am a professor of Old Testament. This seems to be a terrifying experience for him, particularly if the sermon that morning was on the Old Testament. In the church where I have attended regularly for many years, a “sermon advisory group” developed a few years ago. It consists of three Talbot professors and the two pastors who share the pulpit ministry. We meet once a week and go through either the Greek or the Hebrew of the passage to be preached about three weeks out. For me this has become a rich source of spiritual growth, and our mutual effort gives a unique flavor to sermons that the congregation hears. It is pretty unique to have three seminary professors available for a group like this, but even several lay people could meet with a pastor and go over an English text. For pastors to hear what their congregants thought about a particular passage before developing a sermon on it would be priceless information about how to preach that text.
Pastors and academics: Why would you craft your sermons or your books and articles by yourselves? The Bible that we hold up as God’s holy, inspired, inerrant Word is all about community. Jesus himself felt the need to call twelve men to work with him. He mentored them, but I believe that in his humanity he was also helped to accomplish what the Father had called him to do. Mentors benefit every bit as much or even more as the ones they are mentoring. Daniel had three companions; Isaiah had his “disciples” (Isaiah 8:16); and Moses needed his elders (Exodus 18:14–23). So why do academics and, yes, pastors, so often try to go it alone? Most likely it is the individualistic culture that surrounds us. It is the voice of the individual that is considered significant, and somehow having a co-author or members of the congregation who share in crafting a sermon seems to make us less important. Is that any reason not to labor together in the work of the kingdom? There can be times when we need to work alone, but those should be the exception, not the rule. Let us be “co-workers in God’s service” (1 Corinthians 3:9, NIV). And let it be God, not ourselves, who gets the glory.