The Distinct Obligations of a University Pastor

The Distinct Obligations of the University Pastor

Youth Pastor, Young Adults Pastor, College Pastor, Campus Minister, and University Chaplain, these are the titles most frequently utilized to cover the branch of ministry in which undergraduate students may be typically located. However, there is little consideration of the varying undergraduate contexts that such a pastoral position may find itself overseeing. There is effectively no literature that even attempts to survey or typify the obligations unique to the Pastor who has been entrusted with a flock primarily comprised of university students.[1] The closest starting point has been David Dockery’s Faith and Learning, and it is far from the categorization of pastoral ministries. This has led to the following investigation about the distinct obligations of a University Pastor, and subsequent proposal regarding the specific nature and function of any distinctive obligations.

The term “University Pastor” signifies a pastoral role, though not necessarily compensated, within the local church that particularly maintains oversight for members of the flock who would be categorized as a university student.[2] Whether they be a commuting individual, resident student, full-time, or part-time student, this pastoral position uniquely focuses their efforts on understanding and fulfilling the pastoral obligations unique to the context of ministering to university students.[3] The necessity of this kind of definitional articulation is motivated by the perceived lack of care in the church to understand the contextual difference ministerially between college students and university students. The University Pastor is one who ought to be qualified and able to shepherd students through the process of obtaining a university education, encourage their faith, and aid them in the formation of a theology which encompasses their school and life.[4] It is this fourth obligation that is truly unique to the University Pastor, and a form of it may also be applicable to a more generalized College Pastor, and thus the focus of this paper.

The argument will generally follow a question-and-answer formulation rather than a philosophical syllogism. The argument will consider what is necessary for a pastor to fulfill the obligations outlined above. Thus, the first third of the argument will be focused on the pastoral qualifications, shepherding of students through the educational process from a foundation of faith, and the functions of a pastor in the encouragement of faith within the university context, and the second third of the argument will focus specifically on the exhortation to obey Christ in the university context and the obligation to aid theological formation that informs Christian Scholarship, Vocational calling, and occupational pursuits. Reflecting on the preceding thirds, the concluding third will formulate a response to the overarching question: “What are the distinct obligations of a university pastor?”

What is a University Pastor?

A University Pastor first and foremost is a Pastor, an elder in a local church, one who is marked by the qualifications laid out in scripture.[5] The distinctions come from the context in which these qualifications are considered. Therefore, it is important to lay out the scriptural considerations, qualifications, and expectations that are applicable to all pastors before contextualizing them to such a minimally researched position as a University Pastor.

What Qualifies a University Pastor to the ministry?

A pastor is called by the Spirit of God. However, such a calling typically manifests with both an inward and outward indication. Derek Prime and Alistair Begg in their book “On Being a Pastor” present the most conclusive explanation of the inward calling. They write that the call is an “unmistakable conviction an individual possesses that God wants him to do a specific task.”[6] This internal conviction is obtained through the granting of an aspiration to serve the Lord through such a position and task of shepherding the sheep of God entrusted to him in the university context.[7] However, in the current age, it is important to take heed to the context of the qualifications for eldership shown in 1 Timothy 3, to be a leader in the church is something that was marked by an ὀρέγεται despite the cost to the individual amid the persecution at the time.[8]

The calling of a minister by the Holy Spirit to University Ministry in a pastoral role ought to be affirmed by the local body from which the Pastor operates and not expressed in isolation from outward confirmation. Thus, it may be said of the university pastor that he experiences an unmistakable conviction which comes by the gift of the Holy Spirit and is affirmed by his congregation in the pursuit of co-laboring with God in the field of harvest at the university and that his life and character meets the standards laid out in either Titus or Timothy depending on the context of the congregation.[9]

What are the Challenges of Shepherding Students Through a Secular Education?

            One of the most pressing concerns is that the presence of doubt in the University ministry at a secular institution ought to be taken for granted. There is no Christian Intellect, not even a Christian Mind.[10] Because of this absence, it is of course to be expected that there is a unique challenge in shepherding University students primarily in part to the anti-Christian dogma in intellectual pursuits common in the academy.[11]When examining the topic of shepherding in the university context, it is important to begin with the general expectations of shepherds found in Ezekiel 34.[12] Shepherds are responsible for feeding the flock, strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the broken, protecting the flock, bringing back those driven away, seeking the lost, and leading the flock.[13]

A second challenge of shepherding in a university context is that it incorporates Christian Education into the process of guiding students through some of the most formative years of their adult life. Thus, a University Pastor’s Theology of Christian Education is going to necessarily influence their approach to feeding, strengthening, and protecting the flock which God has entrusted to them. Following from this, it is important for the Church to understand the Biblical principles of Christian Education before applying them to the pastoral calling.

James R. Estep lists 10 Biblical Principles for Christian Education in one of his entries in A Theology for Christian Education. Education in Church is God-centered. Education is obligatory upon the Christian community. Faith is learned in and through the church. Education is provided in a variety of formats. Teachers are heterogeneous within the church. Diverse learning methodologies were utilized to match diverse learning outcomes based on the individual and their situation. Education is based on but not limited to content transmission. Educational venues are to be expanded to address the necessities of the church. Educational practices were adopted from neighboring cultures. Education is for conversion and spiritual formation individually and corporately. Teaching and leading are virtually inseparable.[14] Given these principles and the arguments supporting them, they can then be synthesized with the pastoral obligations of feeding, strengthening, and leading the flock.

An important distinction from the original authors of A Theology for Christian Education to note is that this paper assumes that the nature of University Pastoral work forces Christian Education to be an interdisciplinary effort between Biblical, Apologetic, and Practical Theology within the construct of the systematic theology presented by the authors. Michael J. Anthony argues that Christian Education ought to first and foremost be an effort of systematic theology, while this can be generally true of the discipline and its practice in the university context must necessarily guide students through the formation of a Biblically sound, practically relevant, and apologetically tenable theology for their life.[15] To truly guide the students in developing this kind of comprehensive theology within the context of shepherding it is a necessary task to feed the flock with a holistic theology for the context in which the flock is found. Given the principles of Christian Education provided, it is safe to remark that the University Pastor ought to consider the content of what he is teaching university students both individually and corporately, which may mean delving into theological reflections on fields previously unexplored or corporately helping the students develop a more general foundation for pursuing university education from a Christian worldview. The answer to the challenge of shepherding in a university context is utilizing the principles of Christian education as a framework for designing and delivering the content and structures necessary to feed, strengthen, and lead the university student.

How should a Pastor Encourage the Faith of Students?

Effectively encouraging students in their faith requires not only the principles discussed in the previous section, but also the binding up of the broken, and healing the sick. As has already been discussed, the University environment can often be a place of great challenge and discouragement. Some have even gone so far as to say that schools and Institutions like Southern Methodist University are places of great spiritual struggle and supernatural warfare for Evangelical Christians. When binding up the broken it is important to recall the necessity of proper boundaries in Pastoral Care, students are simultaneously vulnerable and independent which escalates the level of caution and precaution that should be utilized when visiting with students to encourage their faith on an individual level.

The University Pastor ought to know the complexities of their students’ struggles and life in so far as the student is willing to be open and honest with them, and from this foundation help them to develop answers for the hope that they have within them in Christ.[16] Jude 3 likewise recognizes the difficult task of holding firm in the face of false teachers.[17] Both 1 Peter 3:15, and Jude 3 are intimately related to the task of binding up the broken and healing the sick, the University Pastor is challenged to understand the sick parts of worldview formation present at the university or universities their students come from so that they can better help their students find healing from the ideological sickness and develop sound theological minds in the pursuit of a biblical worldview. This cannot be done without the holistic approach to Pastoral Care presented in Dane Ortlund’s examination of the Heart of Christ for Sinners. Ortlund’s work explores Matthew 11:29 and the implications it has for understanding Christ’s affection for humanity. Reflecting on this passage offers some interesting information for the heart posture and approach that should be taken when encouraging the faith of any believer but especially those in vulnerable circumstances like university students.

What exactly does it mean for Christ to be “gentle and humble in heart?” The answer to such a question lies in examining the language of the New Testament, koine Greek. ἄρατε τὸν ζυγόν μου ἐφ’ ὑμᾶς καὶ μάθετε ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ, ὅτι πραΰς εἰμι καὶ ταπεινὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ, καὶ εὑρήσετε ἀνάπαυσιν ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὑμῶν: The words to focus on are πραΰς, and ταπεινὸς.[18] English bibles translate them as “Gentle”, and “Humble”, or synonyms of those words if not those two specifically.

πραΰς is best understood as pertaining to being gentle and mild.[19] However, it must be acknowledged that English is limited in the translation of the word, as gentle is not inclusive of kindness in this exact Greek term.[20] It is, perhaps, better to understand gentle, in this sense, as a sort of intentional carefulness in dealing with people. But, joined into this word is also a sense of affection, separate, and distinct from kindness. This affection is fuller in its capacity and depth of intimacy than usually rendered in human conceptions of the term. It is, to attempt at drawing closer to an English rendition, an intentional carefulness that is motivated intrinsically by an extreme affection that is as poised to wage war as it is to swoop down and care for the wounded child who needs the love that only God can provide. At the minimum it is seen that Christ, at a fundamental level, is intentionally careful with the very souls of men out of an intrinsic affection for the whole person, He is not just careful with human souls but is intentional in every interaction with us on a level that is both intimate and holistic. This is the gentleness of Christ which pastors more broadly but especially those working with university students must emulate when encouraging the faith of students.

What Does Theological Formation for School and Life Look Like in a University Context?

Theological formation can take on several different forms, however in the context of the university it is best to focus on three specific spheres where such formation is necessary. Christian Scholarship, Vocation, and Occupation. These three areas of life are essential to the development of mature believers in the university context. Christian Scholarship as a University Student is a difficult task. It is difficult because most of the academic atmospheres are either radically opposed to faith informed scholarship and Christian Scholarship more acutely or they are so overtly concerned with constructing a biblical worldview that the quality of scholarship suffers. It is typically the responsibility of professors to help students develop as professional, whether they be engineers or scholars in the more traditional sense in the humanities. However, when the majority of Christian Professors do not perform Christian Scholarship how are students supposed to be guided toward such an endeavor as doing Christian Scholarship as a student?

This is the largest motivating factor for the educational obligation of the university pastor. When there are few or no professors willing to help develop Christian perspectives in the academic efforts of Christian students or students more broadly as an evangelical method, then it falls to the university pastor to ensure that such education is taking place in discipleship. If these educational goals are pursued, then the problems pointed out by Harry Blamires and Nancy Pearcey will begin to fade away in the coming generations as the church redevelops a truly Christian mind and reclaims a biblical worldview that is not compartmentalized but represents the totality of truth.[21]

One of the spaces where a biblical worldview and Christian mind is so vital is that of vocation, and the principle of vocational calling has often been neglected by the work of pastors with university students, or at least neglected relative to other ministerial concerns. However, purpose and vocation are intimately related and so it may prove effective for the theological formation of a student to have the university pastor providing counsel and resources to discern elements of a vocational calling and purpose for life. Derek Prime and Alistair Begg present calling as an unmistakable God given conviction that a certain task or vocation has been set before a person to pursue with their life.[22] In the context of their work calling is associated with ministry. However, leaning on the reflective works offered in Henderson’s The Deeper Life it becomes possible to generalize this definition to all vocations.[23] Thus, the university pastor bears a responsibility in the answer to is his calling to help students discover and contemplate the reality of God’s calling on their life to a specific vocation or task. Typically, a foundational starting point for this kind of guidance is in the scriptural pursuit of discerning God’s calling on a student’s educational goals, whether it be choice of major or extracurricular pursuits. A vocation is broader than a person’s career and often the occupation is the final piece to be discovered. In the sense of a calling, it is more likely that a student will discern why they will go to work before they will discover where they will go to work.

            The calling to occupation has two senses, seasonal and ultimate, in practice these two senses are typified as a sense of job vs a sense of career. A person may have many jobs over the course of their life but ultimately one career. Helping university students to begin forming a theological compass for thinking about jobs and careers will develop a foundation of thought and analysis that will help them faithfully walk through the many decision points they may face in their occupational lives. One of the current sources of this type of theological formation is in the field addressing the theology of work, where lay ministers and professional theologians address the questions of the working life from an array of theological convictions. While this specific type of formation may not be immediately pressing for the university student it very much will be shortly after graduation or when they begin securing internships and career related positions.

            All of this merely provides a background for understanding the importance of theological formation during the university years of a student’s life. To meet the demand of this importance it is necessary for the university pastor to understand and grapple with the practical realities of theological formation during early adulthood. In chapter 7 of Christian Formation, Gregory Carlson provides several frameworks in which adult development can be viewed.[24] Within these frameworks it is generally recognized that those in the young adult stage are in transition from being developmentally a youth to being a fully fledged adult. This is marked as especially true on average for those aged 17-22 the years that someone is typically within the average age of university attendance. Thus, it is important to at least mention the difficulties that the university pastor may face which are generally trademark characteristics of this age group.

They are generally self-directing, which means that external motivation will largely be unsuccessful and that it will likely lead to greater struggle. In essence it is borderline fruitless to push for theological formation with those who do not have the desire to go through the process. They usually will only ask for guidance when it is necessary, which creates a scenario wherein the university pastor will likely need to be a reality check so that students come to realize that they don’t yet know what is necessary for handling a situation. However, they have life experience, and minimizing those experiences will cause tension and unhealthy frustration. They are oriented toward an experience life base, which creates a demand for the practicality of theological formation. Theology must be practical for it to be deemed necessary in the students’ ways approaching life situations. They are shifting from teaching to realization learning, forcing university pastors to utilize methods of instruction that are more Socratic than pedagogical.[25]

Each of these realities in the pursuit of Christian formation help establish university ministry as the location in which the pastor functions as a transformational catalyst as faith becomes something that is no longer pedagogically taught but experientially realized as the deeper components of theology are explored alongside the young adult. Young adults are not youth, they are at a completely different developmental phase, and it is an increasingly ineffective methodology for the long-term health of the church to treat them as such. In order for the church to properly understand university ministry and university pastorates it must develop a better theology of youth ministry and understand how it’s perception of the relationship between Christian Education and Youth Ministry is positively and negatively impacting the approach to university ministry work.[26] Thus, leading to the final aspect of the distinct obligations of a university pastor, they are responsible for understanding Youth ministry and Christian education as fields to such an extent that they can help their students as they transition from relating to the church as youth who need to be taught to adults who have knowledge and experience that can be realized for the benefit of the church.


Overall, it may be claimed, that university pastors have the unique contextual obligation in their ministry to understand the unique difficulties their students face academically, theologically, and relationally, within the context of their education, vocation, and church. The academic and educational obligations relate to both atmospheric pressures unique to the secular university context, or the intellectually dishonest religious university context. The theological and vocational obligations relate to the lack of resource and teaching to guide students from an aimless life to an understood or developing understanding of vocational calling through the foundation of their faith. Finally, the relational and church obligations relate to the specific pressures that students face as they strive to transition from being youth to being fully recognized believers that can and will serve the church faithfully for years to come.

The church does not recognize the unique features of this specific type of pastoral work, and if the church continues such a failure to the next generation of believers, then the exodus from the church will only continue to get worse. The ability to recognize and acknowledge the unique contexts in which ministry occurs is the church’s best point of evangelism for it enables the effective placement of called ministers to neglected pastoral positions. However, the church cannot reclaim that ability without further examination into fields of ministry that have been largely seen as subsidiaries to youth ministry despite major differences in the developmental status of those being ministered to.


New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, David Atkinson, Arthur Holmes.  

Barry, John D., and Miles Custis. 2 Peter & Jude: Contend for the Faith. Not Your Average Bible Study. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.

Biles, Deron J., Jason G. Duesing, and Paige Patterson. 2017. Pastoral Ministry : The Ministry of a Shepherd. Treasury of Baptist Theology. B & H Academic.

Blamires, Harry. Recovering the Christian Mind: Meeting the Challenge of Secularism. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Pr, 1988.

Blamires, Harry. The Christian Mind : How Should a Christian Think? Regent College Pub., 2005.

Calvin, John, and John Owen. Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

Dockery, David S. Faith and Learning : A Handbook for Christian Higher Education. B & H Academic, 2012.

Gaebelein, Frank Ely. 1954. The Pattern of God’s Truth : Problems of Integration in Christian Education. Oxford University Press.

Hauerwas, Stanley. The State of the University : Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God. Illuminations–Theory and Religion. Blackwell Pub., 2007.

Holmes, Arthur Frank. 1985. The Making of a Christian Mind : A Christian World View & the Academic Enterprise. InterVarsity Press.

Köstenberger, Andreas J. 2011. Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway.

Liddell, H.G. A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996.

Marsden, George M. 1997. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Oxford University Press.

McGrath, Alister E. 2010. The Passionate Intellect : Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind. IVP Books.

Moreland, James Porter. 2012. Love Your God with All Your Mind : The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul. 2nd ed. NavPress.

Pearcey, Nancy. 2004. Total Truth : Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Crossway Books.

Perschbacher, Wesley J., and George V. Wigram. The New Analytical Greek Lexicon. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1990.

Plantinga, Cornelius. 2002. Engaging God’s World : A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. W.B. Eerdmans.

Poe, Harry Lee. 2004. Christianity in the Academy : Teaching at the Intersection of Faith and Learning. Baker Academic. 

Prime, Derek, Derek Prime, and Alistair Begg. 2004. On Being a Pastor : Understanding Our Calling and Work. Moody Publishers.

Spurgeon, Charles. Spurgeon Commentary: 1 Peter. Edited by Elliot Ritzema and Jessi Strong. Spurgeon Commentary Series. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.

Spurgeon, Charles. Spurgeon Commentary: 2 Peter. Edited by Elliot Ritzema and Carrie Sinclair

Wolcott. Spurgeon Commentary Series. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.

Spurgeon, C. H. 1883. Lectures to My Students : A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, London. 

Stephens, Darryl W. 2020. “Trauma-Informed Pedagogy for the Religious and Theological Higher Education Classroom.” Religions 11 (9): 1–14. doi:10.3390/rel11090449.

Strutwolf, Holger, Bruce M. Metzger, Carlo Maria Martini, Iōan. D. Karavidopoulos, Kurt Aland, and Barbara Aland. 2014. The Greek New Testament. Fifth revised edition / prepared by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research, Munster/Westphalia under the direction of Holger Strutwolf. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, American Bible Society, United Bible Societies.

Trimmer, Edward. “The Inseparable and Dependent Relationship of the Academic Disciplines of Christian Education and Youth Ministry.” American Baptist Quarterly 19, no. 1 (March 2000): 56–62.

White, Stephen L. 2005. The College Chaplain : A Practical Guide to Campus Ministry. Pilgrim Press.

Wilder, Michael S., Timothy P. Jones, Jonathan H. Kim, and James Riley Estep. Christian Formation : Integrating Theology & Human Development. B & H Academic, 2010. 

Wilken, Robert Louis. 2003. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought : Seeking the Face of God. Yale University Press.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Clarence W. Joldersma, and Gloria Goris Stronks. 2002. Educating for Life : Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning. Baker Academic.

[1] Using key words such as college, young adult, undergraduate, and university in connection with ministry and pastor yield minimal fruitful research papers that discuss the pastoral function and responsibility of college pastors. Typically search results either focus on university Chaplains, their role in history, or youth pastors. As far as the author is aware, there is a complete categorical gap in the research of various pastoral roles when it comes to the university and collegiate atmosphere.

[2] For the purposes of this paper a university student is limited by the definition that they be enrolled in at least two 3-credit hour courses that are being completed in the pursuit of some academic degree offered by a public or private 4-year institution.

[3] Pastoral obligations will be constructed from the foundation of the work put forth in Pastoral Ministry, a volume edited by Deron Biles in the series A Treasury of Baptist Theology, in combination with various other sources, including a document from the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life at Southern Methodist University which has been provided for the pursuit of comprehensive coverage of the topic.

[4] For an example of this kind of theological framing see the contents of Faith and Learning edited by David Dockery.

[5] 1 Timothy 3:2-8; Titus 1:5-9.

[6] Derek Prime; Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor: Understanding our Calling and Work (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004), 18.

[7] See Psalm 37:4; 1 Timothy 3:1.

[8] The New Analytical Greek Lexicon s.v. ὀρέγω.

[9] 1 Timothy 3:2-8; Titus 1:5-9.

[10] Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (New York: Seabury, 1963), 3.

[11] George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 5-7.

[12] Ezekiel 34:

[13] Derron Biles, Pastoral Ministry (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017), 15-23.

[14] James R. Estep Jr. Michael J. Anthony, and Gregg R. Allison. A Theology for Christian Education (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 47-68.

[15] James R. Estep Jr. Michael J. Anthony, and Gregg R. Allison. A Theology for Christian Education (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 11-13.

[16] 1 Peter 3:15.

[17] Jude 3.

[18] Matthew 11:29 (Greek New Testament)

[19] The New Analytical Greek Lexicon s.v. πραΰς.

[20] Liddell and Scott’s Intermediate Lexicon does not include kind in the examination of the term and given the context in which it occurs kindness would be a different contemporary connotation.

[21] Nancy Pearcey Total Truth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 17-28.

[22] Derek Prime; Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor: Understanding our Calling and Work (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004), 18.

[23] Daniel Henderson, The Deeper Life (Bloomington: Bethany House, 2014), 95-110.

[24] Gregory Carlson, Adult Development and Christian Formation (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 209-236.

[25] Gregory Carlson, Adult Development and Christian Formation (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 212-214

[26] Trimmer, Edward. “The Inseparable and Dependent Relationship of the Academic Disciplines of Christian Education and Youth Ministry.” American Baptist Quarterly 19, no. 1 (March 2000): 56–62.

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