Interview with a Pastor-as-Scholar: Justin Tollison, Ph.D

Justin Tollison, pastor/church planter of Disciple Tree Church in north Fort Worth, has three girls (10, 8, 6) and is married to Valeta Tollison.

Justin finished his Ph.D. in Christian Heritage at B. H. Carroll Theological Institute and now servers as Resident Fellow and Director of Recruiting. Dr. Tollison has served in five Texas churches through various roles—education minister, youth pastor, family minister, and pastor.

He graduated summa cum laude from Hardin-Simmons University. He attended seminary at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. One of his greatest joys in life is shepherding people and investing in the kingdom. In his spare time, which he rarely has, he enjoys being outdoors and reading. If I can he do them at the same time that is even better.

Q: Where do you serve as a pastor, and were you in this position as you worked on your doctoral degree? Describe some of the struggles you encountered as you went through the disciple of a doctoral degree.

A: I serve as pastor/church planter at Disciple Tree Church in Blue Mound, TX. We planted this church the summer that I took my comprehensive exam and began working on my prospectus. Prior to planting Disciple Tree, I was working as a full-time Family Pastor at Journey Church in Fort Worth while working on my Ph.D.

Planting a church, and being a full-time pastor in general, while working on a doctoral degree was not an easy process. One of my biggest struggles was time management. Trying to accomplish all that needed to be done at church and not allowing the academic side of my life to suffer was a difficult balance. Another struggle I had was trying to keep the two sides separate. I had to intentionally shift gears in each area. When I wrote and prepared sermons for church, I had to make sure that I catered that towards the laity. The opposite was true as well. Sometimes I struggled being too colloquial in my academic writings. The stress of a doctoral program also put some strains on my family and on my church work. Through it all, I had to learn to keep a balance in all areas of my life.

Q: In what ways has your doctoral studies benefitted your ministry as pastor of your church?

A: My doctoral studies have allowed me to examine situations and biblical texts in a whole new way. The program helped train me to think critically about all matters that I encounter. When I preach, I try to have an outline that flows logically, is based on the text and not my opinions, and has a tight argumentation for my points. My training has also helped me deal with strife in a new, healthier way. I can look at situations and determine the logic and fallacies each person is holding, and this allows me to intervene in a much healthier manner.

Q: What value does your church place on you as a pastor/scholar?

A: I must preface this answer by saying we are a small, new church- we are only three years old. I think our small size impacts my perception of their thoughts regarding this question. With that in mind, I am not convinced my church fully grasps the benefits of my education. They were supportive of my pursuit of a doctoral degree by way of prayers and checking on me. I also believe our congregation appreciates the in-depth sermons, but I do not think it goes much further than that, at least not consciously. I, however, see how important it is, so I pursued my doctoral degree. I wanted to be a help to my congregation in ways they may never recognize.

Q: Do you believe pastor/scholar is a value that should be reestablished in local church pastoral ministry? Why or why not?

A: Absolutely! We all receive an education somewhere, either formally or informally. If we pursue education outside of a formal setting, the stresses and worries of our churches will almost always take priority over our education. Also, a personal, informal education can only consist of conferences, which are sporadic, and books that we choose to read. This is a limited education that will typically only follow our presuppositions. A formal education forces us to receive a well-rounded education. Even more than that though, a formal education, particularly a doctoral degree, forces us to think differently. When we are forced to think critically about resources, argumentation, etc., we become better pastors.

Q: While not everyone will pursue a terminal degree as part of their pastoral training, what are one or two reasons why you believe pastors should have some kind of seminary training as they serve the local church?

A: Seminary gives a broad understanding of matters concerning Christianity. While they were not my favorite classes, my philosophy and ethics classes gave me insight into the culture of today. This is something I would have missed if I were attempting an informal education. While I see the exposure a big reason to go to seminary, I believe the primary reason is to be trained to think critically. Reading a book can never push you to question the accuracy of a source or to examine the logical argumentation of your sermons. A formal, seminary training should be a big part of our pastoral training because it makes us a better equipped pastor.

Q: Anything else you would like to add related to this topic?

A: From my experience, I would say the sacrifices of a seminary degree are worth it in the end. Several tines during my doctoral degree I wanted to quit. It was expensive, time consuming, and hard. When I had those thoughts, I would take a step back and remind myself this education was not just for me. It was for the ones God has placed under my care as well. I would not trade my education for the world.

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