The Biggest Challenges Faced by Today’s Preachers

Interview with Derek Davenport, Preacher and Director of Enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Derek Davenport, Preacher and Director of Enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Deciding on the right career path and figuring out what to study can be a difficult decision that requires paying attention to your heart. At first, Derek Davenport was certain he didn’t want to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by becoming a pastor. But when he attended the Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a program he now co-directs, he began to realize that he might be cut out of the right cloth for ministry—and that finding your life’s work is not always easy or obvious.  

Davenport earned his Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Psychology at Grove City College, intending to pursue a career in Christian counseling. He changed his mind and earned a Master of Divinity degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, eventually serving as Associate Pastor at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida. Today, he is Director of Enrollment and Co-Director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, helping current and future pastors to navigate the challenges and changes of contemporary Christian ministry.

Davenport values his Christian education and encourages students to find a college or university where they can feel at home but where they can also evaluate and expand upon their beliefs. Whether students wish to pursue a career in the ministry or serve their faith in another way, being part of a Christian community can help them grow and pursue their purpose—even if it takes a little time to discover what that purpose is!

Dive into our full interview with Derek Davenport to learn more about the issues faced by pastors today, as well as how a faith-based education helped him find his place in the rapidly-changing Christian landscape.

Talk about your background, education, and career trajectory. What led you to become a preacher? 

I had initially planned to become a Christian counselor, which is why I majored in Psychology. I attended Pittsburgh Seminary because of the MDiv/MSW joint degree option with the University of Pittsburgh. Over the course of my time in college and seminary, I worked with several wonderful churches and eventually came to the realization that I loved ministry.

When did you feel the calling to become a preacher? What helped lead you to that path in life?

My father is a preacher. So was my grandfather. I remember people telling me as a child that I would follow in their footsteps and become a preacher. Naturally, this led me to decide that I wanted to be anything but a preacher.

As a teenager, I attended the Summer Youth Institute, which I now direct. That was the first place I got the feeling that I might be able to be a preacher because of who I was, not because of my family. It took five more years of sinking in, but eventually I realized that I did want to become a pastor, because of my own gifts and interests.

What sort of challenges did you encounter early in your career?

One of the biggest challenges for any new pastor is simply moving from the academy to the church. The transition from can be a bit overwhelming. I served as an associate pastor, and luckily had a very helpful head pastor who helped me make the transition. 

Ministry is also a strangely lonely career choice. People sometimes act differently when a pastor is around. My wife is also a pastor, so when we walk in a room, people sometimes act twice as strange. It takes a while to adjust to that, and it is very helpful to have friends and colleagues who are also in the ministry. I had several friends in ministry who were in other areas of the country, and that group proved to be really valuable.

How has that experience shaped your current and future aspirations?

During seminary and my time serving a congregation, I found that I enjoyed preaching. In both settings I had great mentors, in addition to having the benefit of growing up with preachers. In my current position I get to preach at churches and colleges around the country, and have come to enjoy every aspect of preaching, from crafting sermons to delivering them.

What sort of personal and professional challenges do you face as a modern preacher and a teacher of the word of God?

One of the major challenges that I face and that all preachers face is that there are new possibilities that previous generations could hardly have imagined. With very little investment, any preacher can record and distribute sermons through audio sharing sites or social media, which can create audiences that span both space and time. A sermon preached in a church in Pennsylvania can reach listeners in the sanctuary at that moment and also listeners living in Asia twenty years from now.

As a whole, the Church hasn’t figured out how to take advantage of these possibilities yet. The challenge for preachers is to find ways to make use of the tremendous potential available to us.

Please elaborate on your experience as a Director of Enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. What is it like working with young seminary students? What challenges do you see them facing, educational and personal?

I love working with current and future pastors. One of the most exciting parts of my job is getting to hear people’s stories of how they were called into ministry, and what their visions are for ministry in the future. One of the biggest challenges new pastors face today is the changing nature of the church and ministry. Many new pastors have exciting and innovative ideas for doing ministry, and they have to be somewhat entrepreneurial to make those ideas happen.

What misconceptions do you think people have about being a Christian in today’s world?

One major misconception we have is that ministry is only for pastors and preachers. A more healthy view is to understand everyone is called to enact their faith. People are called to serve God and their neighbors in retail, accounting, medicine, law, marketing, art, finance, and a thousand other fields. Ministry is not limited to preachers.

Are there any modern issues or news events that you struggle to reconcile with your faith and incorporate into your preaching, teaching, and student interactions?

One of the biggest current issues that is difficult to articulate is the changing nature of the Church. Churches today don’t look like they used to, and they will change even more in the coming years. While transition can be difficult for people, it can be even harder for institutions. Congregations that have been in existence for hundreds of years can be very resistant to change. Some do it quite well; others do not.

In your opinion, do you think Christians should consider pursuing a Christian-focused education? If so, why?

This depends on the person. There are benefits to both sides. Attending a Christian school with an emphasis on faith offers students the opportunity to explore their own tradition with a depth that they won’t find elsewhere. On the other hand, the breadth of experience and richness of diversity one can find in other settings can be equally beneficial. Personally, I attended a small Presbyterian college, and really enjoyed it.  I have good friends who attended large state schools and did equally well. It’s important to think about who you are and what kind of setting appeals to you.

What education choices can a person make that may help with their faith and spirituality?

I often advise students who are starting college or graduate school to connect with some sort of faith community during their studies. Most schools have active groups on campus, but there is also something nice about connecting with a church off-campus where you can interact with people in different stages of life. During college, you can go a long time without seeing anyone under the age of 18. There’s something very healthy about being part of a faith community that can support and challenge you, but also that can connect you with people in a different stage of life.

What advice do you have for students pursuing Christian education? 

In terms of pursuing Christian education in particular, it’s important to find a school that is the right mix of comfort and challenge. If you are only exposed to what you already believe, it can be very hard to find room to grow. On the other hand, if you feel like you’re defending yourself all the time, you’ll have a hard time letting your guard down so that you can think critically. It’s best to have both some challenge and some safety.

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