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Thinking about advanced studies? In this age of extension studies, D.Min. programs, and the general openness of graduate schools, many church leaders are considering a return to the academic world for further education and training. Is it right for you?
When I was wrestling with this issue, I realized my reasons for continuing education were as important as my choice of school. Below are some of the questions I asked myself.
Do I have a specific goal in mind? Melanie wanted to learn Spanish fluently in order to minister in a Hispanic community. John acquired a master's degree in counseling beyond his M.Div. so he could open a practice. Albert entered doctoral work in theology so he could teach in a seminary. What do all of these people have in common? They all had a clear idea of why they were studying. They had seen a need and were offering themselves to fill it.
I need a clear sense of vocation to reenter the student life; otherwise I'm wasting precious time and money. Unlike the undergraduate world, the graduate world offers no "generic" studies. Graduate study is focused on specific topics or research, and hence I should have specific reasons for undertaking it.
Do I have the support of family and church? Graduate school requires more than personal effort and sacrifice. It requires the support of my loved ones in terms of love, patience, and cold hard cash. Time and finances will be taxed heavily. The family, congregation, and denomination must be aware of this or they might quickly lose patience with this new student. Supporting a student is not easy. When church and family are willing to help the returning student, the effort can be joyful, but they should be aware continuing education is a costly undertaking.
Is this an escape from the church? A number of clergy go back to graduate school because they want to retain their ministerial status but are unhappy in parish ministry. The icon of the scholar-priest is an attractive one, and many saints have lived that life.
The problem is that the academic world has all of the vices and torments present in parish life. Scholars have their own politics, infighting, and pettiness. The parts of congregational life that I might like to flee are probably waiting in another form on campus.
I must find peace within myself in my ministry before I change it, not after. Otherwise I'll be like the man who "fled from a lion and a bear met him" (Amos 5:19).
Am I fixed in my own ideas? If I am not willing to change my thinking, then why pay people to try to change it for me? Study should not only inform our faith, it should challenge and transform it. There are some subjects about which the unbeliever knows a good deal more than the Christian does. A student must be willing to hear strange ideas from odd sources and wrestle with them in the light of the gospel.
Am I trying to glorify myself? The acquisition of degrees is a source of pride. Additional letters after my name may look smashing on the church bulletin or resume, but they do not bring me one inch closer to Christ. Certainly, anyone who enters graduate study aspires to honor, but there must be other reasons for getting a degree as well. Otherwise I am seeking my own glory and not that of him who sent me.
Degrees are the modern equivalent of the broad phylacteries and fringes of which our Lord spoke-not bad in themselves, but potentially dangerous. Before enrolling in a class, I must ask myself, "Am I doing this for anyone besides myself?" The honest answer is the beginning of my education.
-Gregory P. Elder
Saint Peter's Episcopal Church
Del Mar, California
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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