"What good is a PhD in the pastorate?" is a question I received multiple times while working on my PhD in Theology.
The question came from well-intentioned church members and also fellow staff members. To be fair, this is a legitimate question, at least as far as I see it, and one I was happy to answer. From many of my colleagues' experiences, they also received this question, though not directly about the ministry, as they worked their respective PhDs. Being curious about a PhD's practicality is certainly understandable; the degree requires tremendous study and rigorous examinations in fields that are not often covered by most higher education institutions.
Most churches, particularly within the free church traditions in North America, are content for their pastor to hold a Master’s of Divinity. For some churches, the Doctor of Ministry provides a practical doctorate which is more applicable for their context. When it comes to the PhD, there is a little more consternation. PhDs are considered a research-focused degree with little application in real-world contexts. It is thought that PhDs provide little practical outcomes in real life and too often those with them have their heads in the clouds and little concern for real life outside an ivory tower.
However, if we consider the PhD for its possibilities, we might see it as a degree with wide application for the local church setting. To do so, we can begin by seeing the pastoral application of a PhD beyond the traditional Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, and a few other specified tracks of study. This isn't to say that PhDs in these fields aren't useful for local churches; they most certainly can be wonderful pastors. Yet, if we expand our view of the PhD to other fields, we find compelling possibilities.
- The benefit a PhD in social work could have in helping develop and extend a church's ministry to homeless and marginalized communities.
- How a PhD in music could bring up the caliber of musicianship for a church's worship ministries.
- The impact a PhD in counseling could have in growing a local church-based counseling ministry.
- What someone with a PhD in international church planting could do to help an urban-based church intentionally and strategically start new churches to expand God's Kingdom.
- The depth which could be developed in a church's discipleship plan led by a PhD in education or discipleship.
- A PhD in preaching, or rhetoric, who could develop sonorous sermons that engage the heart, inform the head, and motivate the hands of a local congregation.
PhDs have their application in so many places for ministry in a local church because within the local church, we have the ideal place for incubating ministries that change the world.
In local churches, we find spaces for terminally degreed ministers to work out their discipline of study and research while also doing needed ministry among the people of God. Of course, the local church isn't the same vocational space as the hallowed halls of a college, university, or seminary. The hospital corridors, hospice rooms, fellowship halls, and Sunday School classrooms are a bit different environs, but these are also places in which the people of God need a pastor who can answer their difficult questions even if it is sometimes done best just by being present.
For someone who wants to find a practical way to work out their research, a local church provides a fantastic context to grow and thrive. There is margin to engage in deeper research in the topics and issues which drew you to your PhD in the first place. Friends and colleagues who are blessed to teach full time in a higher education system have told me that the amount of time they spend in meetings, seminars, continuing education, and teaching leaves them about the same amount of time for research as a pastor with a local church full of ministry.
In my role in a local church, there has been space to work on academic conference presentations, peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as working in an adjunct role. The great saints I am blessed to minister among have encouraged my research in these ways. While this may not be ensconced in the academic environs of a finely landscaped college campus, it has been among the people of God who are full of hope and blessing. Being able to take the tools and skills developed during my education and apply them to delivering Bible studies, devotionals, and sermons has also given me opportunities to see wider application for my PhD work outside the academy.
Just like the blessing many professors receive when their students finally “get it,” as a pastor, it is an amazing moment to see someone who was far from Christ only a little bit ago discover their true calling in Christ.
All this to say, the local church is surely a good place for those with PhDs to work out their calling in a legitimate way. I submit that the possibilities of a pastor with a PhD are even greater when appropriately applied within a local church than even in higher education. The local church is a wonderful place to use your PhD to the glory of God and to equip his saints for a lifetime of ministry.