A few weeks into my first semester of seminary, I should have been listening to the class lecture and discussion. But my mind wandered as a I sketched down notes for possible dissertation topics. I could hardly stop myself, because my first classes, with all of the reading, lectures, and discussions were sparking an immediate and unabating desire to dive into the deep things of God. A decade later, after receiving my Master of Divinity degree, saying wedding vows to the girl of my dreams, taking the pastorate of an urban local church, starting and stopping a Doctor of Ministry degree, and welcoming two kids into the world (with another soon on the way), I finally started my first seminar in a PhD program.
I chose a modular program, which allowed me to continue in my primary calling as a husband, father, and pastor in South Florida, while traveling 3-5 weeks a year for intensive seminars. Now, another half-decade later, I have two more diplomas to hang on my study wall and an additional honorific in front of my name. I am now, technically, “Rev. Dr.” The order matters, because the “Reverend” of a pastor is more prestigious than the “Doctor” of an academic or professional degree. Herein we learn a lesson—a pastor should not be more respected because of a doctorate.
A pastor’s credibility sits upon the shoulders of their ordination, as the people of God affirm that the pastor has been called by the Spirit of God to the ministry of the Word of God. While I value education (I now have two Master’s degrees and a PhD), I don’t believe a pastor necessarily needs a PhD, or an MDiv, or even a BA to minister effectively. A pastor needs to love God and his Word, with a longing to shepherd and theologically shape God’s people. For example, my brother-in-law leads a church in California near my hometown. He doesn’t have a degree, but he has been wonderfully fruitful in ministry, because he is a student of Scripture and a tremendous preacher, leader, and pastor.
All of that prefaces and caveats my argument that as evangelical PhD programs proliferate, we should celebrate and encourage pastors to get as much education as they can, PhDs included. Here I want to unpack this point by addressing not merely the what (the earned doctorate and “Dr.” honorific), but also the who, how, and why.
What is a PhD Designed to Do?
A PhD is designed to train scholars to contribute to academic discussions. Traditionally, this pointed a small number toward a trajectory of academic professorates. But this is changing. PhD programs are becoming easier to get into (we can admit that), and the number of PhD graduates vastly outnumbers the available higher academic teaching positions, especially in evangelical life. By default (and, I believe, in God’s good design) the vast majority of evangelical leaders who earn a PhD will deploy their training in the local church (or another ministry), but never as a full-time professor. Here I believe God may be salting his church with formally trained theologians to shape his church for the frontline of mission in this generation.
Who Should Get a PhD?
Qualified pastors who have the personal, financial, intellectual, ministerial and academic bandwidth to pursue a PhD should feel free to do so. And as they do, if their experience mirrors mine, they will connect to a life-giving network of new friends, mentors, and colleagues. In important ways, my PhD program kept me in ministry during a very lean and difficult season. In the week-long on-campus intensive section of each seminar, I found community and collegiality with godly, smart friends and mentors who refueled my heart for the ministry back home.
How Does a PhD Shape Those Who Pursue It?
Personally, the PhD allowed to me to stretch intellectual muscles I don’t always use in the pastorate in the same way, and it shaped me to be a better, more thoughtful pastor, preacher, and church planting missionary. I went into the program knowing the chances of a full-time teaching job were slim, aware that I was most likely going to use my degree in the local church and teaching as an adjunct professor (something I started doing a decade before earning my PhD). Nevertheless, doing a PhD taught me habits of reading, writing, thinking, and, yes, even praying that will shape me for the rest of my life. This formation will, in turn, theologically shape the people I pastor for decades.
Why Should a Pastor Do (or Not Do) a PhD?
To put it spiritually (or dare I say “mystically”), I pursued and earned a PhD because I could not escape a longing to dive into the deep things of God, to sit and soak in a single subject, studying it in depth for months and years strung together. I started a Doctor of Ministry degree a couple of years after seminary, but my wife (who both knows me and is smarter than me) knew I would not be content. We met in my first year of seminary, and I had talked about doing a PhD from our earliest conversations. A Doctor of Ministry degree focuses on ministry practices, while the PhD focuses on academic research. She pushed back against me doing what she knew I would not ultimately be content to do. She was right. To say this another way, I felt inescapably “called” to get a PhD, and this sense was confirmed in a variety of ways, through the people of God and the providence of God. To say this yet another way, one which sounds less spiritual but is true nonetheless: I pursued a PhD because I really wanted to.
My PhD cost me a lot. We sold our house, we moved in with family, and five years later we just recently became homeowners again. I spent hours and days and weeks away from my wife and kids, time which I did not have to spend but chose to. My wife (and kids so far as they could understand) supported me completely, even when it was expensive and difficult. Personally, I would spend every hour and penny to do my PhD program again. I can’t calculate the ways the PhD journey shaped me, the connections and doors it helped to open, or the joy it sparked as I sought after God and his Word in a community of colleagues. I can’t calculate the benefit of my kids learning by example that education matters, and my kids learning that they should do hard things that cost them something, because they saw their dad do that. Without a doubt, I am a better pastor, a better missionary, and a better Christian because of my PhD program.
I know a common place of academic wisdom says that you shouldn’t do a PhD unless you get a stipend, that you shouldn’t give your money to a school churning out more degrees than Fahrenheit. Some argue that the multiplication of more easily earned PhDs from evangelical institutions dilutes the value of the degree. I understand these arguments. Even now, certain programs certainly provide more rigor and prestige than others, and a pastor who might pursue a PhD should consider carefully which program may provide them with the best formation for life, learning, and leading.
With all of that said, I believe the benefits of a doctorally educated evangelical pastorate outweighs the drawbacks. While not all pastors or even most pastors need a PhD, the PhD journey forms habits of reading, writing, thinking, and praying that will benefit both the pastor and the congregation for a lifetime, whether or not the degree is deployed in a traditionally academic way. The PhD journey opens up new networks of friends, mentors, and colleagues, both “professionally” and personally. The PhD journey humbles the pastor to learn again and more deeply how to learn and in turn how to teach and disciple the church more faithfully. Most importantly, the PhD journey, done correctly, draws the student into the depths of God, both in his eternal, ineffable triune life and in his wonderful works in the world.
In summary and on balance, I believe the increased availability and pursuit of a PhD for pastors in the evangelical world is worth celebrating, and (granting the unique circumstances of every individual and congregation) we should encourage those inclined to pursue additional formal education to do just that, up to and including a PhD.