Ph.D.s in the pulpit: Should (Future) Pastors Pursue Doctorates?
Commonly, seminary students nearing graduation consider whether or not they should pursue advanced research degrees, usually in the form of a doctor of philosophy degree (Ph.D.). Several questions immediately surface, such as “How much money would a Ph.D. cost?” “Do I have the academic ability and energy for more schooling?” and “What might another degree achieve that a master’s degree cannot?” For some, the pros of advanced study seem to balance with its cons. In order to help “Towers” readers think through this issue, three members of Southern Seminary’s faculty answer two broad questions about pastors and the pursuit of Ph.D. degrees.
The three participants are Owen Strachan, Stephen J. Wellum and Jonathan T. Pennington. Strachan, assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at the seminary’s Boyce College, is the co-editor of The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry, a book that explores the roles of scholarship in pastoral ministry and of shepherding in scholarship through the ministries of scholar D.A. Carson and pastor John Piper. Wellum is professor of Christian theology and editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. His originally commented in a 2011 interview with “Towers” about the same questions. Pennington is associate professor of New Testament interpretation and director of research doctoral programs.
ONE: Should local church pastors pursue doctoral work?
Strachan: Here is our starting point: there is no requirement biblically for pastors to have a Ph.D. A pastor should feel no pressure to do a Ph.D. — there is no need in the sense of being faithful to Christ and to the Word.
Now, is it beneficial for a pastor to do a Ph.D.? Provided that he does it in the right spirit — not to get a credential or to waste time in a classroom — in order to help him- self be a faithful minister of Christ and so he can think deeply and richly about God, his Word and his works in the world, then it’s a wonderful thing.
If a pastor gets a Ph.D. to look smart and have degrees, then that’s not a good thing — and I understand why people correct those who have this kind of disposition.
A key in this discussion is in Matthew 22, where Jesus gives his greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Our context is familiar with the divide between the heart and the mind. And in that divide, when it’s articulated, the heart always wins. The mind is that bad guy; the heart is the good guy. The problem with this sentiment is that the way we serve Christ is directly shaped by what we know about Christ.
We’ve got to remember that Jesus calls us to love the Lord with our minds. That doesn’t mean that everyone should get a Ph.D. But we do want to see people valuing the life of the mind as a matter of loving God — which is the most important thing we do in the world. So, a pastor who is a Ph.D. student can see himself as fulfilling Jesus’ command.
Wellum: Pastors don’t need Ph.D.s. I think the degree should be reserved for those who are going to do further studies. If the students are using it for the purpose of actually wanting to minister more effectively in a certain city context where there’s a lot of academic people and universities, I think it does have its place and value. As long as students realize that they’re getting it for concentrated work to help the church, not just simply getting it for the sake of getting a degree. Things have shifted culturally. The reason many get Ph.D.s is that there’s been massive academic degree deflation. I think the level of education is not what it used to be. Students want more than what they’re getting at the M.Div. and so then they turn it into a Ph.D.
The Ph.D. degree can serve its purpose and we have excellent role models today of pastor-theologians who are now effectively leading our churches.
Pennington: On the one hand, I believe it is a great and wonderful calling to get to study Holy Scripture and theology and church history and subjects like that at this deep level and in a concentrated level. We need scholars and highly trained church leaders in every generation. I believe at Southern Seminary we offer a great Ph.D. program.
TWO: What criteria would you advise for students contemplating Ph.D. work?
Wellum: I would have students make sure they have the right motivation and resources to pursue the Ph.D. I don’t think prolonging education and going into debt is wise. Once the tools are there from master of divinity- type work, they now should be developing those tools. One needs to make sure he has the resources and time and can get through the degree program in a fairly expeditious manner (not dragging it out), and also that he has the gifts and abilities to do so, and then it certainly is an option. Beyond that, once the tools are learned, getting out and helping the church is also crucial.
Strachan: We need to be clear about ambi- tion. There are two kinds of ambition in Scripture: what James 3 calls “selfish ambition,” and then a concept from a variety of texts that we could call “gospel ambition.” Paul claims in his letters that his one ambition, his one goal is to preach Christ, and so he works and labors toward that end. So, first, someone considering a Ph.D. needs to ask, “Am I doing this out of selfish ambition or out of gospel ambition?”
We’re almost never 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong in our motivations; we’re a mix. Knowing that is helpful. So if a pastor sees in himself that he wants to do a Ph.D. in order to understand the Bible better, in order to preach better, in order to counsel better, I think it’s a good thing for him to pursue a Ph.D.
If, on the other hand, he looks at his projected course of study and sees that a doctorate would be good, but that it will be a ton of work, and maybe he’s not that academically interested, and he perceives that the program might ground his family down to a nub, then it’s not a good thing for him to do. Pursuing a Ph.D. is a very personal decision that requires a lot of prayer, a good deal of counsel and assessment of how you’ve done in your schooling. Perhaps most importantly, you need to assess how much you like school. There are plenty of people who could do a Ph.D. easily, but who won’t and shouldn’t because they just wouldn’t be interested. A Ph.D. is not just a pursuit that calls forth your intellect; it also requires discipline — maybe even more discipline than intellect. A very helpful question to ask is, “Do I want to pursue this long project?”
Pennington: I do not believe a Ph.D. is for everyone. A Ph.D. should not be pursued simply because one loves seminary and wants to learn more. This is what a good master of theology (Th.M.) program is for. Rather, a Ph.D. is a particular calling for those whom God is leading for the highest level of training in their chosen field. Not everyone pursuing a Ph.D. needs to become a professor (there is a great need in the church and on the mission field), but it is a specialized calling for which one must count the cost of years and money invested.
Note: A particularly helpful voice in this discussion is pastor John Piper. His answer to the question, “Should pastors get Ph.D.s?” is available at the Desiring God website: www.desiringgod.org/resource- library. Piper says:
“If you’re already a pastor, I wouldn’t get aPh.D….If a Ph.D.program is set up—and there are some — to really let you work on the Bible for three or four years, and the understanding of the Bible in its larger implications for life and reality, then, on your way to your pastorate, that could be gold.”