Pastors with Doctorates?

Blessings: A Reprise

It has now been a few years since I completed my PhD in New Testament. While I have since moved on to other projects, I look back with much gratitude on the work I was able to do.

I spent about five years in my second (and third) congregation working on a PhD from St. Mary’s University, in London, England. My thesis was on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31. It explores this fascinating parable from several angles, including its Old Testament and Graeco-Roman backgrounds, and its meaning and function within the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. Having devoted heaps of time and energy to just thirteen verses of Scripture and having written some 300 pages about one parable, I stand amazed at how rich is God’s Word and how powerful its message. It was a privilege and joy to do this work.

There are many blessings that can come from a minister pursuing doctoral studies. When a pastor sets out to complete a PhD (or ThD), there’s a host of benefits not only for him personally, but for Christ’s church more broadly.

For instance, when a minister has acquired a doctoral degree, the churches stand to benefit from his theological expertise through teaching and writing. For a minister, there is the personal enrichment that comes through deeply studying in an area of theology, developing critical-thinking skills, and honing the ability to research and write well.

At the same time, working on my PhD presented some genuine challenges. I share these so that a minister who wants to embark on this rewarding journey is well aware of some of the difficulties and demands.

Availability of Time

Probably the biggest challenge in undertaking doctoral studies while serving in the ministry is finding the time to do the work. The various tasks of ministry involve many hours each week—there is always more to do! Meanwhile, taking courses or writing a thesis aren’t things that you can do to “fill in the gaps” of your weekly schedule, but they require substantial blocks of time. Particularly when writing a thesis chapter, one needs to have—at a bare minimum—a few days of uninterrupted work. Any minister will attest that such days are rare indeed. Aspiring to read dozens of weighty books for an exam or to write a 20,000 word chapter in academic prose can seem like an impossibility: there’s just not enough hours in the week.

So how can it be done? First, a minister will need to maximise his time in those weeks when the workload is lighter due to pulpit exchanges, school holidays, and the like. A supportive church might consider granting their minister study leave, whether a few weeks or a few months. Much valuable work can be done if you have several weeks reserved for the task. In general, the challenge of the unavailability of time requires a minister to develop his capacity for “deep work”—to make the most of those quiet hours in the study by turning off the phone, not checking email, and reducing other distractions, so that he can focus on producing creative and cogent material.

Enormity of the Task

Writing a thesis can seem like a nice idea until you realise how much work it’s going to require. Before you can even begin to write, you need to have brushed up on your languages (depending on the area of study, you might need facility in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Dutch, German, French, etc.), to have read immense amounts of secondary literature, and to have developed a detailed plan for your thesis.

Writing 100,000 words (or more) in properly footnoted academic prose is a laborious process—far, far slower than the average rate of sermon-writing. So there are moments in any doctoral student’s work when he despairs, “There’s no way that I’m ever going to finish this. Here I have only 27 pages of mediocre material and I’ve already been working on it for 1.5 years!” The enormity of the task can make anyone think twice about beginning—or continuing.

There is no easy way around this, but to keep going. My doctoral supervisor encouraged me to think of writing a thesis as something like eating an elephant! With a first glance at its massive bulk, it seems impossible to finish off this huge pachyderm sitting on your dinner plate.

But if you pick up your fork and knife and you just start cutting Dumbo into bite-sized pieces, and you keep cutting (and chewing), cutting (and chewing), you slowly make progress until finally… you’re done. Doing a doctoral program is like that: reading one book at time, writing one good paragraph at time, even just one detailed footnote at a time—bit by bit, until it’s done. Pray for God’s blessing, put your head down, and keep going.

Necessity of Funds

Education always comes at a cost, and doctoral studies are no different. The fees vary widely from school to school, with some PhD programs costing tens of thousands of dollars per year. In general, I think that ministers are well-supported financially, but the expense of further studies can certainly pose a challenge. If your kids need braces, or you still have student debt from years past, the necessity of substantial funds for studying further can be another obstruction on the way.

Thankfully, some universities offer good scholarships to graduate and especially post-graduate students. Sometimes a minister’s family is in a position to support his endeavour to keep studying. And churches too, have shown a willingness to contribute to the cost of studying.

Disconnection from Reality

Another problem with pursuing doctoral studies is that it can disconnect you from reality. A student can become so immersed in the minutiae of his area of study—whether it’s the precise translation of a French phrase in the original Belgic Confession, or it’s the rhetorical qualities of a parable in Plato—that he can start to have difficulty connecting to real people and the daily struggle of living by faith. Indeed, intense and prolonged focus on one subject can skew anyone’s sense of reality! If you’re a minister working on a doctoral thesis, you need to be ready for the challenge of “switching gears” so that you’re still effective in teaching Catechism to the youth or in being an engaged listener while on a pastoral visit.

Maintaining Motivation

The final challenge is largely a corollary of the previous ones: the difficulty of maintaining motivation. Because the demands on time, energy, and focus are pronounced, and because the task is enormous, it can be a struggle to keep up one’s enthusiasm and interest. As the project enters the third year, a student can question if it’s really worth it. As one gets lost in a never-ending maze of footnotes and obscure references, one can wonder if it’s a responsible use of time. Is this effort actually going to contribute to the health and vitality of Christ’s church?

I remember a professor at a conference once observing that PhD students don’t just learn a lot about their topic over the three to six years of studying, they also learn a lot about themselves. And it’s true. Doctoral studies challenge you at many levels, not just intellectually but spiritually. In short, one must consider the question of motivation: what am I really doing this for? Do I want to glorify God and serve the church through this? And if one’s motivation is poorly grounded—for instance, based on proud hopes for prestige, position, and so on—then it may become difficult indeed to keep going. But by God’s grace, and for his glory, a well-motivated student will persevere.

Do Hard Things

There’s no question, doing doctoral studies will present a minister with some real challenges. But that’s OK. We know that the best things in life so often come with a struggle, and that we cherish those things over which we have wrestled long in prayer, for which we have laboured hard and made significant sacrifices.

Such is the challenge of pursuing further studies, for it’s not only a privilege, and a burden, it’s also a rich blessing.

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