When I felt called to pursue a Ph.D., my first thought was, “Yes! What a wonderful opportunity!”
But as time passed, my thoughts often became, “Woe is me, for I am undone!” I have to admit that on my worst days, my pursuit of a Ph.D. was nothing less than a thinly veiled effort to escape some of the frustrations of pastoring a local church.
My study, at times, offered for me the mirage of the perceived stability and sanctuary of the university: the four solidly safe walls of the ivory tower. On my better days, with more Spirit-induced clarity, I understood my call as a bridge between the university and the local church—a bridge that is perhaps more necessary today than it has ever been. On those days of clarity I could understand how, as a pastor with 20 years of experience in the local church, if I were in possession of a Ph.D., I could offer a unique perspective: the ability to speak both the language of the local church and the language of the academy. Most days, though, I found myself somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. With this as both backdrop and context, I will attempt to speak a bit more to the reason why I pursued a Ph.D. in the first place and how it has been beneficial to me in both the church and the academy.
Part of My Calling
My call seemed to come to me in stages. First came my call to pastoral ministry. It wasn’t until much later that I felt greater clarity about God’s desire for me concerning doctoral work. I didn’t run from my call to pastor—that call was almost a relief to me when I finally fully surrendered my life to Christ at age 19. But I ran from the Ph.D. for almost a decade. Pastoral ministry just seemed like a natural fit for me—like something I was born to do. Obtaining a terminal degree, after less-than-stellar academic success in college and seminary seemed out of the question. However, God continued to work on me, and eventually I realized that this call was also inescapable.
It was a leap of faith for me to believe that God could lead me through a Ph.D. program. However, I knew that throughout Scripture God calls people to do impossible things while giving them everything they need along the way to accomplish the task.
Early in my ministry, I was deeply affected by an unhealthy focus on numbers: How big was my church, and how could I make it bigger? The more time I spent focusing on this goal, the more disenchanted I became with pastoring. It reached a boiling point for me where I truly lost my focus on who I was and what God wished for the church to be. I cried out to God to release me from my call. That’s when God led me to mentors like Eugene Peterson, John Wesley, and others who reawakened my desire to study and dig deeper. This enabled me to reestablish my call on a more solid foundation.
I also realized that with a growing array of issues that ministers face, pastors need to be more prepared than ever to be biblically and theologically sound and to be wise prophets in an age of turmoil and confusion.
Increased Thirst for Knowledge
As I began to read and converse with pastoral leaders who shared my growing passion for education, I began to feel a stronger urge to expand my horizons of knowledge. The more I read, the more questions I had, and the desire to search for the answers increased.
My reading began to focus on John Wesley’s theology and practice of worship. Having grown up in a traditional, revivalist Nazarene congregation, my first class on worship in my undergraduate studies at Southern Nazarene University completely blew my mind. This first class, and my subsequent reading, led me to realize that there was so much more to the history of worship than what I had experienced. It left me wanting more.
Applying the Skills
God led me to see that I needed to learn how to research an idea thoroughly and write about it comprehensively. I needed to acquire the skills of the academy—the ability to pursue a thought at a deeper level—to examine a problem and present a solution in a well thought-out way. I needed the discipline to see a difficult project all the way through to its logical conclusion. I needed the accountability and wisdom of gifted scholars and mentors. I needed to learn that writing, like preaching, is done in community and could be part of my ministry in the church. I needed a challenge that was bigger than me. Ph.D. studies felt like something that was absolutely beyond my ability to do on my own.
Should every pastor get a Ph.D.? Definitely not! But all pastors should seek to understand themselves—their gifts and calling—as thoroughly as possible. Every pastor should strive for more than the pursuit of external indicators of “success.” All pastors should recognize the complexities of our cultural context and seek to be the best theologians-in-residence they can be. All pastors should seek to know as much, learn as much, and think as well as they are able. And every pastor should pursue excellence, so that, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).