What Would It Look Like if More Pastors Had PhDs

There are two messages that graduate students in seminary hear quite often:

1. If you like academics the pastorate probably isn’t the place for you, for sale you should go into academia instead.
2. Don’t go on for a PhD because after you spend all the time and money on it, medical there probably won’t be a job for you at the end (particularly if you are a NT major).

The first one is the one I have heard the most, viagra particularly when I was working as a pastor. Pastors are to be compassionate and caring and academics just get in the way of that. The average person in the congregation won’t care about theology or textual criticism or exegesis; they only want someone who will walk beside them. And so, those who feel called to a deeper and more academic walk go into graduate school only to be told to not waste their time because it won’t pay off in the end. What’s a brainy Christian to do?

John Stackhouse recently wrote an article in Faith Today exploring this idea. He writes that it is a shame that our churches are dumbing down the requirements to be a pastor, and as a result seminaries are too. Why is it that we are okay with pastors and leaders who have the bare minimum of theological training, when in other disciplines we demand that the professionals have the highest form of education available (e.g., doctors)? He writes:

Happily, however, pastoring apparently isn’t like that. No, pastoral challenges in Canada today have greatly diminished. You’ve noticed that, haven’t you? Canada is becoming a more and more ethnically uniform country, so pastors need no longer know how to understand different cultures – say, those of India or China. Canadians are attending post-secondary education less and less, so we don’t need a similarly educated person to help us co-ordinate the gospel with our lives. Just give us a charismatic speaker with great storytelling ability and a big heart. Biomedical issues, political challenges, cultural currents, financial questions, technological innovations – everything is much, much simpler to understand today,so our pastors can be simpler people too. Yes, let’s expect less of our clergy and theological schools. Let’s demand, in fact, that seminaries reduce degree requirements, lower standards for their professors, drop their tuition charges accordingly and give our next generation of pastors what they need – an education that is cut-rate, compromised and convenient. (Read between the lines of some of those seminary ads. That’s what they’re offering.)

And as for the second statement, that graduates are discouraged from pursuing PhD studies, it appears that advice this is not limited to theological and religious studies. Claire Potter over at The Chronicle notes that this advice is given to students in the humanities and social sciences as well, especially now that the economy has tanked. She writes:

This is wrong, and we need to fight back. I propose that we need more Ph.D.s, not fewer; we need smarter and better educated citizens, not more ignorant ones.
Responding to the current employment crisis in higher ed by withdrawing education is a huge mistake, and demonstrates only one thing. In an effort to prove how truthful and responsible we are, and to reduce our complicity in the unemployment problem, senior scholars are failing miserably at our primary responsibility, which is to redefine what can be done with the Ph.D. and what a doctoral education for the 21st century should look like. Instead of agreeing with graduate students that what they learn in seven years of intense study is of no earthly use outside of academia (do we really think that what we do is so useless?), we need to articulate forcefully that doctoral education serves social purposes beyond university walls.

All of this leads to my big question: What would it look like if more pastors had PhDs?

Now, I am not saying that all pastors should have PhDs, or that a PhD should be the new minimum requirement for pastoral staff. Nor am I saying that those pastors who do not have PhDs are something less than those that do.

But, what would the Church look like if we encouraged and affirmed and supported pastors who felt called to pursue the highest level of education possible?

What would the Church look liked if we said to those who were academically minded that they do not need to be forced out of the Church and into the ivory tower of academia but that instead there was a valuable and needed place for them in the life of the Church?

Of course, some of you may come back and say, “But Amanda, you’re just saying that because you are academic.” But you know what? I wasn’t always academic when it came to the Christian faith. If anything, it was because I had a pastor who had a PhD and a life-long love of learning, that I began to choose the academic route. He taught me that Christianity is smart, and deep, and thoughtful, and mysterious. He taught me that thinking and pondering and wrestling and researching can all be forms of worship. He taught me that to be a spirit-led pastor does not mean getting up into the pulpit on Sunday with zero prep because “the Holy Spirit is going to work today.”

Somehow we’ve made “relevant” and “practical” the litmus test for ministry and seminary education. But the majority of the time, when pastors and seminary students say, “I need something relevant or practical” what they mean is: “I need something that works for the lowest common denominator” or, worse, “I need courses that doesn’t require a lot of time and effort to do because I’m busy.”

Is there a place for relevant? Absolutely. But let’s realize that sometimes the most relevant thing that the Church needs is not something that will speak to the lowest common denominator, but something that will in fact raise up the lowest common denominator in the Church.

Is there a place for practical? Absolutely. But let’s realize that sometimes the most practical thing is not “10 ways to a better you”, but is instead something that encourages to people to wrestle with profound questions like, “What does it mean to be human?” “What does it mean to love?” “What does it mean to live a sanctified life.” Sometimes the more theological and philosophical questions, the ones that take the longest time to wrestle through and require the most study and work turn out, in the end, to be the most practical.

  • Statement 3: if more pastors had PhD’s there would be far less nonsense being preached to gullible parishioners who don’t know any better and accept whatever load of garbage they are fed week to week.
    Just my opinion……yes, I know it is difficult to be well educated and not be frustrated with the poorly educated “masses” you may sometimes face in a congregation, but at least there would be less catering to the lowest common denominator, and those uneducated masses would be receiving the great gift of discovering their own abilities to think and study. I am not that bright, but I do appreciate and enjoy sermons that are deeper, that challenge me and make me interested in becoming more well educated. To be treated as though I, with my lack of education, do not deserve a PhD for a pastor is insulting to me as a human created in the divine image. For brilliant academics to be told people like me do not deserve, and cannot appreciate their best, no their best is just WRONG!

    • Let’s try that last sentence again…not only am I not academic, apparently I can’t type either. It should read, “For brilliant academics to be told people like me do not deserve, and cannot appreciate their best, is just WRONG!” Duh…….

    • “if more pastors had PhD’s there would be far less nonsense being preached to gullible parishioners who don’t know any better and accept whatever load of garbage they are fed week to week.”

      True true!

  • Dustin

    This is a great post, Amanda, and it expresses and idea that is close to my heart as well. I want to add to your excellent post that, in addition to advanced education strengthening the church, the requirements of the pastorate actually strengthen the PhD as well. While I don’t think that you were saying this, I would want to be really careful about suggesting that the educated elite will “save” the church. Rather, it is the church that can save the person with a PhD! The PhD needs the church even more than the church needs the PhD! The PhD needs to use their knowledge and research skills and depth of knowledge etc. to SERVE and to do so in the context of a worshiping, missional community. Apart from doing so, academics can become some of the worst sorts of narcissists on the planets. I think that higher education generally is starting to get this. At my institution, for example, part of my evaluation involves my involvement in the “Scholarship of Service,” which encourages me to invest energy and time relating my academic work to non-academic contexts, like the church. This has been quite a life-giving experience and one that I think helps us to avoid solely pursuing our own “research interests” as though they were the be all and end all. Again, Amanda, great post; thanks for pushing us here!

  • As one who is not very ‘academically wired’ (Dustin might remember), I know there is a huge need for the academic in today’s church. I need you! But we need each other because there are two very strong sides to the coin…

    It’s frustrating for the academic to hear watered down, uneducated preaching coming from personality driven pastors who can engage an audience just with story & sometimes delivering no strong theological content…i hear you for sure… but for me, it is very frustrating watching people devote so many hours, years, and 1000’s of dollars to education and when they get into everyday ministry they have no idea how to lead people, build teams, or engage with culture. So we’ve got to find the best of both worlds and meet in the middle for sure.
    Great post, really enjoyed it!

  • Dustin

    Jarret makes a good point, I think. Spending several years in post-secondary education is a valuable experience, but it is also a costly one. It costs both money and also other life experiences that I might have otherwise had if they were doing a different sort of work during that time (like pastoring or whatever). I think one of the things we can learn from what Jarret is saying is that a PhD does not a pastor make… but it may strengthen one. Furthermore, there are lots of different kinds of pastors out there and they don’t all have to be the same. Where I appreciated Amanda’s post was that it highlighted that “academics”–as a particular kind of pastor– should have a place at the table too and shouldn’t feel disadvantaged for pursuing their gifts and skills.

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  • Totally agree. If God has called and gifted someone to pursue academics for the sake of kingdom advance, for the church to stand in the way of that would be totally tragic.

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  • LLM

    Great post. Love the last sentence “Sometimes the more theological and philosophical questions, the ones that take the longest time to wrestle through and require the most study and work turn out, in the end, to be the most practical.” Sadly, many think academic = not practical/ not relevant. Well, sometimes academia can be…but it sure does not have to be and shouldn’t be!

    It seems a “dumbed down” approach has affected much of Christianity. Brainy Christians need to be encouraged…and Christians need to be more brainy! Even if it is not seminary or PhD level, I think we need to encourage more Christians to pursue studies…whether it is Bible school correspondence courses, reading books of substance on theology, or churches offering classes that take people deeper into theological and biblical understanding.

  • Where is the money going to come from for these PhDs? I started a PhD at McMaster Divinity but bailed before a dug a debt to deep to see the light of day from (sorry for the alliteration). And what would it be for, a modest bump up a modest pay scale? I would say, however, that seminaries do need to pack a harder academic punch while students are there for an MDiv.

    • David,
      And of course money is always an issue. Especially in Canada, there are so few confessional schools in which to do a doctorate as it is, and to my knowledge most of them don’t have funding for doctoral students.
      You raise a good comment about bringing the M.Div up to a higher academic standard, and that is of course part of Stackhouse’s argument: that in the drive to be relevant and attract students, some M.Div programs have slacked on the academic front.

  • Hello Amanda
    Thank you for this great article. If we think about the rich education that pastors had in the past, modern seminary education is rather weak – and shallow – tea. The related issue that crops up in my head is what about autodidacts? Will the machinery of the church provide a place for them ? Think of John Newton teaching himself Hebrew and Greek and Syriac (?) while working as a tax collector. They are very rare, granted, but they do exist.

    Brainy is good, and necessary, and called-for (Hosea 4:6 for starters).

    Thanks again! Peace,

  • summathetes

    Wow. Great thoughts here. I do love the idea that pastors should continue to be on the pursuit of healthy and helpful knowledge. I would agree that the standard in pastoral ministry of truly understanding the message of the Gospel and the glories of our Christ and wrestling with heart, mind, soul, and strength is often quite low. It’s so easy to find examples of dumbed down preaching and teaching, where holding attention for thirty minutes is substituted for thoughtful, careful, Biblically anchored exposition of truth and proclamation of Jesus. The church needs the gift of “intellectual” pastors and leaders and members and servants.

    But let me weigh in from a slightly different perspective . . . of one who has pursued a PhD in a theological field within the Christian academy.

    Sadly, it seems to me that much of the “conversation” that goes on in the academy is more concerned with making points with those already “on the inside” through straining at gnats of thoughts. Years and dollars and effort and sweat are expended to make a sustainable argument that “contributes to the conversation” that is going on in the academy–but that may never see the light of day outside the ivory halls or may never have an impact on the life of the person in the pew because what is argued for really doesn’t matter in terms of the Kingdom. I have read numerous doctoral dissertations that appear to have almost no value in stirring growth in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

    In many places in the academy, you can’t talk about “what Jesus said.” You have to discuss what the author of the second Gospel wanted his/her readers to understand about what he/she thought about Jesus and what words he/she put in the mouth of his/her recreation of Jesus for the theological purpose for which he/she was writing for his/her community. I have been in the thick of such discussions! Debating such subjects seems to be part of the life blood of many in the academy and will prove to be of little or no value to the follower of Jesus.

    It would seem that the perception that PhD’s might not be all that valuable could be tied to the perception that the conversation that PhD’s carry on does not intersect lives in any significant way. I recall a conversation with a fellow-academician who, after presenting a paper at an academic conference (something one must do to maintain one’s status in the academy), reflected on the experience and said, “I am not sure that any of this really makes any difference in the lives of Christians!” This is not to argue for a pursuit of “relevancy”–but a call to pursue real understanding and knowledge of Jesus which, by its very nature, is relevant! We don’t make the truth about Jesus relevant–He is life, he is relevant.

    This does not mean that I am arguing for less education for pastoral leaders. As I read my New Testament, it seems to me that there is a call for true growth in knowledge, real thoughtful pursuit, genuine intellectual engagement with the words on the page, the text of Scripture. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 6:2-4) were intent on giving themselves to the “ministry of the Word.” Paul, writing to the Timothy (1 Timothy 3:2) and Titus (Titus 1:9), says that leaders in the church should be “apt to teach” and be able to teach sound doctrine and refute those who contradict. I would argue for a Spirit-dependent, vigorously-thoughtful, passionately-engaged pursuit of the knowledge of God as revealed in the person of Jesus presented to us in the Scriptures–a pursuit that could and should call for our best intellectual efforts, so long as they are leveraged in the right direction and toward the right end.

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