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, 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, 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, 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.