Thursday, August 5, 2010

Piled Higher and Deeper

As I contemplate an undesired but likely shift in my employment status in the near term future, I find myself strongly considering something that I've not considered before. That option is a return to school. After seven years in the ministry, I'm at more or less the right point in my pastorly life when a doctorate would be something to think about. It makes a ton of sense from a career perspective. Congregations in my neck of the woods expect advanced degrees, mostly 'cause pretty much everyone in this hifalutin' area has an advanced degree. And my Masters of Divinity doesn't really count. That's the baseline. If I want to have a whisker of a chance of serving a church after the last grain of sand drops through the hourglass here at Trinity, I'm going to need to hit the books again.

While it's both necessary and practical to be thinking about that now, I do struggle a bit with the purpose of it. Having done the pastor thing for a while now, my sense is that a traditional academic Ph.D. is almost utterly pointless if congregational ministry is your calling. The specialization required for a classical academic doctorate seems to provide exactly the opposite of what most congregations actually require.

Pastors are, by necessity, generalists. That's particularly true for ministers who serve little struggling churches like mine. I not only preach and teach and counsel. I need to be on top of church finances. I need to have a good working knowledge of building issues, up to and including knowing how to use a drill and circular saw, and being comfortable mucking out downspouts on a high roof.

But the need to be a generalist isn't just for the teensy churches. Even the Big Parking Lot pastor needs to have a broad range of well-developed skills. Yeah, they need a golden tongue, and they need the ability to convey the message of the Gospel. But they also need to be able to lead effectively. They have to understand congregational and programmatic dynamics. A big church pastor who preaches real good but fails to grasp the intricacies of their church...well...they'll fail.

This has lead me to think that perhaps, perhaps, a D.Min. actually makes sense. The D.Min. is a degree that gets no respect. I've heard it mocked as a degree for folks who lack the academic chops to get a real doctorate. It's a lame degree for church careerists. isn't. As I look into some of the D.Min. offerings at nearby institutions, I find myself seeing some real possibilities for it strengthening my ability to meet the day-to-day needs of a community of faith. Honestly, that feels more relevant to my calling than a traditional Ph.D.

Whichever way, I find myself surprised that having resisted the concept for a while, it suddenly seems both relevant and desirable.


  1. Notes and comments:

    An MDiv requires more post graduate work than a PhD in Astrophysics or Biochemistry.

    Seminaries are a business. They do everything they can to sell their programs to you. But all a PhD really prepares you for is a career in research and academia.

    Pastors don't need PhDs to do their jobs. All a PhD gets them is an interview when applying for a sr pastorate position in a big church. There are fewer and fewer of those... If you want to be a successful pastor of a big church, the best bet is to grow your own.

    Salary vs debt: Do the math. How much more money will you make? If you use all the extra money to pay off your school debt, how long will it take to pay it off? What is the total extra income minus total expense including interest, and minus total time investment (time = money) which could have been spent doing a better job as a pastor, or in a second job flipping burgers or being a better father to your kids?

    (kids these days are getting screwed out of having parents there to mentor them into life)

    And there is nothing you are going to learn by getting a PhD that is going to show you how to get your or any other congregation out of its funk. That's between you and the Holy Spirit.

    But you might consider hiring an executive coach. You can't teach true leadership, but they can teach you how to fake it well enough to get by.

    Personally I think they should just re-label the M Div as a PhD and stop selling all that extra academic work. You can always take more bible classes and get an MBA if you want to treat running a church like running a business. But the MBAs haven't helped America's business world or the economy that much either, so there.

    The only possible justification for getting a PhD is that you really love that sort of stuff and you would get one anyway if it had no value at all.

    Or you really want the status.

  2. @ Jodie: I do appreciate your comments. A Ph.D. really isn't necessary unless it's your intent to specialize in teaching at a seminary level. There, it's actually kinda useful. For serving a church? It's functionally irrelevant, unless your ego (or your congregation's ego) requires that Rev. Dr. thang. The D.Min programs I'm considering have foci that are really quite useful. Sustained training in leadership helps develop any abilities you may have in that area, or correct tendencies that impede your ability to serve in that role. Learning more about how to nurture your own spirituality and train others in developing their connection with God is also rather useful. My considering the programs comes after reviewing the coursework and requirements and thinking they sounded kinda cool. Fun, even, in that strange way that things that make you spiritually stronger are fun.

    Your point about the Holy Spirit is well taken, and it's the primary reason I'm not effective in my current ministry context. The Call can't be heard any more, no matter how still I sit in contemplation or how hard I work. When I seek guidance in my dreams, what I receive is clear. I need to move on. That's why, barring something utterly unforeseen, I've committed to firing myself in two months. I actually really like everyone at my church, so it's a bit of a bummer interpersonally. Ah well. So it goes.

  3. Tough call David,

    When you gotta go you gotta go.

    The advice I always got was don't jump away from something, jump towards something. Leaps of faith, well, they've always worked for me, but I've been lucky.

    I think the toughest thing pastors have to deal with is the lack of adequate mentoring and close contact with good and bad leaders from below and from above. I live in the corporate world and so the school of hard knocks is by far the best teacher. Use class work just to tidy things up. But you guys, ouch. A sr. pastor here and there, a rotating Session of volunteers, the occasional presbytery meeting... So I can see the allure of formal course work, even if only for the the interaction with other students.

    God bless you man, and guide you in every step you take. A light unto your feet.

  4. I was thinking about this for reasons I can't explain, and I remembered the story of Abraham.

    Remember what happened when he got to the place God sent him?

    I've always wondered if moving on was an act of faith or an act of disbelief.

    It seems to me that learning to live by faith is learning to live in the silence from heaven. You get this call, you go with it, then ... the line goes dead?

    But it is a common report. Most recently there was this fracas over the release of Mother Teresa's private diary. As I recall it, she had this vibrant spiritual life full of the awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit, then she dared ask to participate in the passion of Jesus, or something along those lines, to which God answered with a deafening silence for the rest of her life.

    It became a source of great suffering in her life. The priest released the notes as a witness in her favor for canonization. And for the first time in my life I agreed with such a decree. God help her but he granted her the wish of her prayer.

    It isn't when we are aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit that we are living by faith, but when we are not. And I believe it is a necessary element in the life of every teacher of the Gospel.