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Should a Pastor Get a DMin?

Four questions to ask yourself in your pursuit of a graduate degree.
Should a Pastor Get a DMin?

As a pastor and a Bible college professor, I often get asked how young pastors and church leaders can continue their education. Whether these leaders are considering finishing their undergraduate degree, starting a Master of Divinity, or thinking about doctoral work, it's an enormous decision with many consequences (both good and bad). I've found that it's most helpful to frame my guidance by asking four diagnostic questions.

What's your story?

I was saved at 18 years old just after graduating from High School while attending a YoungLife camp in the middle of nowhere, Oregon. I was committed to play baseball at a community college in central Washington for my first two years of college. These two years proved to be very difficult for a brand new Christian. I was moving three hours away from home only weeks after a major life change to a place where I had no Christian friends. After about 18 months of general studies, baseball, and a struggle for Christian community, I received a phone call from the baseball coach at Western Baptist College (now Corban University) in Salem, Oregon. The school was offering a baseball scholarship, where I would graduate with little or no debt. I had never heard of this school. I wasn't Baptist (I think), but if they were going to pay for school then I was in.

We need more pastors and preachers who will sharpen their preaching to be more effective communicators in the pulpit.

I entered Corban University my junior year as a Pre-Law major and I truly intended to be a lawyer. My advisor-made class schedule included an 8:00 A.M. Old Testament Survey class. I was not looking forward to getting up early and listening to a professor talk about the Old Testament for an hour three times a week. But then something very strange happened … I enjoyed it! I really enjoyed it! So much so that a couple weeks into the semester I changed my major to Biblical Studies. I no longer desired to pursue law; instead, I felt a strong pull to teach the Bible. I was a very young and immature believer who was studying the Bible for the first time at a rate that resembled trying to drink out of a firehose. By the time my last semester began, my professors convinced me that going to seminary should be my next step. I started my MDiv at Western Seminary, just up I-5 from Corban in Portland, in the Fall of 2005. I was certain that I was called to teach the Bible in an academic setting, but certainly not be a pastor. I was very involved with serving in the church. I loved the church, but I did not want to work in or for the local church.

Every first year seminary student is assigned an admissions counselor that stays in touch with the student for the first year and makes sure they are taken care of and have all their questions answered. A couple weeks into my first semester, my counselor asked me what I was doing for work. I was a teller at a credit union and was content with that job through seminary as a newly married man with no kids. He suggested I seek employment at a couple of churches in the area that were looking for a youth pastor. I told him I was not interested in being a pastor, but just wanted to teach the Bible. He guilted me into applying for the positions (not the best motive), and four months later I was a youth pastor. My first year in full-time, paid, vocational ministry changed me greatly. My original desire to "just teach the Bible" seemed juvenile now. I had a better sense of what the church was and the need for pastors who truly loved the church to commit to her and love and shepherd God's people. I now questioned my original desire to finish my MDiv and immediately start a PhD. I become the Pastor of Preaching and Teaching at the same church after two years and sensed that God had given me a very clear desire and gifting to not just be in the classroom but also the pulpit.

I wanted to be the best preacher and communicator of God's Word that I could possibly be. By my fourth and final year at Western, I decided to change my focus from the PhD to the DMin. I attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary from 2009 to 2013 and finished my dissertation in 2014. I am now the Preaching Pastor at Redeemer Church in Bellevue, WA and continue to teach as an adjunct professor at Corban University in Biblical Studies and Homiletics.

I want to be careful here. I do not want to give the impression that my story is unique to the extent that only those who have an experience like mine should pursue a doctorate. I do not believe that a desire for further education should be considered unique or ambitious. If God’s Word tells us to “Shepherd the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3), which entails teaching and preaching God’s Word and caring and counseling from a biblical perspective, then higher education should be not be the exception but the norm. The type of degree may change based on intended use, but the undertaking of formal education with the goal of being better equipped to “shepherd the flock,” I believe, should be seriously considered by every pastor. You might be thinking, “my story wasn’t like his” or “I didn’t have all those obvious open doors.” Whatever your story or situation, if you’ve entered into pastoral ministry, then there is no reason why being more equipped in preaching, teaching, or counseling from God’s Word shouldn’t be a priority.

What's the difference between a PhD and a DMin?

I chose to continue my education because I'm convinced that pastors should always be learning and sharpening their skills. I have noticed, unfortunately, a shift today in the view of a "Senior Pastor" or "Lead Pastor." At one time the pastor was the "Lead Shepherd" of the church. He studies, counsels, preaches, and leads. It seems that many churches today are abandoning the shepherding role for something resembling a CEO. I read an article recently from a man (who will remain nameless because I don't want to draw any further attention to his article) who ignorantly opined that pastors should get an MBA instead of a DMin. Here were his reasons: 1. An MBA is more functional than a DMin. 2. An MBA is respected and translates better to the congregation. 3. Education from an MBA will allow you to become more strategic in the organization structure of a church. 4. An MBA diversifies one's education. 5. And an MBA provides an education which can translate well "bivocationally."

I believe all five of his statements are flawed, but reason number three reveals the most obvious cultural shift in the role of the pastor in our generation. I am called to the pastorate. I am commanded to preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:1-5). I am told to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-16). I am given a philosophy of ministry that is centered on making the Word of God fully known (Col. 1:24-29). I am commissioned to "shepherd the flock" that the Lord has put in my care. I am NOT called to strategically organize a "non-profit business" that measures its success in spreadsheets and budgets. Therefore, I decided to pursue a DMin. in homiletics with the goal of serving the church by becoming the most effective communicator of God's Word that I possibly can be.

There is a major difference between the PhD and DMin degrees. The PhD is a research degree while the DMin is a professional degree. It is the same difference between a PhD and a MD. One is based on research for the purpose of teaching and the other is based on the practice of the trade.

The PhD and the DMin have been pitted against each other for years. It seems that many PhD advocates believe that the only reason people embark for a DMin degree is for an easy way to be called "Doctor." Here's the truth: Many people do in fact pursue a DMin for just that reason and it's unfortunate. Likewise, many advocates for the DMin believe that a PhD is for academics who have little desire to serve the church and/or have the gifting to do so. Here's the truth: There are many who pursue a PhD and have no desire to serve the church, but there are also many that receive a PhD to serve the church as Pastor Theologians. Furthermore, let's not forget that the church benefits from PhDs who are committed to help train the next generation of pastors through the Christian university and seminary.

I chose the DMin in homiletics because I wanted to work on the craft of preaching and teach others to do the same. (For full disclosure I will add that I do plan on also pursuing a PhD in a year or two.) For me, the DMin was the right call at the right time. For years now I have had the privilege to preach in the local church and teach as an adjunct at the undergraduate and graduate level. This is exactly what I feel called to do.

How do you choose a school?

Choosing a school can be a big mistake. It is far more productive to choose a faculty or a faculty member that you desire to work with in a specific area. I chose homiletics at Gordon-Conwell because Dr. Haddon Robinson was there. He wrote the book Biblical Preaching that nearly every Bible School and Seminary student have as assigned reading. I chose a specific track where Dr. Robinson would be my Professor and supervisor on my dissertation.

What do you feel called to do?

What do you feel called to do? If your goal is to teach full-time in an academic setting, then you should pursue a PhD. If your goal is to sharpen your skills in a specific area (preaching, counseling, evangelism, etc.) then a DMin could be more practical. We need more people who earn their PhD for the purpose of serving the church as Pastor Theologians. We also need more pastors and preachers who will sharpen their preaching to be more effective communicators in the pulpit. Whatever your decision is, check your motives. Ask yourself, "Do I want letters after my name or do I want to serve the Lord in a capacity where this degree helps me?"

The question of calling usually enters into the conversation at this point. “How do I know what my calling is?” When this question is asked in relation to education, it comes from a place of uncertainty on whether a degree is worth the time, money, and effort. “If there’s a possibility that it’s not ‘God’s calling’ on my life, then is it really worth it?” The word “calling” is overused and often misused. There are things that God calls every Christian to, but typically, when someone asks about calling, they are referring to a specific, individual calling. It is very easy to over spiritualize this process and wait for an audible voice from God or some sort of unusual experience. What if calling is simply the intersection of gifting and opportunity? There is never a shortage of opportunity for Bible preaching, teaching, counseling, or any sort of service within the church. So the issue becomes gifting. Have you been specifically gifted in an area that has been affirmed by others (other than your mom and wife)? That is where you should focus your time and energy. My advice is to continue your education to be the best that you can possibly be for the good of the church and the glory of God.

Ryan Welsh serves as lead pastor for Redeemer Church, a Sojourn Network congregation in Bellevue, Washington.

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