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Should a Pastor Get a PhD?

Discerning your role as a local, popular, or ecclesial pastor theologian.
Should a Pastor Get a PhD?

The topic of the pastor theologian became a bit of a thing in 2015. There were a couple of new books, a spate of online essays, and a conference—all dedicated to defining the identity and practicality of the pastor theologian. Indeed, the pastor theologian even made Collin Hansen's top ten list of theology stories in 2015—right along with gay marriage and global terror! This highlights how much attention the idea of the pastor theologian has captured the attention of the evangelical community. One of the questions that often comes up in these conversations is the issue of training, namely whether or not a pastor, especially the sort of pastor who aspires to be a pastor theologian, should pursue a PhD. If one answers yes, a follow up question quickly presents itself: what kind of PhD—full time or part time? My short answer to these twin questions is, maybe, and it depends.

Take seriously your calling as the shepherd of God's people, know the unique contribution your Lord intends for you to make, and prepare yourself accordingly.

But such definitive counsel requires a bit of context. In our recent book, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision (Zondervan), Todd Wilson and I lay out a taxonomy of the pastor theologian. It's not the final word on the identity of the pastor theologian, but I believe it helps orient the conversation in a helpful new direction and provides the necessary context for answering the PhD question. In the following essay I introduce this taxonomy, show how it helps answer the PhD question, and then draw upon chapter eight of our book to give some advice about the pros and cons of the various PhD options.

Taxonomy of the pastor theologian

We conceive of the pastor theologian in three primary ways: the pastor theologian as local theologian, the pastor theologian as popular theologian, and the pastor theologian as ecclesial theologian.

The pastor theologian as local theologian is a pastor who exercises theological leadership on behalf of a local congregation. Here the primary means of theological leadership is preaching and teaching, as well as a theologically robust approach to all aspects of ministry—counseling, staff development, discipleship, evangelism, etc. The local theologian deftly combines the heart of a shepherd with the mind of the theologian, and helps the Christians under their care live out their calling with integrity and faithfulness. Per our taxonomy, the definitional characteristic of the local theologian is the localized audience of the pastor's theological leadership—namely the congregants of one's local parish.

The pastor theologian as popular theologian is a pastor who exercises theological leadership to a broader audience beyond the local congregation. Here the primary means of exercising this leadership is a writing ministry, pitched at a level accessible to the average person in the pew. The popular theologian mines the resources of the scholarly community and translates them into content that is applicable and relevant for the un-initiated. The definitional characteristic of the popular theologian is again the intended audience—namely congregants beyond the pastor's own local congregation.

And finally, the pastor theologian as ecclesial theologian is a pastor who exercises theological leadership to other pastors, theologians, and ecclesially minded academic scholars. Here the primary means of exercising this theological leadership is a writing ministry that focuses on church concerns and that is richly informed by the pastoral social location. The writing of the ecclesial theologian often moves beyond the popular level, and is not always directed primarily to the laity. While the ecclesial theologian does not always write to the average parishioner, the ecclesial theologian always has the average parishioner in view. The main identifying characteristic of the ecclesial theologian is the primary audience of his or her scholarship—namely other theological leaders within the church and academy.

The flourishing of all three "species" of the pastor theologian is vital for maintaining the health of the church. Local theologians give flesh and bone to the doctrines of the church, teaching not just bare facts, but even more importantly modeling the way of wisdom. Popular theologians help translate the difficult yet vital content of theology and Christian doctrine into language that is useful for the average believer, showing the relevancy of the church's best teachings. And ecclesial theologians help maintain the ecclesial orientation of contemporary theological scholarship, ensuring that the church's scholarly discourse center on issues relevant to the life of the church, and not get high jacked by the academy.

PhD: no, maybe, and yes

Now let's return to our question about pastors and a PhD. The modern PhD is designed to teach students how to engage in the task of academic research and writing. In this sense, its purpose is to foster the skills necessary for writing theological scholarship to other scholars. The writing and research focus is what sets the PhD apart from the MDiv and many MA programs—most of which are designed to help foster competency in study and knowledge acquisition, but do not specialize in helping the student research and write substantive theological scholarship to other theological scholars.

If your calling is to be a local theologian, a PhD is not necessary to your vocation, since the primary audience of your theological leadership is not other scholars, but the congregation. A theologically robust MDiv is probably your best bet (but be warned that not all of these are created equal in this respect). Of course, if you are particularly motivated, you might pursue a PhD as a means of personal enrichment. But my general experience has been that on a strictly costs/benefits analysis, the PhD simply doesn't bring enough benefits to the local theologian to make it worth the pain. You'll get a much better return on investment if you spend that time in serious reading and reflection, without being distracted by the emotional, financial, and calendar trauma that a PhD program inevitably entails.

If you're called to be a popular theologian, then a PhD is a good idea, even if not absolutely necessary. You're not writing to other scholars, so in that sense you don't need to "show your work" in the same way you would if you were doing theological work for other researchers. But at the same time, a primary challenge of being a good popular theologian is that it's easy to get sloppy. You almost always know more than your intended audience, and the temptation to over press your points or make sweeping and unsubstantiated statements can be a real danger. Doing the hard work of a PhD teaches you how to be careful in what you say, and helps you be appropriately modest and nuanced in your conclusions. As a popular theologian, you don't need to play the scholarly research game, but you should know how the game is played and be able to engage in it yourself. Being a responsible and effective popular theologian is not an easy job, and a PhD will help you do your work with integrity. If you choose not to do a PhD, I strongly suggest you pursue a research focused MA, ThM, or DMin—some sort of program that will help develop solid scholarly research competency.

If your calling is that of an ecclesial theologian, then a PhD is all but essential to your vocation as a theological scholar. In my role as the executive director of the Center for Pastor Theologians I am responsible for networking and resourcing over forty pastors (our CPT Fellows) as they pursue various theological and scholarly projects. Nearly all of our pastoral fellows have completed or are completing a PhD in the various theological disciplines—theology, church history, New Testament, Old Testament, even Classics. Many of our fellows are currently working on projects that are being written to other theologians and scholars (our ecclesial theologians move back and forth between ecclesial and popular level works). A PhD is a virtual requirement for this kind of work. If you aspire to be an ecclesial theologian, there are three reasons you should seriously consider pursuing a PhD (the remainder of this section and the following section are taken from Chapter 8 of our book The Pastor Theologian).

Reasons to pursue a PhD

First, a PhD offers a level of discipline and research competency very difficult to foster independently. The task of the ecclesial theologian is often times less research focused than that of an academic scholar; yet locating and properly handling primary and secondary sources is vital to the work of the ecclesial theologian, and academic theologians are best positioned to provide tutelage in this area. To be sure, the theological method of the academy is not always congruous with the theological method of the ecclesial theologian. In this sense, pursuing a PhD as training for becoming an ecclesial theologian may be a bit like training as a long distance runner in order to run a triathlon; it won't be an exact match. But at present, the academy is still the best training out there for acquiring the sort of research competency necessary for ecclesial theologians. As noted above, this competency and experience can be accomplished in limited measures through an MA or ThM; but anyone who has done a PhD will tell you that the requirements of a post-graduate research degree push beyond anything seen at a graduate level.

Second, doing a PhD will broaden your network of relationships with other thinkers and scholars, particularly with academic theologians. In keeping with the vision for the ecclesial theologian outlined above, your ongoing work as an ecclesial theologian will need to be carried out in partnership with academic theologians. Involvement in a PhD program necessarily helps to establish relationships with other scholars—both ecclesial and academic—and connects you to networks that might otherwise not be accessible. As a pastor doing theology, such relationships and networks are absolutely vital, insofar as they are not natural to the pastoral vocation.

Finally, the PhD remains the intellectual's best calling card. A PhD demonstrates that one (very likely) has a robust intellectual capacity, as well as the work ethic necessary to see this intellectual capacity through to a fruitful end. There are other intellectual calling cards, of course. But a PhD will help open doors for you in terms of scholarship and publication that would otherwise require more vigorous knocking. This is not to say that publishers will certainly look at your manuscript because you have a PhD, or that they will certainly reject your book proposals because you don't. But having a PhD helps give you the benefit of the doubt at the outset. This is all the more important given the fact that your vocation as a pastor will actually create assumptions about your intellectual capacity that tend in the opposite.

What kind of PhD?

With the above in mind, we can now turn our attention to our second question regarding the best type of PhD for a pastor theologian. Should you pursue a taught program or a research program? Full time or part time? Residency or non-residency?

There are two basic types of PhD programs—taught programs and research programs. A taught program requires coursework plus a dissertation. A research program requires only the dissertation. The primary advantage of a research program is that it allows for a "deep dive" into a narrow topic, thus enabling the student to focus all of their attention on the primary area of research. The advantage of the taught program is that it is well rounded, and forces the student to acquire a wider range of competency than is typically found in research programs. Since the ecclesial theologian will tend to be a generalist rather than a specialist, taught programs are probably the most effective for preparing an ecclesial theologian as well.

Yet those already serving in pastoral ministry (here we have in mind primarily North American pastors), or who do not have the financial resources to sustain a full-time taught program, will want to look closely at a non-residency research program. Such programs can be done part-time or full time. A significant advantage of a part-time non-residency research program is that it allows you to stay grounded in an ecclesial context while you engage in your research. If you are situated in a church context that is willing to give you a couple of mornings a week to study and write, and you have access to a good research library, this may be your best bet. But there are at least three challenges to a part-time non-residency program. Heed them well, and then proceed with caution.

First, a non-residency degree requires a significant level of self-motivation. The distractions of life and ministry will have a tendency to serve as speed bumps in your research. If you're the sort of person who feels easily distracted, and who thrives on a high amount of relational encouragement and accountability, a residency program may be a better route for you.

Second, supervision of non-residency programs can be hit or miss. Many non-residency doctoral candidates complain that their supervisors are inaccessible and unresponsive. This isn't always the case, of course, but you'll want to be sure you locate a supervisor who has a positive track record supervising distance students. If executed well, Skype, email, and the occasional personal visit are effective methods of supervision. But nothing is worse than spending precious time and money on a degree and getting little or no help from your supervisor.

Finally, a non-residency program will not result in the same level of networking that one finds in a residency program. For the most part, you will hover around the margins of the intellectual and social networks of your university. The various seminars and informal meetings among the PhD students of your university will be largely inaccessible. Insofar as one of the primary benefits of a PhD program is building a network, this is a significant shortcoming.

But having offered the above disclaimers, if you have the sort of personality that can steadily plod along, and you have access to a good library, a non-residency program can work well. When factored together with one's family responsibilities, ministry commitments, and financial realities, a non-residency degree may be your best (or perhaps only!) option. I am currently more than half way through a non-residency PhD program at the University of Kent (Canterbury) and have found the situation to be a good fit.


So should every pastor theologian get a PhD? No, maybe, and definitely. It all depends on what one means by "pastor theologian." My regular prayer for the pastoral community is that we would once again take seriously our responsibilities as the theological leaders of the church. The fact that we have neglected this responsibility over the last two hundred years in no way negates that fact that we have nonetheless remained responsible. The theological and corresponding ethical integrity of the church will never rise above that of the pastoral community. Take seriously your calling as the shepherd of God's people, know the unique contribution your Lord intends for you to make, and prepare yourself accordingly.

Gerald Hiestand is the senior pastor at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, and the cofounder and director of the Center for Pastor Theologians.

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