So you want to be a Doctor?

"...nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all" (Eccl. 9:11).

PhD's are becoming more and more common, particularly in the church. For those in the church wishing to pursue postgraduate studies, here are a few questions for you to wrestle with:

Have your seminary professors ever suggested to you that you ought to consider this route? Remember that Paul warns us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but with sober judgment (Rom. 12:3). This is not too dissimilar from the well-known internal-external call for the pastoral ministry. One is as important as the other, in my view. And here your professors - assuming they know you fairly well - are in a position to know whether you are the type of person (1 Tim. 3) who will be a blessing to the church instead of a curse. Remember, "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1).

Are you wishing to teach at a seminary or use your PhD in the pastoral ministry? I know literally dozens of able, gifted men who have PhD's but do not have a position at a Seminary. Be warned: unless you are incredibly gifted or you have very good contacts (i.e., people in high places), a Seminary position will not automatically fall into your lap once you're finished. It likely never will. You will no doubt find that Solomon was correct when he wrote:  "Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all" (Eccl. 9:11). The right friends at the right time usually proves decisive. Of course, the Lord is the Lord and he will make sure to use you in a way that will be best for the church, even if that means teaching Sunday school classes for a while!

Are you aiming to be a better preacher through your studies? The best theologians God has given to the church have usually been pastors. Moreover, you must be careful that your pursuit of the PhD doesn't make you a boring preacher who is constantly delivering academic soliloquies that even you don't really understand! (Please, please do not use the word "eschatological" in your sermons). For what it's worth, my favorite preachers do not have a PhD. 

Do you have the resources to be able to complete several years of studies? There are different ways of making this work, some more difficult than others. But academic debt can kill you, especially those expensive British universities that love North American students who have money coupled with transcripts full of A's. I was able to get through my degrees with no debt, and for the last two I even made money. This was entirely the Lord's gracious providence to me. If you have a family, be careful about putting yourself into debt. You do not want to be the person spoken of at the beginning of Psalm 37:21 (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8).

Are you in a good marriage? If you are married, pursuing a PhD can be a wonderful time for you and your wife, especially spending time together in a foreign country; or, conversely, you can become so entrenched in your studies that your wife becomes a mere appendix to your life.

Is there a good, solid church in the city where you plan to study? I regret to say this, but I ruled out several good universities because I did not feel there was a church where my wife and I could worship and be spiritually fed properly. 

This is not so much a question as it is a statement: be prepared to be humbled. If you complete your studies, and if God loves you, he will no doubt humble you because you will need it. People love titles, especially "doctor."  And it tends to get to your head, especially when people start treating you differently because you have a "title." Be warned: when God humbles us it is painful. 

But what if you are a Pastor who wants to pursue a PhD?

As someone who has supervised a Pastor who pursued a PhD while he was in the ministry, here are some thoughts:

You need some very compelling reasons to do so. What are they?

Make sure you ask your session (elders) whether they think this is a good idea. Will the flock you care for still get the required care they inevitably need while you're chasing down PhD dissertations from various countries for your research? 

Do you manage your time carefully (Eph. 5:16)? Your family and the congregation come first, which means very little time for television, policing the blogosphere, or video games. 

Pick a topic that will enable you to "double-dip." Study a topic that you will be able to use in your ministry. Reading Thomas Goodwin and John Owen on Christ proved to be helpful to my preaching ministry. But researching the controversy on works of supererogation in Pisa during the 15thC might not have been.

When you arrive at your office in the morning to begin your work I would strongly suggest that the first thing you do is hit your knees and pray. I often asked God to help me in my research.

I am somewhat more cautious about pastors pursuing the PhD because I know from experience the significant demands that are placed on a pastor apart from academic work. Unless you get on a roll - momentum is everything in completing your PhD -, you may find yourself in the company of many pastors who have been pursuing their PhD for a decade or more. Sometimes they get completed; but often they don't - and at no small emotional and financial expense.

The pursuit of the PhD has the potential to be a significant blessing to the church. But there are many dangers involved. For all of the "success" stories we see (published Pastor-scholars writing good stuff) there are many who have not been so lucky. Sometimes they have been providentially hindered; but at other times, I regret to say, they have been foolish. 

Pastor Mark Jones likes to be called "Mark". Once I asked someone in an email to "call me Mark". He should have noted there was no comma after "me", but I was still happy to get a phone call from him!