PhD in [Your Church] Studies

Recently, John Piper answered the question, “Should pastors get PhDs?”  His tempered and pastoral response provoked some contemplation here at BMF.

Virtually every pastor I know has considered whether or not he should pursue further studies.  Whether or not a pastor should pursue a PhD is up to that pastor, his God and his church.  He must determine if his efforts will ultimately result in more faithful ministry to the local church.  Often it does and the church is better for it.

As one who likes the idea of holding a PhD more than actually earning one, I’d like to encourage all pastors toward a PhD nonetheless.  A PhD in their local church studies, that is.

A PhD is designed to identify a person’s mastery of a certain discipline and verify their competence in teaching it to others.  They are experts in their field.  Should not pastors apply that same, if not more, expectation and discipline to their local church?  Before a pastor considers a PhD in anything, he should first devote himself to becoming the expert of his local church.  In my case, I should want to earn a PhD in Unity Baptist Church Studies.  We should want to master all that can be known about our church and the people in it.  We should ensure no one on the planet knows more about our congregation than we do.  No one should be more qualified to speak on our local church than those who shepherd her.  There are dozens, hundreds and thousands of PhDs in any given discipline, but only few (or one!) in your local church “studies.”  I’d say that is a very special PhD and unlike any university PhD in the world!

Earning this PhD means to master the material of the souls in your local church.  What are the requirements to that end?

  1. Read and study your people.  As university PhDs immerse themselves in the writings of all those influencing their discipline, so pastors immerse themselves in the lives of their congregation.  Know what they think, how they’re influenced, where they live, and who they admire.
  2. Interpret your people.  As university PhDs critically interact with all the angles of their discipline, so pastors must know all the angles of their congregation.  Know how to best encourage, confront, comfort and motivate them.  Paul explained this in terms of becoming all things to all people (2 Cor 9.22).  Pastors do not apply a one-size fits all strategy but tailor their tone and counsel to the particular soul.
  3. Be jealous for your people.  As university PhDs protect their dissertations like one of their children, so pastors must guard the knowledge of his people with great care.  Paul asked the Corinthians, “Who is weak without my being weak?  Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” (2 Cor 11.29).  In other words, pastors are jealous to know what’s happening in the lives of his sheep whether it be weakness, sin or joy.
  4. Teach your people.  As university PhDs are the resident experts in the academy, so pastors should strive to be the resident biblical scholars in their local congregation.  Teach the Bible.  Train your people to study the Bible.  Don’t settle for biblical and theological mediocrity.  Pastors are theologians training other theologians.

There are some distinctive features of this PhD program, however:

  1. It takes years to get started and decades to improve.
  2. It will never be completed because the objects of study are always changing.
  3. The graduation ceremony will coincide with your funeral.
  4. There will be no piece of paper awarded but you might a watch after fifty years.  There will be a crown, though (2 Tim 4.6-8).
  5. No university will recognize your work, but Jesus will.

Should a pastor pursue a PhD?  Absolutely.  He should become the world’s foremost expert in matters related to his local church and the souls therein.  He should make sure no one knows more about his church than he does.  If he does, he might find it far more satisfying and infinitely more rewarding.

Not only must the children of the redeemed family be born, but they must also be fed, watched, guided, and nourished up to manhood.  The growth of the heirs of immortality in grace and knowledge must be an object of deep solicitude with the faithful pastor.  His children in the faith are not glorified as soon as converted, but are carried through a probation, and often a long one, of conflict, trial, and temptation; and it is his business, by the instrumentality of the truth, deeply searched, carefully expounded, and appropriately applied, to conduct them through the perplexities and the dangers of the divine life” (John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry, 40).

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