Should Pastors Get a PhD? An Interview with TJ Daugherty

1. When did you decide you wanted to pursue a PhD and why did you want to do one at that time? Did you have any intention of it benefiting your pastoring?

When I began the process of formal theological education, I did so with the aim of preparing myself to serve as a pastor who rightly divides the word of truth for the sheep. However, when I graduated with my M. Div., I did not sense that I had an adequate understanding of the Bible and theology to be able to help lead and shepherd a church. It was out of a sense of needing to better prepare for my role in pastoring that I sought out the opportunity to pursue the PhD.

I consider myself to be a pastor who has been trained in the academy to better help serve the people of my congregation. In other words, the PhD was always about serving the local church for me.

2. How far along in the PhD process are you? How has it benefited your pastoring?

I have just recently successfully defended my dissertation and am scheduled to graduate with my PhD in Systematic Theology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas in May of 2021.

I have seen a tremendous benefit in my pastoring in countless ways. From a theological perspective, the PhD has allowed me to have a much fuller understanding of systematic theology and the cohesiveness of the biblical narrative. I have also been exposed to a great number of theological and historical works, thus broadening my library and increasing my reading capacity. From a historical perspective, I have a much better foundation of the history of the church and the development of theology over the course of time.

On a much more practical level, the PhD has instilled a level of discipline and time-management which is absolutely necessary in pastoral ministry. The PhD has also taught me how to think critically and engage with writings as I study and prepare for weekly sermons. 

3. Should all pastors consider a PhD? If so, what type of programs should they consider (e.g. seminary vs. university, historical theology vs. biblical exegesis, etc.)?

I suppose that, in general, all pastors should at least prayerfully consider the possibility of theological education, including the PhD. I am a proponent (and beneficiary) of theological education, and I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to study as I have. However, not all pastors should pursue a PhD. A variety of factors can play into each individual situation, and the relative opportunity and benefit of pursuing a PhD will vary.

The particular context of an individual pastor will determine the types of programs that pastors should consider. For the pastor, though, our primary calling is to the local church. Decisions about programs, academic interests, degree focuses, etc. should be prayerfully made with the best interest of the local church in mind.

4. How has your church responded to your pursuit of a PhD? What about your family? How have you made time?

I have been blessed to be in a church that values my academic journey, though I came on staff as the pastor during my dissertation phase. However, the church has supported me throughout my time in writing and has prayed for me during times when I have been overwhelmed.

My wife has been my biggest advocate throughout the entire academic journey. She was the one who encouraged—even exhorted—me to begin in the first place, and she has been with me every step of the way. She has endured countless monologues of historical discoveries and theological thoughts. She has shouldered a greater load at home to allow me to write. She has given me pep talks when I wanted to quit. She has given me consolation and support when I felt inadequate. And she has been there to celebrate with me when there were victories—no matter how small—along the way. She, along with my two daughters, have sacrificed much over the course of my attaining this degree, and I could not have finished this journey without her sacrifice and support.

The time management component of the degree is perhaps the most challenging. I have essentially forgone any personal free time over the past several years to focus on completing the necessary work. It has taken a steady diet of late nights, early mornings, extended study sessions, and focused discipline. Saying “Yes” to a PhD means you are simultaneously saying “No” to many other things.

5. Are there any other benefits of the PhD besides the pastorate?

In addition to the pastoral benefits, having a PhD will open up many other opportunities down the road. For example, the PhD will provide me with the potential to invest in future generations of pastors and church leaders through teaching in the form of formal theological education. It may also afford publishing opportunities as well.

However, in my particular case, those were absolutely secondary to the benefit of being able to serve the local church better.

6. What are the challenges and/or potential dangers of pursuing a PhD as a Pastor?

There are, of course, certain challenges and dangers that pastors in particular face when pursuing a PhD. The most notable and weighty danger is that of time management. Pastors are always facing the challenge of finding enough time to accomplish all that needs to be done in a given week. The PhD is a relentless monster of an academic burden. When the workload demands more of your time, your family usually suffers the most. Relatedly, it can become easy to neglect your physical, emotional, and mental health as the weight of the PhD hangs over you.

Still another danger is that of academic elitism. Some are of the impression that only a PhD warrants significant respect in the academic community, and thus there can be the temptation to look down upon someone who doesn’t have a PhD with an elitist pride. Likewise, some may be tempted to consider their own work or assertions to be authoritative because of their degree.

As a pastor who is pursuing a degree in the academy, another significant danger can be the disconnection from shepherding in the local church. Many times, the layperson is not interested in the particular theological nuances and subtleties that may capture your attention in academia. It can, at times, feel like you are simultaneously living in two worlds. It becomes necessary, therefore, to prioritize the local church with an understanding that your academic work is the means to that end.

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