While brewing a second cup of coffee to keep alert in my Greek readings this morning, I found Chris Spinks’ post “Avoid a PhD?” His reflections were stimulated by Anthony LeDonne’s most recent attempt to dissuade prospective PhD candidates from pursuing their vocational dreams (LeDonne offers such discouragement on a monthly basis).

The gist of the matter is that those of us in the throes of doctoral work are loading ourselves with ungodly gobs of debt to be qualified for jobs that simply do not exist. Universities are raising tuition and increasing enrollment, but theology and religious studies professors are among the least paid across all disciplines. More and more academic institutions are taking advantage of “adjunct” professors who teach courses for very modest stipends and for whom the institutions provide nothing in terms of healthcare or other benefits.

Spinks (aptly) summarizes the advice of one commenter on LeDonne’s post in this way: “If you are not independently wealthy, or if you don’t have the pedigree to get an advanced degree in the humanities paid for, then please leave these degrees to those who can afford them.” But Spinks is concerned about the fallout, that “advanced degrees in the humanities become attainable only by the privileged.” He goes on to suggest that “if these less fortunate folks avoid all of this [financial/vocational] mess (not an unwise decision, I’ll grant), we will end up with privileged people educating other privileged people. That would be a shame.”

I am certainly among the (partially insane) unprivileged who are taking on hordes of debt to study the Bible at the doctoral level (though, admittedly, just the fact that I qualify for a student loan plan and can even dream about a PhD evidences a hefty degree of privilege). To be honest, I would issue the same advice as LeDonne, while hoping with Spinks that some less-than-privileged folks will end up teaching Scripture and theology in our seminaries and Religion Departments. I could never recommend this vocational path to anyone without massive financial backing—my regrets are rather acute right now; but again, theology should not be the domain only of the financially backed.

Though I see no solution to the debt-problem, here is one silver lining that may well be at play: not finding a job in the academy, some Christians may be redirected from the academic lectern to the ecclesial pulpit. Perhaps the job market and the wider culture’s disinterest in theology will have the effect of proliferating pastor-theologians throughout the church.

Obviously there are drawbacks here. For one, ministry is a calling and the pastoral office is not well-served if filled by a disgruntled academic whose dreams in the academy have been dashed by an economic recession. Secondly, the sort of training one gets as a PhD candidate is not necessarily conducive for promoting the sort of theological and biblical acuity required in ministerial labors.

But “calling” is often a matter of redirection, isn’t it? What some people might retrospectively call “divine calling,” might be understood at first as a “divine cornering or redirecting!” Saul of Tarsus, for instance, never envisioned how God would put his intensive academic training to use. His vocation as an apostle arose out of the ashes of a Christ-exploded vocational dream.

As for the sort of academic training involved in the PhD… well, a lot of it is simply unhelpful in a church context, sadly. But the greatest benefit of doctoral work in theology and Bible may well be the skill of reading hard texts and the discipline of thinking about them with nuance and care. And we could certainly use the fruit of those skills and disciplines in our pulpits today.

Theoretically, Christians working on PhDs are already plying their craft to the glory of God and for the benefit of the church. When the doors of the ivory towers are barred shut during the job hunt, will they turn to pulpits and pews?

That begs another question: will the pews and chapel doors be open to academically trained theologians and Bible scholars?




6 thoughts on “Pastor-Theologian: Will the Job Market Drive PhD Graduates into the Pulpit?”

  1. …maybe it’s time to think of an alternative model of education? It seems to me like we are avoiding the real elephant in the room with this discussion. Why is seminary so expensive? Why do we feel like that fancy piece of paper is worth such an exhaustive amount of debt? Knowledge, and particularly that of a theological nature seems pretty easy to verify without it. Do you really need a theological institution to prove that you know what you already know? It’s past time to stop playing the academic games of the world and start thinking about a distinctly Christian (for distinctly Christian purposes) form of education without all of the debt and beurocratic expenses of University education. We don’t need more PHD’s in the pulpit, we need them to get creative and make their own jobs for themselves outside the academy. Get some students together, and have your own class. Maybe charge 50 dollars per student per class and cut out the middle man.

  2. Yes, the Churches will be happy to parade a PhD as their pastor – especially the small ones who cannot afford to pay them a high enough salary to stay off federal aide – as long as they can tell emotively charged stories, can do application well, and are cool with contemporary music. If they don’t mind the thought of never paying their loans back by qualifying for IBR, being bi-vocational – which equals two full time jobs, and being content with Medicaid. For the average young theologian/pastor this will be his option, or he can wait allowing his baited breath to be exhausted for a Church big enough to pay him enough to be full time to hire him. Some will find this, especially if they have connections and can speak somewhat coherently. For the rest, they better fortify their education with some two year community college program that will allow them to make a decent income to support their ministerial desires. I, personally, would encourage all young men interested in theological study to qualify themselves for a 50k a year salaried job with either a two or four year degree in undergrad before delving into theological study. The jobs are few and so low paying that without that they’ll be educated and unpaid, living on government assistance and working at wal mart. All in all, having well educated pastors is a bonus, something I celebrate. But the cost might not be worth it.

  3. The church may be open to academically trained theologians and Bible scholars, but the paycheck you’ll received still won’t pay you enough to provide for your family and pay off your $$$ student loans.

    Better plan of attack is to get a marketable degree / work experience before going to seminary / grad school, and if the professor position isn’t there, at least you could earn a living while also serving in the church.

  4. I guess a relevant question might be: “Would an excellent academic theologian make a good compassionate down to earth pastor, preacher, or teaching elder who is not boring?

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