Why Take a PhD to Pastoral Ministry

Dr. Joey Sherrard

Dr. Joey Sherrard recently defended his PhD thesis in St. Mary’s College, and he now serves as Assistant Pastor of Discipleship at Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  We congratulate Dr. Sherrard on his successful thesis defense and wish him the best as he ministers at his local congregation. This post continues our blog series on pastor theologians.


Why Take a PhD to Pastoral Ministry

When I decided, after six years of local church ministry as a pastor, to move across the Atlantic and to begin a doctoral program in systematic theology, what already felt like a lonely endeavor seemed even just a little bit lonelier. When I matriculated at St Andrews, I did so with a clear sense of calling that I would return to pastoral ministry upon the completion of my degree. Many of my colleagues at St Andrews, while sympathetic to intellectual demands of the task of ministry and committed to the local church in their personal and professional lives, came to St Andrews to pursue a vocation in academia and the specific context of institutions of higher learning. The clarity of their own calling and the relative straightforwardness with which they could integrate the work into their preparation for their careers contrasted with my own. How exactly did the work of seminar conversations about the doctrine of divine simplicity and papers presented on the extra Calvinisticum justify the significant commitment that my family and I had just made?

I’m grateful that in my first year at St Andrews I discovered the Center for Pastor Theologians and began almost immediately to be involved in their work. That institution, alongside the example of other pastors, the encouragement of friends and colleagues at St Mary’s, and the last two post-St Andrews years of work as a pastor, have helped me begin to articulate the immense blessing it is to be bring a PhD to the local church and the acute need there is for pastors who have completed the kind of intellectual formation required by a doctoral degree. What follows are three reasons why men and women discerning a call to ministry might consider doctoral work and why those currently undertaking a PhD can find their work well put to use in pastoral ministry.

The Fragmentation of Late Modernity

The lack of a coherent, shared intellectual framework and the abundance of identities now available in the modern marketplace has been well-documented by scholars such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. Modern Western culture is a confusing place to be a human being, let alone the shepherd of a group of men and women who bring into the pews each Sunday the questions and opinions they’ve formed from the various theological, media, and relational wells they have drawn from in the past week. Whereas in previous generations pastor and congregant might be able to agree upon a relatively narrow set of first principles that guide preaching, worship, and pastoral counseling, in most contexts this consensus has largely been lost. And this is the reality not just outside of the pastor, but also inside of him or her as well.

The gift of a doctoral degree is not only the opportunity to go a mile deep on a single biblical or theological conversation, but also the opportunity to think synthetically across the disciplines and historically across the ages. The pastor-theologian already has a tendency to be a generalist; the work of a doctoral program allows one to be a much more knowledgeable one. Seminars invite you to learn about much more than your own project. And (at least at the Roundel in St Andrews) lunchtime and water cooler conversations about colleagues’ interests are where much of the learning takes place. All of this is a significant asset that the pastor-theologian can bring into the study and the pulpit. In the middle of a time of intellectual and spiritual fragmentation, a doctoral program allows the pastor-theologian to begin to integrate.

The Intellectual Demands of Discipleship

This aforementioned integration is a much-needed asset for the pastor-theologian as he or she seeks to shepherd the flock toward Christian maturity. While there may be reason to sympathize with the pragmatic orientation of discipleship that is found in many contemporary churches, a deep acquaintance with the Scriptures and the Church’s theological tradition reveals the thinness of what can pass for spiritual formation. My own work in systematic theology at St Andrews has provided for me a number of tools that have been brought to bear on my work as a pastor: a greater attention to the doctrine of creation for understanding the ends of formation, an appreciation of the structure and depth of Christian catechesis, and a deeper understanding of the ways that doctrines relate to one another.

The work of discipling men and women in the local church is quite different than the work of constructing a 80,000 word doctoral thesis. In many ways it is more complex, requiring relational sensitivity, wisdom, and persistence. But it is not less than a robustly intellectual task that requires the fullness of the Church’s theological resources. Pastor-theologians can be an asset to the Church’s witness in the task of discipleship.

The Beauty of Theology in the Local Church

A doctoral program, and particularly the research-intensive structure of UK doctorates, affords one an immense amount of time to engage with the great texts of the Christian tradition. This time, alongside the habits of attentiveness and charity that the St Mary’s community encouraged in me, led me to an increased appreciation for the Spirit’s work in the Church and the lives of the theologians who sought to be faithful to the witness of the prophets and the apostles in their works. Experiences such as a semester spent reflecting upon the elegance and beauty of Augustine’s City of God leads one to a greater appreciation of and confidence in the riches of the Gospel of grace.

But there is an equally profound beauty found not only in discovering these works and in furthering the conversation about them with the academy, but also in seeing their truths forged in the lives of the saints. In our age of anxiety and uncertainty, there is a deep satisfaction to be found in bringing Augustine’s abiding confidence in the City of God to bear upon the hearts of those in the local church. This is a work that requires not only wise and learned pastor-theologians but also production of robust theology by these same men and women to encourage and edify fellows pastors and followers of Jesus in their calling.

For these reasons and an abundance of others, doctoral students and discerning pastors will find their PhDs put to excellent use in ordained ministry in the local church.

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