Why I’m Dropping the Ph.D. Program
As of about two weeks ago, I am no longer a student in the Ph.D./THS in New Testament program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This will come as a shock to some and as no surprise whatsoever to others. I imagine that most of you who know me will fall somewhere in between. Sort of a, “Hm. Wow. Makes sense, though” response.
I began the Ph.D. program at Trinity immediately after completing my Master of Divinity (M.Div.). I wasn’t real big on Trinity’s placement model for seminary graduates, which was essentially: “Give your résumé to the Placement Office, they’ll send it to a hundred churches and we’ll see who bites.” Call it naïve or reckless or whatever, but that seemed to me a somewhat strange way to find a place to serve. So I pursued a few leads, made some phone calls, submitted an application to a church I had been a part of, but nothing panned out.
Taking this to be a signal that the timing wasn’t right for me to be in vocational ministry just yet, I applied to the Ph.D. program at Trinity as a way to further my training, spend more time around men from whom I desperately wanted to learn (Don Carson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Graham Cole, etc.), and (admittedly) to tread water until a fitting position in ministry opened up. I took as many classes from these guys as I could, and benefited enormously.
God, in all his irony and wisdom, opened up a perfect opportunity for me at New Hope Church during my third semester of coursework (of four) in the Ph.D. program. I wanted this position, Leslie and I sensed a call to it (as did the NHC elders and several other trusted counselors) and I accepted it in November of 2006, moving to Minneapolis a month later. I was unsure at this point what would become of my doctoral studies. My senior pastor and the elders fully supported—and have continued to support—my completion of the degree and urged me to do so if it seemed wise to Leslie and me. I have pursued both full-time ministry and full-time doctoral work with as much balance and excellence as I have been able for the last three years. And while my ministry has been fruitful, my family has been reasonably healthy and my coursework is now complete (comprehensive exams and a dissertation would still await—likely another 3-4 years of work), it has become very clear to Leslie and me that it is time to set this course down.
At the end of August, I sent this e-mail to my faculty advisor (his name is irrelevant):
I’m writing to let you know that after long and earnest prayer and discussion with my wife, I am on the verge of setting down my doctoral work. Obviously, there is a bitterness in thinking about giving this up, but I cannot deny that over the past year or more I have been spread far too thin and feel that I’ve done nothing as well as I am capable. I’ve ‘gotten by’ with a (very) patient wife, giftedness for ministry that masks what is too frequently prayerlessness and lack of adequate preparation, kids that are too young to know that I’m not spending much time with them, and a devotional life that has grown thin. Something needs to give and the only thing that makes sense to set aside is doctoral work. I do realize how close I am to comprehensives, but in all honesty I am nowhere close to being ready to take them. I have no confidence that I would successfully navigate the exams at this point. Moreover, I’m growing more and more certain that I love my church, my wife and my kids too much to spend 5000 hours on a dissertation in the next few years.
All of that said, I do value your counsel very highly and if you see a glaring mistake in my reasoning, or if there are other things you think I need to hear, I would certainly welcome them. Thank you so much for your investment in me, Dr. ________.”
He responded with a wonderfully kind and supportive e-mail affirming my priorities and prospective decision.
This revelation of the wisdom of setting the Ph.D. aside had been working its way into my consciousness for some time, but boomed into clarity during a run one day in August. I was running along the shore of Medicine Lake, near our home, and heard what I can only describe as the closest thing to an audible communication from the Lord that I’ve ever experienced. I heard the words, “That’s enough. It’s time to set this down.” repeatedly and in such a clear and nearly-audible way that I looked around myself several times to make sure I wasn’t hearing something or unknowingly talking out loud to myself. When I returned home I explained what had happened to Leslie, asked her to pray, and then I knelt by my bedside to pray for wisdom and discernment to know whether I had heard from Him clearly or not. The above e-mail was sent a week later.
My completed coursework will merit a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in addition to my Master of Divinity (M.Div.), which is gratifying in that the coursework completed (and tuition paid) will be recognized. I’m very interested in pursuing a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) in the future—not for the additional letters, of course, but because I am extremely interested in conversing with other learned pastors and scholars in a structured environment about how to pastor effectively, to cast vision, and to preach, shepherd and lead well. But I will not pursue it unless I am able to free up time for it—rather than trying to stack it on top of an already full schedule.
Since making this decision, Leslie and I have experienced an enormous amount of relief and peace. Our date nights are regular again. Are devotional lives are rich. I don’t have to say, “Daddy can’t play. I have to study” to Owen anymore. What a joy. What a deep, deep joy. It was the right decision all the way around. I love my God, my family and my church (in that order) too much to neglect any of them to continue to pursue a degree that cannot do much more to help me carry out what I am certain is my vocational calling: To expound and apply the Word of God from the pulpit and in private so as to win the lost, edify the saints, and create missional disciples who multiply disciples. May God be pleased to continue to use me.