As with any profession, occasionally someone (a student, usually) approach me with a question: how can I do what you do? What they mean, of course, is teach ministry and theology in an academic setting. Normally, I respond with something like, “Great! Stay in school until you finish out, but don’t be an egghead. Serve a church the whole way through and gain real ministry experience.” There is, however, more to be considered, including motives, perceptions, and expectations. So, here I offer three gut checks for one considering a theological academic career.
The Pastor is the Higher Office
The academic campus, with its red bricks, white columns and intellectual aura, has a certain attraction. Students esteem their professors and collegial relationships enlighten and expand horizons. Truly, it is a satisfying career. Yet, in the realm of theology and ministry, the academy exists to serve the church, which makes the pastorate the higher office. The local church is the gospel-shaped, disciple-making, community of eschatological realities. Sure, working in the academic affords the opportunity to impact future leaders in multiplied ways, but this never exceeds the influence of a pastor. The pastor’s touch extends across the full spectrum of ages, classes, and vocations in a way a professor can never hope to do. Shepherding the flock of God is task worthy of every aspiration. So, consider the question of motive:
Why do you seek the professorate over the pastorate?
The Professor Does More Than Teach
Sometimes a person wants to pursue teaching rather than pastoring because he desires to teach but recoils from the intense shepherding and administrative work that accompanies the pastorate. The idea is that a professor can be fully given to teaching and writing—living alternately in the classroom and in the office, always learning, processing, and producing. I have news: this is a pipe dream. An academic career certainly involves life in the classroom and life in the study, but it is not without its own set of administrative and even pastoral components. In my experience, the amount of meetings, reports, paperwork, and general administrative labors increased when I left the pastorate for the academy. Furthermore, while the pastoral component is more manageable in the academic setting, I can’t say that it is less intense. My weekly office hours at the university are spent much the same way as they were spent when I was a pastor—comforting pains, confronting sins, correcting errors, offering guidance, and praying earnestly. If your idea of an academic career is a tweed-jacketed existence of teaching class in the morning and spending the afternoon drafting your latest book while sipping English tea, then you might to recalibrate your vision. So, consider the question of perception:
What do you think an academic career will be like?
The PhD Comes With Probabilities
Although it requires certain aptitudes, obtaining a PhD often has as much to do with one’s work ethic and circumstances as natural intellect. For an array of reasons (financial, familial, vocational), one may own the necessary acumen but not be able to pursue the degree. Even if circumstances allow it, such study is costly and taxing. Advanced study isn’t for everyone, and faithful ministry does not require it. So, before you begin, you should ponder long the purposes for which you desire it. If your goal is entirely career-oriented, then consider two sobering probabilities.
- A relatively HIGH percentage of those who enter PhD programs never finish.
Earning a PhD is a long haul, with ever-higher hoops to jump through, and many things can derail the journey. My years as a PhD student (while also a husband, father, and full-time pastor) were hard in multiplied ways.
- A relatively LOW percentage of those who complete the degree obtain full-time academic jobs.
I can’t offer stats (I’m sure they exist), but take for example the ratio of Southern Baptist churches to faculty positions in South Carolina. The South Carolina Baptist Convention claims over 2,000 cooperating churches, but within the 3 affiliated universities (Anderson University, Charleston Southern University, North Greenville University), there are less than 50 full-time academic positions in biblical, theological, and ministerial studies. The ratio is 40:1. For every full-time academic position, there are 40 pastor positions. So, consider the question of expectation:
What if a full-time faculty position doesn’t open?
Embark upon advanced studies with clear eyes. Your goal mustn’t be too narrowly focused on a certain job. You goal must be broad and open—the greatest possible stewardship of your gifts through whatever avenue the Lord provides, and that might be in the local church—the highest institution of them all.