Every year, I meet with a number of seminary students who are interested in pursuing PhD studies. Usually, the first question I ask them is: "Why? Why do you believe that doctoral studies are part of God's calling for you?" And the most frequent answer falls into a pattern that I have seen at the three seminaries where I have been privileged to work.
You see, most (male) students come to pursue an MDiv degree because they believe that God has called them to ministry in the context of the local church. Most frequently, that has some connection to preaching, teaching, administering the sacraments, praying, leading, and counseling--the basic functions of either a senior, solo, or staff pastors.
Many come to seminary with a very romantic view of the ministry--having grown up in churches, many of which were strong and stable, it appeared that the senior pastor's life offered security and significance. In addition, these students may have had someone who impacted their lives in a profound way: perhaps a youth minister, campus minister, or senior minister who took time with them and discipled them in the basic practices of the Christian faith. In a response of romance, gratitude, and epiphany, these students come to seminary desiring to be used by God in a similar way.
Until they get to seminary. And then they discover several things: one is that seminary can be difficult. They struggle with Greek and Hebrew; they find that their wives and children serve as sanctifying agents in ways they hadn't before (amazing what an 800 sq. ft. on-campus apartment can do); God begins to peel back their hearts in ways that had never happened before. Their wives may go through a period of questioning them--why did you lead us away from Egypt (or Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston, Los Angeles, or wherever) to bring us to the wilderness?
Another is that ministry can be difficult. Through field education, as these students begin to spend time as interns or directors of ministries in the context of the local church, they see the other side of ministerial life: the grace-filled thorns that the Apostle Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12. They are exposed to infighting among ruling elders or among church staff members; they engage in the less glamorous parts of ministry (one internship I had at a church led to hours spent in the church's tape room making copies of sermons for distribution to the congregation); they sometimes feel a bit ignored.
A final discovery is this reality: as one friend put it, that while they were the rising star at their local churches--the one surrendered to vocational ministry--when they come to seminary there are hundreds (at Covenant Seminary, 350 MDiv students) just like them. Suddenly, they don't feel so special any more, which can lead to profound doubts and questions about calling.
Suddenly, they begin to look at their seminary professors in a whole new light. They seem suave, secure, significant; they have time to read books and write learned essays; they control the classroom and have no one to say them nay; their families seem protected, isolated from churchly toil, struggle, and infighting--plus, the seminary profs get paid for all this. The sense of calling with which the students came--an internal call matched by the church's approbation that they had pastoral gifts for local church ministry--begins to shift.
This shift coincides with the particular interest that academic work can bring: for example, they have a faculty member whose class opens a whole new world for them in their class or discipline; they write a paper that brings genuine satisfaction, a satisfaction that the internship just doesn't match; they serve as a teaching assistant for a favorite faculty member, doing grading and even a taste of teaching. Maybe, maybe, God really called them to ministry in general and is now calling them to the academic life in particular.
All of this adds up for them and brings them to my office. Now, there are those who come for whom it seems that God may have an academic career in mind. For these, I try to be as honest as possible--you do have academic gifting, but you have to recognize that there are a glut of PhDs in the job market; that competition for jobs is ruthless; and that you are probably more likely to find a job at a college or university, which is why you should target your students as widely as possible (instead of OT or NT, go to a university for a PhD program in religious studies; instead of church history or historical theology, go to a university for a PhD program in history; etc.). In addition, I have to tell these people how unlikely it is for them to teach at a seminary that is serious about training pastors if they themselves do not have some pastoral experience (which, for some reason, always seems to surprise them). Still, for these, I encourage them, write references for them, and try to provide appropriate guidance as they walk along the path.
For others, I try to raise as many questions as possible--are you really sure you have the academic gifting or interest (for these, I usually ask them to tell me what books in the field of interest they have read outside of class in this past semester. That is an excellent barometer for gauging whether they will succeed in a PhD program)? What has happened in their lives to cause them to reevaluate their sense of calling? Do they really understand how unlikely it is for them to find a job--would they really be willing to go through the pain of PhD studies if they knew they didn't have a job at the end? Do they really understand how insecure academic life is? Will they listen to me tell them how unsatisfying academic significance turns out to be? These students tend to leave my office discouraged; some still try to do PhD work, but very few complete their programs and/or find teaching posts.
There are a (very) few who want to do a PhD in order to equip them better for pastoral ministry. For these, I simply rejoice and try to encourage them not to allow the apparent blandishments of academic life to sway them from the God-given trajectory they are pursuing. For what our churches need are pastors who can bring the critical thinking skills that PhD studies teach to their tasks. Notice that I didn't say pastor-scholars: I fear that all too often we say that and the mental picture that forms includes academic (biblical or theological) essays for sermons; thirteen hours in the study each day; and a focus on the call of the academy instead of the needs of the church. But what PhD studies do provide are critical thinking skills--the ability to discern and divide issues, the larger and more sharply honed knowledge base, and the writing skills which should translate into preaching--all of which strengthen pastoral ministry, all of which strengthen the church of Jesus.
I do wish that we had more of this last group. What I find, however, is that even these students are open to a particular struggle--the divided mind of the pastor-scholar, the tug-and-pull between pastoral ministry in the context of a local congregation on the one side and academic ministry in the context of a college, university, or seminary. As one friend has told me, for most of these students, to have to resolve the division on one side or the other often feels like death, having to close off one part of themselves to engage the other side of their gift mix and calling (there are very few churches like Tenth Presbyterian or Bethlehem Baptist, which see their senior minister's writing ministry as a significant part of his calling; and on the other side, most seminaries generally frown on extended, weekly preaching ministry on the part of their faculty).
All of this makes the Jeremiah Burroughs' quote just below this post even more apparently elusive--how to be sure of God's call in whatever engages our hands to do? I think it is probably by taking another part of Burroughs' direction for contentment to heart: "Exercise faith by often resigning yourself to God, by giving yourself up to God and his ways. The more you in a believing way surrender up yourself to God, the more quiet and peace you will have" (Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 219). Regularly returning to the Lord and offering up our hearts to him, saying again and again, "Lord, I serve at your bidding. Guide your servant as you see fit," will grant us quiet, peace, and confidence in God's calling in our ministerial lives.