Like many in our small world, I did not stop my formal education after seminary. In fact, I did another Master’s degree (History) and went through to the Doctorate (History). Last Monday, I finished my final seminar. In the fall, I have a private readings scheduled and then I sit for comprehensive examinations in March with the dissertation to follow .
That sounds so fun, right? A Presbyterian fulfilling that famous Reformed E/INTJ longing for knowledge. Not so fast my friend. I am also a church planter and we started weekly worship this past January. Let me give you a few things I have learned about full-time ministry, particularly church planting, and pursuing Ph.D studies.
First, it is doable. I am not the most organized person in the world and somehow I have managed. It was easy in the beginning but when we launched small groups and networked this past fall, I found myself working about 60-70 hours a week plus full-time studies! Tip: Go part-time. I read over 100 books last year and probably close to 100 journal articles.
Second, it is a worthy pursuit. Some pastors play golf. Some pastors brew beer. Some pastors stay home. This one likes to spend 3 hours, one night a week, in seminar hashing out ideas, facts, fiction and figures. It also helps when people know you are a Christian pastor. Somehow, you seem more respectable and real than Tim Tebow or Joel Osteen because you can debate materialist vs. idealist interpretations of the Populist Movement, among other things. They also tend to respect your “outmoded” belief in the Christian God because you are a colleague.
Tip: The connections and foothold you gain in academia are worth the effort. Believe it or not, people still respect Presbyterianism, even we theologically conservative PCA types.
Sidenote: I have found that tolerance can work both ways and it can be a good thing.
Third, you will suffer. Like any pursuit, it comes with costs. Since I chose history, I have not been able to stay up on theological stuff as much as I would like. I have also found that I exist in many different worlds. It is strange, and I have had to give up opportunities to travel, rearrange vacation schedules, etc. Plus, since attendance is more strictly enforced than seminary, you just cannot miss a seminar. There are fourteen weeks, fourteen to sixteen books to read, fourteen classes to attend and you can count on an additional 12-20 books for your final paper. Also, I suffered my first B since seminary. It hurt but I had a choice: ministry or giving 100% to coursework. Your congregational needs ALWAYS come first. Also, be prepared for added stress in your marriage. Unlike seminary, this *could* be a world your spouse does not want to enter. That is fine. But also be prepared for the two weeks at the end of the semester where you write your tail off and hide in an office. If you find that your wife becomes a side note to your congregation and studies, then you should wait or never do it. I will say that Jennifer and I have taken on some added pressure in our relationship but I would not have pursued this without her approval.
Tip: This is where you need your wife and close associates/friends to speak into your world. Can you handle the added stress and pressure? If not, stay away!
Sidenote: We are childless, though not by choice. I cannot speak to situations that involve being a parent, though my experience tells me that you would be insane to plant, PhD and parent at the same time. One last thing. I am team planting so that probably saves 10-15 hours a week.
I operate under the assumption that I will complete my dissertation in a couple years. I have found the experience to be fulfilling and a way to believe some of the stress of ministry. I have also discovered that you make connections with folks outside the Church. Sometimes I have found that I am the only Christian some of these folks know or the only one they claim has not been a “jerk” to them.
In closing, if you are near a public university, or other institution which offers more graduate work and it falls within your interest, consider it. You need to pray, plan and evaluate. Do not be afraid to enter. Do not be afraid to exit.