The Changing Face of Employment in Biblical Studies

I was having lunch with my friend Jerry Sumney in Lexington. He’s a very fine NT scholar at Lexington Theological Seminary, which in essence has stopped having regular semester on campus classes. It does online classes, and has intensives in January and in the summer. It does not take a seer to see that in the next ten or so years many seminaries are likely to go this route, or to simply shut down. The decline of so many churches, many of them mainline churches, but also various of the more conservative Protestant Churches in turn leads to a decline in enrollment in seminaries, and so on. Downsizing, or retooling is already in progress. I know of one seminary that has even moved into a large church, leaving behind its previous campus, in order to survive. And then there is also the trend of major institutions to take fewer and fewer doctoral students into programs in Biblical Studies. Asbury is a very rare exception which started a PhD program in Biblical Studies now some 6-7 years ago which is ramping up rather than turning to diminution as a way to survive. All of this does not augur well for employment in the field we call Biblical Studies. So what to do, if you feel called to teach Biblical studies? How does one get a job?

There are of course many avenues to employment, and one of the things I have encouraged all long, and all the more so now is— ‘Go where Christianity is growing’ which by and large is in the two thirds world. I have had the honor of lecturing and preaching all around the world, and there are definitely good opportunities to be had in places like Africa and India and Asia. You need to think outside of the North American or European or former British colony box, frankly. In the U.S. there are still some opportunities, especially if you are prepared to adjunct for a good while and prove your mettle that way. There are also increasing online possibilities for teaching as an adjunct with various institutions, including Asbury.

Speaking frankly, in an increasingly inclusive-minded field, those who are likely to have to look the hardest for work are white males, of which there are an abundance of unemployed ones with PhD in hand. The question is— What sort of sacrifices are you prepared to make to teach full time? Are you prepared to go abroad, at least for some years? My fellow John Wesley Fellow, Mark Abbott went abroad many years ago to teach in Spain. He stayed for decades! I would suggest one not take the approach that overseas teaching should be seen as a simple stepping stone to ‘coming back home’. For one thing, that suggests that somehow teaching overseas involves teaching in second best settings, but in fact many of those settings are more like Biblical settings, and actually more can be accomplished. The one big difficulty in teaching in many settings abroad is that it is so labor intensive, that there tends not to be much time for research and writing. I hear this from colleagues ranging from in Africa to Russia to India to Asia to Down Under, and I could go on. It even happens here in the U.S. as departments shrink in size.

In a job market that is increasingly crowded, obviously, good publications are paramount to getting a job. By good publications I do not mean self-published things. In the age of the internet self-publishing can serve many good purposes but getting a decent job is not one of them. By good publications I mean also not just getting the dissertation published, though that is a crucial first step. It is that second scholarly work that becomes really crucial at the outset in most cases. Institutions want to know— Is there any juice in the tank left, any life left, after the dissertation? Because institutions can afford to be increasingly picky these days, publications become increasingly important.

What kind of publications? It depends on the college or seminary really. Some schools would look favorably on mid-level publications that are helpful to pastors and teachers etc. by not being written at the highest technical level. But many other institutions require that the second major publication be a technical monograph published by someone like JCB Mohr, or de Gruyter, or Brill, or Fortress Press, or Cambridge U. Press or Oxford U. Press, or the like. The issue for the latter type of schools is whether this or that person can be expected to make a real contribution in their field, or not. Of course there are some schools which are not ‘research’ driven institutions where employment focuses more on teaching and interpersonal and even ministry skills than on publications.

I tell some of my students they should be considering becoming teaching pastors, bringing their exegetical skills into the church directly, and some have done this very successfully. A word of caution however. This requires the ability to speak clearly to the level of discourse which one finds in that particular church. Speaking in the academy is one thing, speaking in a church another, and many scholars do not have the skill of speaking at any or all levels of discourse.

It is well to remind you that while there are still plenty of tenure track institutions in the world, there is certainly a trend away from such kinds of employment. Seeking a job in Biblical Studies is increasingly a faith venture, but that does not mean either it is impossible or not worth doing. To the contrary, it may provide the ideal conditions for being a good teacher— namely you really need to rely on God and his direction for your life.


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