Got a Ph.D. in Theology? Go Work for a Church

What to do with all these worthless Ph.D.’s in the humanities?

The Chronicle of Higher Ed relays a speech given by Michael F. Bérubé to the Council of Graduate School, called “The Future of Graduate Education in the Humanities.” He offers up, in the words of the article’s title, a “sobering critique” of the state of the humanities, in terms of financial assistance for graduate school and job prospects.

I’ve beaten this drum before, and my students sometimes accuse me of of beating it too often, but I’m not sure the discussion can be had enough. If you don’t believe the state of the situation, read the article.

Last I checked, theology was included in the humanities. And I suspect the ongoing and future prospects of teaching theology in a tenure track position in the academy are at the most dire end of the completely dire spectrum. Now, if you want to teach religious studies, say, Asian or African religion or Islam, there are positions opening all over the place, it seems. But theology–in particular, perhaps, systematic theology–seems to a dying breed.

When I decided to do a Ph.D in theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I wasn’t dead-set on entering the academy. For one thing, I felt that my theological education was incomplete and, since I was still rather young, I had time and flexibility to pursue another degree. Further, I wanted to be prepared to teach either in the academy or to pastor in the church, and I figured a Ph.D. in theology would be essential for the first, and certainly wouldn’t hurt if I went into church ministry.  Despite feeling like I probably wasn’t smart enough to land an academic job (and realizing that a Ph.D. from Trinity would not stack up too well against a Ph.D. from Princeton, Yale, or Duke–at least outside the evangelical world), I charged ahead, staying open to the prospects of either direction. I had a very good experience there, and am glad I pursued the option before me.

Somehow I landed a job teaching theology at Bethel Seminary, and immediately realized my theological education was still incomplete (for one thing, I discovered a whole world of theological richness outside of the white, Euro-American male, but that’s a discussion for another day).

In his speech, Bérubé suggests that programs in the humanities may need to start intentionally preparing their doctoral students for careers outside of the academy. He suggests this might even require revisiting the sacrosanct dissertation.

I’m not sure about the dissertation part (it seems a crucial exercise for learning how to think and argue creatively), but I think he’s right on about the former.

In the case of theological education, it seems rather simple. Perhaps theological programs can start to intentionally prepare students for careers outside the academy, beginning with ministry in the “church,” (broadly conceived). I’ve argued before that churches need more ministers who are deeply theologically trained–not so they can re-state the old theological positions so much as think creatively and contextually and help their congregations to do “local theology” together as they collectively respond to the impulses of the gospel in their lives. Disclaimer: Obviously not everyone is “cut out” for church ministry, and churches certainly don’t need ministers who are there because they couldn’t achieve their real dreams.

Furthermore, you don’t need a Ph.D. to be a theologian, or to theologize well. So, it goes back to a question of time, resources, energy, investment, capacities and gifts, etc. But the discussion of the predicament of the humanities caused me to reflect on the notion that the discipline of theology already has a ready-made alternative to teaching and researching in the academy: thinking and talking about God with the people of God while living as the people of God. It’s an old partnership, really: thinking and doing, reflecting and action, theo-logy and theo-praxis.

But enough about me, what do you think?



About Kyle Roberts
  • Marc Baldwin

    Great commentary. The fact is that it’s not what degree you have but what you know and who you are that matters most. You can definitely make the degree bend to your will with faith in God and yourself. I have had the privilege of working with literally thousands of doctoral candidates and PhDs, and the vast majority of them have secured positions and made their way in the world quite well–most especially those men and women of faith.

  • Kathy Tuan-Maclean

    Kyle, you just wrote the blog that I’m constantly preaching to all the (usually men) I meet who want Ph.Ds in Theology (or Philosophy or Religion), and who, even after getting those degrees at Harvard, can’t get jobs! Just fyi, for Jesus-loving missional theology Ph.D.s who also love people, my ministry (Grad/Faculty ministries of InterVarsity) is always hiring!

  • JM Smith

    It will be a great day for the Kingdom when churches see the need for a staff theologian or Pastor of Theology in addition to the myriad positions that most see as essential (Worship Pastor, Children’s Pastor, Youth Pastor, Singles Pastor, Seniors Pastor, Outreach Pastor, Executive Pastor, Missions Pastor, etc.)

  • Craig

    Holding a PhD (particularly from Princeton, Yale, Duke, etc.) may disadvantage you in evangelical churches. This may be less a fault of the PhD than the churches themselves. It’s a lot like getting a PhD in one of the hard sciences and then applying for a job at a think tank, funded by the oil industry, with a mission to promote climate change skepticism. You can have the job or you can have your integrity, but you can’t have both.

  • PJ Anderson

    It’s an important piece that says something I’ve been saying for a while now. The job market is beyond terrible and it isn’t going to get better soon. I know of a NT position that received 200 resumes (not saying they were all qualified) and ultimately went with a candidate who had a pricey British PhD…and it wasn’t even a tenure track position.

    I went and got a good PhD from an evangelical seminary, then went and continued to serve in local churches. Its been wonderful. My schedule permits me plenty if time for my own, guided research and I don’t have to worry about pointless faculty meetings and such. Plus I get to offer occasional classes for folks that are truly interested in these subjects. Anyways, I think our churches would be lots better off if the surplus of PhD grads would take time to go into those churches (read “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians”) and enjoy.

    It helped Barth.

  • Glen McGraw

    I am finding that the degree in my area is less important than knowing the right people. It is a unique environment where you have to have a connection to a particular church for a true consideration. There are two seminaries in the town I live in and most of their grads end up leaving and heading for bigger pastures

    This is a serious oversight in hiring. They are passing well rounded, educated candidates for less qualified friends. It seems they fear the potential “threat” a well educated candidate can bring.

    • Craig

      Well there’s also the threat that a non-friend can bring. In churches, as in crime families, what’s valued is the guarantee of loyalty.

  • Glen McGraw

    I agree Craig. We also see that in the local colleges religion departments and seminaries.

  • John W. Morehead

    I like this idea, and being kept on retainer! I especially like your idea about local theologies or contextual theologies. These are desperately needed if the church is to move beyond McChurch and franchised ecclesiologies and theologies. But it’ll never happen. The church, by and large, does not recognize or value the work of its academics. For this reason I only do part of my academic work for the church. The rest is done in the “secular” world, and I have been fortunate to have achieved some respect in both venues.

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  • brian

    i think you are exactly right!

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  • nicholas

    Thank you for your post, its nice to hear someone affirm their decision for doing a phd. I have a couple of questions though, 1) How and in what ways did your phd better equip you to serve the church? 2) What benefit do you think their is for ‘church workers’ to have studied beyond a masters? Also did you find that it took time away from recieving training and experience in more pastoral spheres of ministry?
    It is interesting that you did your research when you were still young, whereas I’ve heard elsewhere older students write about how it had taken too much time away from their ministry. Perhaps this is a factor, doing it during a stage in your life when you are still getting going and learning lots fast?

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