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?



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About Kyle Roberts

(PhD) is Associate Professor of Public and Missional Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (beginning in fall of 2014). Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series Kierkegaard Research: 2014-10-14 10.26.51Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans).