January 25th, 2020

clerk

Is there a doctor in the house?

I have a friend who has been offered a half-scholarship to do a doctorate at United Theological Seminary. I don’t know if this is a DMin or a PhD or what – and I don’t know if that matters. But the catch is, even at half price, he would have to come up with something like thirty thousand smackeroonies, not counting his personal expenses.

This is in contrast to what it cost me to earn my PhD at a public university. I used to joke that I was a professional student, since what I paid them for tuition was less than what they paid me as a University Fellow (teaching assistant). Both amounts were fairly piddly, but still, they paid me more than I paid them. All I had to do was support my family somehow. I took out no loans for my five years at ISU.

Now, the public university can afford to do this because they are rather choosy on whom they admit to their doctoral programs. Just because you want the cachet of another degree doesn’t mean you get in. And they need adjunct faculty and teaching assistants to carry the load of teaching, so these few, fairly qualified doctoral students make a pool of ready instructors. And, of course, public universities are more awash in cash generally for staff.

Seminaries are different. Their adjunct faculty tend to be like the DS who taught my UM polity class in seminary. They employ few teaching assistants (I had one for my basic Greek course). Regular courses are presumed to be taught by full-time staff with terminal degrees. And they don’t receive funding from the state; some denominational seminaries receive funding from their churches, but it mostly goes to keeping the existing staff and infrastructure in place. And while they may be choosy about offering the prize of a half-scholarship, I don’t think they’re near as choosy about admission to programs. If you want another degree, they’re happy to sell you one.

And we want our advanced degrees. There has been a proliferation of doctoral programs in American academia to meet the demand for titles and status. You see it in secular fields like education, where principals and superintendents want to be “Dr.” So-and-so – may need to be Dr. So-and-so in order to get the job they’re seeking. When a master’s degree is the basic ticket of entry to your profession, then where do you go to show that you have continued “to sound the depths of that thou wilt profess?” And when your job requires so much continuing education, earning an advanced degree beats going to seminars, sometimes. Many of these programs are so-called “professional” degrees, as opposed to academic or scholarly degrees (some people have pronounced views on the difference between an EdD and a PhD), but like the student who graduates last in one’s class at medical school, everybody gets to be called “Doctor.”

In the church, the DMin has become a very attractive credential. It usually doesn’t require residency at the seminary (because the student is not involved in teaching, etc.), so you can stay employed in your parish while you pursue the degree. Many DMin programs require something less than a full dissertation, too, which is the hurdle that prevents a majority of PhD students from finishing their degrees. But if you want to teach at a seminary, the preferred credential is still the PhD or one of its religious equivalents (ThD, STD, etc.).

Once upon a time, academic institutions were pretty free with handing out honorary doctorates. Seminaries would grant DD (Doctor of Divinity) titles to prominent clergy. These doctorates still exist, and their recipients are stilled called “Doctor,” if they want, but they are generally not thought to be credentials that will get you a job on a seminary faculty.

I have joked ever since receiving my Ph.D. that I was awarded an “ornamental doctorate.” I mean, I earned it, it’s not honorary, but it hasn’t opened many doors for me. I couldn’t find an academic job when I graduated, so I went back to the pastorate. My parish and the Cabinet both thought my PhD was something of a gaudy excrescence, not essential to the job I was there to do. My salary certainly reflected that. Also ist das Leben in die grosse Stadt. I find the work I did to earn that PhD has enlarged my understanding of what I did as a pastor and church leader, and I have asked no more of it.

Not only does earning a Big Degree not necessarily guarantee advancement, it doesn’t guarantee happiness, either. I had a parishioner once who owned his own insurance agency. He held a PhD in Plant Genetics. All that got him was a job working for a big seed corn company. He made more money and was more in control of his life selling insurance. He never used his academic title, and most people were unaware of his scientific background.

At the same time, there are people who need an advanced credential in order to ascend to higher responsibilities – either in teaching or in administration. Earning a doctorate would open many doors for them. And some of those, like my friend offered the half-scholarship, are from outside the USA. They cannot possibly pay for these credentials with loans. But their earning them would enable them to pursue their vision in building up the church in their home countries. Helping them would be, in my mind, a worthy missions project.

And there are those who are called to take up the task of teaching and forming the next generation of clergy. Earning an academic doctorate is essential to their ascent to the professor’s chair. That is as holy and important a calling as any other. That said, clergy education is a responsibility shared between the seminary and the practicing clergy of a denominational body. There are things that are learned best as an apprentice under the guidance of journeymen, and there are things that are learned best from specialists. Academic credentials are required of the specialists, but the journeymen don’t need them as much. The wisdom of the Old Hand, acquired from years of walking with God and working with people, is as valuable in its way as the mastery of an academic discipline is in its way. For instance, I might (barely) be able to teach clergy candidates Greek, but it’s easier to have them take a course taught by somebody who has done more extensive study on it and who uses it day in and day out; meanwhile, the big thing I had to learn when I started full-time ministry (and which seminary did nothing to prepare me for) was how to organize my work – indeed, organize my life – in order to get things done. I could have used an Old Hand back then; I have endeavored to offer the advice of an Old Hand to newbies ever since I figured it out.