Does your pastor need a doctorate?

I just heard a story about another medium-sized church in a small town where a personnel committee desired above all that their next pastor have the title “Dr.” in front of his name. And I found myself thinking, “How uneducated.”

The reality is that the skills this church most needs in a pastor may not be the product of an advanced degree. That’s not to say that graduate degrees aren’t good or helpful or honorable; surely they are. However, there remains in some lay leadership a false impression that certain degrees are more important than experience—or worse, that titles will bring prestige and thereby grow the church.

A colleague of mine, a graduate of a prominent Ivy League divinity school, declared that such churches are “facing the future with a paradigm from the past.”

Here are some facts worth pondering:

— The master of divinity degree, the basic theological degree for clergy, is a three-year intensive academic program. At Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, for example, it is a 93-hour degree. That’s three jam-packed years of graduate-level study.

— By comparison, the standard MBA program at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business requires 50 hours of credits. Graduate students earning a law degree at Baylor spend the same amount of study time as divinity students (three years) but end up with a terminal degree equivalent in many respects to a doctorate, while divinity students do not. A Baylor student who earns a master of arts degree in history and follows that with a Ph.D. in history will put in 84 credit hours of classroom work total, plus dissertations. Baylor is not unique in any of these respects but in fact represents the scope of higher education institutions across the nation.

— If you are a Baptist student earning a master of divinity degree at Baylor, you will spend about $30,000 in academic expenses, not including room and board—and that includes a discounted rate for Baptists. This tuition rate actually is more affordable than many other comparable accredited seminaries. Imagine piling that expense on top of the $150,000 or more you would have spent to earn the prerequisite undergraduate degree from Baylor or a similar school.

To say that a minister who “only” completed the master of divinity degree is in any way less prepared to serve the church than a person with a law degree is prepared to serve the court is simply misguided. This should highlight, as well, the extreme sacrifice of those ministers who do proceed to earn doctorates.

The nature of doctorates offered for clergy also has changed. While it once was customary for pastors of tall-steeple churches to earn the Ph.D, that’s not so easy anymore. Most universities and divinity schools that offer the Ph.D. want candidates to be headed toward careers in teaching, not in parish ministry. Some universities outright exclude or discourage parish ministers from enrolling in the Ph.D. The most common alternative is the doctor of ministry degree, which is a more practically focused degree. The quality of these degree programs varies widely, with some that are excellent and rigorous and some that are less than rigorous.

So when a pastor search committee or a personnel committee lays down a baseline edict that it will only consider pastoral candidates with doctoral degrees, be careful what you ask for.

And be prepared to adjust your compensation accordingly, too. Understand that a pastor who has earned a bachelor’s degree, master of divinity degree and doctor of ministry degree has spent at least nine years in institutions of higher learning and could carry student loan debt well in excess of $200,000. That’s a heavy load for a pastor to carry on a salary of $60,000 or $70,000.

The church should value the importance of an educated clergy, to be sure. But church leadership also should be educated about what the various degrees represent and the value of experience blended with education.

Mark Wingfield

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About the Author
Mark Wingfield is associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and author of the book, “Staying Alive: Why the Conventional Wisdom about Traditional Churches is Wrong.”

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  • BigDaddyWeave

    I’d like to meet the Baylor alum who accrued 150K in student loan debt as an undergrad.

  • chuckwarnock

    The article covers a lot of bases. First, I do agree that the MDiv is a long program, but I’m not sure what I would have cut out of my MDiv study. As it was, I discovered there were great gaps in needed-knowledge between my education and my subsequent church experience. Secondly, I pastor a small church, and while the congregation did not require I gain a doctorate (DMin), they have supported and applauded my efforts to do so over the past 7 years–as they did several previous pastors. That’s unusual and for that I am grateful. I know my ministry is richer and deeper, and I hope our congregation has benefitted from my study. But, Mark is exactly right — prestige is not the right reason for either a church or a pastor to pursue an advanced degree. For one thing, it’s too much work!

  • Jimmy Gentry

    Excellent and insightful word, Mark. Thank you.

  • Sharon Miller

    While I agree totally with the author’s point that ) churches should NOT expect that a pastor with a doctorate is any better prepared for ministry and 2) that many seminary graduates are carrying significant student debt, the statistics he mentions are not true for most students/graduates. The average undergraduate debt in 2012, according to the National Center for Education, was $25,000 – NOT $150,000. And the average debt of those who borrowed to pay for an MDiv degree was $39,000. There are, indeed graduates with debt over $80,000, but this is by far NOT the norm. A debt of $60-70,000 is still a significant burden on clergy.