Does your pastor need a doctorate?

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

By Mark Wingfield

Hearing a story about yet 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, 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.

— If you are a Baptist student earning a master of divinity 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. program.

The most common alternative is the doctor of ministry, 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. 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 a year.

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.

This commentary appeared previously as an ABPnews blog.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.