Beware Doctors in Church

There is a common assumption that those who have earned a doctoral degree are smarter than those who haven’t. This assumption is most unfortunate when it is held by those of us who have earned doctorates.

As they exist today, the doctoral degrees with which I am familiar are based on narrow specialization. That’s why people describe the process as “learning more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing.” That narrow specialization provides us with the tools to train others to be narrowly specialized – thus giving us employment to the extent that there are people who currently value our narrow field of specialization.

No one has a doctorate in life – life’s just too big. Those who do best in life are not even those who know the most. Rather, those who are wise do best. Having a great deal of specialized knowledge does not necessarily impede wisdom, but to the degree that we think our (small) world of specialized knowledge is the best way to approach the (large) world of life as a whole, we will inevitably lapse into foolishness.

“To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” A doctorate is a mighty fine hammer. We’ve invested years of toil and self-denial as well as piles of money to earn them. After we finally have our hammer, we sure want to use it. “Hey! Look at all those nails!”

Only this week have I begun to understand why some have spoken of a bias against pastors with PhDs. We PhD types have been so narrowly trained into our small area of knowledge, with its exacting standards, that we try to bring those standards with us back to our churches when we pastor. Unfortunately, the standards of graduate school and academia, fine as they are in that setting, are not the standards of the church. Those of us who take our heads out of our books for a few minutes will admit to that. But then we’re faced with a choice. Do we judge the church standards defective because they don’t measure up to our own? Do we judge the standards of our discipline defective because they don’t measure up to the church? Or can we take a third option: The standards of the church and the standards of our discipline – even our disciplines that might find a natural home in the church – are simply different.

What happens if we take this third option? We recognize that the neither the standards of the church nor the standards of our discipline are simply universal. Each inhabits a particular social setting. Once we do this we can give a little. The mission of the church is to make disciples. While my discipline (theology) can be an aid to this mission, it is not the same thing as that mission. When I insist that everything we do that has flavored by theology (all teaching, for example) be up to the standards of my academic discipline, I find myself – and put the rest of the church – in an impossible bind. In trying to impose the standards inherent to my discipline, I displace the standards of the church.

I like the discipline of theology. I find working in it very rewarding. But my calling is to submit my practice of that discipline to the mission of the church. Consequently, I sometimes have to shelve my standards and settle for (what I as a theologian might call) “good enough.”

A brief example. We’re doing a confirmation class in our church now. As a theologian I can think of enough things that the kids need to learn that would keep them in class for years. But that won’t work. It’s utterly unrealistic. Instead, I need to settle for good enough. It chafes my professional attitude to have to settle for what I think of as minimal knowledge (they still think it’s a lot). However much pain it causes me, I think I’m right to compromise my standards here, in light of my audience, the local context, and the mission of the church. If the mission of the church were to produce dozens of well qualified theologians, it’d be different (and in our setting, we’d likely fail miserably).

So can we handle PhDs in church leadership positions? Sure – if we learn to submit ourselves to the mission of the church. and learn to take ourselves a little less seriously.

This entry was posted in church growth, Education, Higher Education, Leadership, Local church. Bookmark the permalink.

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