Leaders have to be insatiable learners, or else they won't last. There's always more for a leader to know, more to read, more to study, more to soak in and appreciate. And so a leader cannot ever be satisfied with what they know or what they've studied.
But does that automatically translate into a tuition based formal degree track of education? I think it's important for a leader to get as much education as they can reasonably afford and that will help them achieve the goals they might have. Formal education isn't for every leader, no matter the context. Because of the considerations that have to go into it, let's ask a few questions:
1. Do I need to pursue formal education as part of my career development? I know we don't like the word "career" when it comes to ministry, but let's use the term without the baggage. All of us have a sense of what we've been called to, and we might even have a clear picture of what that is. Regardless, we all have an idea of what God wants us to do. So that begs the question, do I need the degree for that? A lot of leaders unnecessarily put themselves and their family in financial hardship or absent time to pursue a degree they don't need.
2. Is this something my wife (and kids) are supportive of? The thing is, when you're young and single, you don't have to answer to anyone or check a calendar with. That all changes when you get married, and changes again when you have kids. So that's where this comes in. If you decide to pursue a degree, a masters or a doctorate, it will require a lot of time, money, attention, and focus. And it will require that for an extended period of time. A lot of people fail to finish a degree program not because they're not smart enough, but because the constraints got to be too much.
3. Is this something we can afford right now? Tuition isn't cheap, no matter how gracious and generous your school might be with financial aid. Throw in books, fees, travel, printing (one of the joys of doctoral work, your dissertation has to be printed on the fanciest paper Dunder Mifflin sells!), and the obscene amount of coffee you'll drink, it can be an expensive proposition. And while we most often assume that a degree will give higher earning potential, it's doubtful. When I finished my doctorate I asked about a raise and was told that it didn't mean I deserved a raise just because I finished.
4. Do I have reasonable access to a program? The traditional model of in-person, on-campus learning is still the best in my opinion. You get time to interact with professors and students, you're immersed in the learning community, and you're surrounded by a very encouraging peer group. But you may not be able to get on campus. You may have to look at distance education or an online program. Are you ok with that? Do you have the ability to manage your time, to discipline yourself, to be intentional about logging in and doing the required coursework apart from a regular class lecture time?
5. Is my church on board? Along with your family, your church needs to be on board with your education pursuit. Many seminaries require a church endorsement for your admission and study, to show that you're part of a congregation that affirms your calling and is willing to support you in your education. But you may be in a church that isn't on board with you being gone 2-3 weeks a year for class, or who doesn't like the time commitment it takes to study. That can be tough. Have these honest conversations with your pastor, your deacons, your personnel team, or your elders.
6. What's my end goal? This question is one to ask to figure out what kind of program to go through. If you want to get into teaching, writing, and high-level leadership, think about a terminal degree (PhD or EdD) that will teach you the needed skills. If you want to be an effective ministry leader and grow in your practical application, pursue a professional degree (DMin, DEdMin). There's also other options to think about in terms of end goal outside of doctoral education. Some people want to pursue an MA program because they want the education and the access without necessarily doing the languages or pursuing the full MDiv program. Others have a desire to do doctoral work and gain a theological and philosophical grounding not available in an MA, so they pursue an MDiv or ThM. In terms of "prestige" between the degrees, it doesn't really matter, it's a difference in calling and giftedness. That's part of the body of Christ, it's unique.
For more about this, check out my podcast episode with Dr. John David Trentham from Southern Seminary on higher education.
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Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.