Are PhD pastors better pastors?

I saw a 9 Marks post that asked the question: Do Pastors Need a PhD? In the article, five men are asked that question and give their respective answers. TLDR:

Position 1. Pastors should do a PhD (Jim Hamilton)
Position 2. PhDs are helpful but you don’t necessarily need one (Aubrey Sequeira; Tom Schreiner)
Position 3. I got some helpful stuff out of it, but probably not what you think; no comment on need (Matt McCullough)
Position 4. Absolutely not (Jonathan Leeman)

For what it’s worth, I’m with Leeman for all the reasons he gives. I don’t think pastors need a PhD. Both Sequeira and Schreiner are not a million miles away from that position either, arguing that though a PhD may be helpful, they certainly aren’t necessary.

However, I think there is another more important question that ought to be answered here. It is one thing to ask whether pastors need a PhD. There is no biblical warrant to say ‘yes’ to that. If we think Jesus or the Apostles would have made good pastors, we don’t want to lock them out of our churches because we have added unbiblical criteria that they don’t meet to the very offices they set up. The more significant question, I think, is whether a PhD makes you a better pastor.

The unfortunate impression given from every answer in the above article was that PhDs would make you a better pastor. Except for Jonathan Leeman’s answer, who was clear PhDs are not necessary and made no comment whatsoever on any potential benefits of having one, everybody else implied either that they were necessary or, though not required or needed, they were certainly beneficial and would make you a better pastor.

The fact of the matter is, however, some of the ‘benefits’ of holding a PhD were questionable at best. In the UK, PhDs usually narrow into a topic rather than broaden your knowledge. A PhD might give you some very specific, niche insight into a particular area, but the chances of it having major advantages to your daily pastoral work is (in my opinion) questionable. My Theology master’s thesis, for example, interesting to me as it was, had pretty much zero application or value to my pastoral ministry. I struggle to believe, had I done a PhD on the same topic (and I have been accepted to various universities to do exactly that before), that it would suddenly become valuable. The fact is, it was an academic exercise that, whilst perfectly acceptable to do, had limited value as far as my ministry is concerned.

Only one answer to the question acknowledged the obvious danger of pastors taking PhDs. Matt McCullough said:

I look at my shelves full of beloved books on American religious history as almost-sacred relics of a former life. I just don’t need to know as much as I know about that stuff to be faithful as a pastor. I’m sure the same goes for PhDs in Bible or theology, too. The more specialized knowledge we bring into our sermons or discipleship opportunities, the less likely those efforts will be terribly helpful to most people.

Again, he was answering the question of need. But this part of his answer points to a potential problem. As we gain niche knowledge in particular areas – God-glorifying as that study may be of itself – it carries with it the danger that we begin to bring that specialised, technical knowledge into our sermons and discipleship. Tom Schreiner claims, ‘Remarkably, thorough study can help us to be simple—not simplistic but simple, a simplicity and clarity that is on the other side of complexity.’ Whilst I do think that is true, knowing your stuff usually means you can explain complex things simply. The problem is, PhDs in theology are not always or typically conducive to that in practice. Most struggle not to lean on their technical, niche knowledge. Even when they think they are being simple, it turns out that they aren’t. They are just being a little bit less complex than they usually would be.

I am not saying this is always the case. Of course, there are some wonderful communicators who have PhDs. There are some brilliant bible teachers with PhDs who can make the complex straightforward. But lets not pretend that there aren’t a great many who, with their PhDs, aren’t like that. They communicate in the language of the academy and they fail to understand what simple really means.

I went to one conference where a college lecturer insisted what he was going to give us was really helpful for the average person in our congregations. What he proceeded to give us was academic, some of which I struggled to get behind, with no application. It was fundamentally just his area of academic interest – which I appreciate he got excited about – supposedly made simpler for people in the average congregation. In reality, there was nothing simple, straightforward or uncomplicated about it. It is almost as if his PhD and academic work had meant he no longer understood what it meant to connect with ordinary people. This is utterly unsurprising to everyone except those with a vested interest in PhDs being viewed as superior.

The same is true in many vocations. It was a well-worn observation that the best school teachers did not necessarily have PhDs. That isn’t to say having one made you worse necessarily. One of my best secondary school teachers was a doctor. But then, some of the very worst ones were too. Because teaching, fundamentally, isn’t concerned with the amount of knowledge you have. It is concerned with the transfer of knowledge and the developing of skills. Most of us have acquired the knowledge that primary school children have attained. Not so many of us are actually capable of teaching primary school children. That is because teaching is about much more than how much knowledge you have acquired. Send a University Professor of Physics to teach primary school children and you might find he struggles. Not because he doesn’t have adequate knowledge of his field, but because all that knowledge does not necessarily translate into communication skills. Nor does it mean you can make the complex – which you understand – simple for those who my not. Neither does it mean your niche knowledge that most people don’t have is of any great value to those who need to know some much more basic stuff.

This is a similar mistake we make with PhDs for pastors. Greater knowledge does not necessarily mean greater communication. Nor does it mean better teaching. It might mean you have some specific knowledge in a particular, niche area. But that doesn’t mean that knowledge is necessarily what your people need nor that you will be any better at communicating it to anyone else. And in some cases, this can be detrimental. It teaches you to write in language nobody you will pastor uses and to interact with ideas that bear little relevance to the lives of those in front of you. There may be some good things you get by doing one, but we shouldn’t be blind to the very real possibility that we might lose far more than we gain.

I am pleased there are scholars with PhDs working in academia. I am grateful there are people working at that level and advancing sound, biblical theology in the academy. I am grateful for the way that serves the church in all sorts of ways. I am just not convinced those people will make better pastors because they have proven to be reasonable scholars. That they can defend a thesis and engage with arguments in the academy does not mean that they will be good shepherds of God’s people, better communicators of his truth to the average person nor addressing the real world concerns of those the Lord gives to our care. My experience, sadly, is that those who push toward the academy (recognising there are noble exceptions) tend not to improve in their pastoral ministry. That is, they often become worse pastors of local churches, even if they might be able to write a better commentary. The trajectory tends not to lead to simplicity and engagement with the real world concerns of normal people, but niche academic ideas and such regular engagement with the complex that they forget how to be straightforward.

I want to reiterate, there is nothing wrong with having a PhD and being a pastor. Having one will not necessarily impact your ministry negatively. But I cannot see that having one will necessarily make you a better pastor. Experience suggests that is rarely the trajectory.