Research, Teaching and Writing: Other Careers than the Professoriate

Some readers of my page on “Thinking about a Ph.D.” have asked me to expand on my brief mention of “other spheres” in which one can engage in research, teaching, and writing.

The first sphere that comes to mind is the pastorate.

Now, don’t laugh! I fully recognize that many pastors are overworked and many readers will find it implausible to think that any teaching or research can get done in pastoral ministry. Still, Karl Barth did some useful research and writing as a pastor. So did Jonathan Edwards. So did John Calvin, and Augustine, and a few (!) others.

Some pastors have teaching as one of their lead gifts and they should be working with their churches to let them teach, not only in sermons (the power of which, to be sure, can be compromised if they are too didactic) but in adult Christian education classes, weekend seminars, retreats, and writing. (Regent graduate Mark Buchanan is a contemporary example of a guy in a small church in a small town, Duncan, BC, who makes this work really well.)

Two of my colleagues here at Regent came on the faculty from large-church pastorates and their joint testimony is that they read more when they were pastors than they have time to do now! So if professors can get research and writing done (and we’d better), so can at least some pastors.

Again, please be clear that I’m not saying all pastors can or should do this. I am saying instead that some churches in particular need pastors who are unusually well educated and articulate. Many, many Christians would love to sit under better teaching and preaching than they’re getting now, let alone be trained in a substantial Christian education program.

In short, some students bent on a career in the academy should instead consider the pastorate. Indeed, they should aim to become the pastors they wish they had.

Other jobs that offer opportunities to read, think, and teach are in student work, particularly at the university level, and in Christian education at local churches. Sometime I’ll blog some more about the desperate need we have for substantial and sustained Christian education of adults in North America and elsewhere. It’s pretty bad when Alpha courses function as education for Christians, rather than for the unchurched for whom they were developed. It’s time to roll out the Beta, Gamma, and Delta programs, too!

But that’s for another time. For now: think about being an unabashedly intellectual pastor. I can’t think of a city in North America that is oversupplied with those.

0 Responses to “Research, Teaching and Writing: Other Careers than the Professoriate”

  1. Andy Rowell

    I too often coach people that the creative and intellectual challenge of preparing sermons weekly will fill the intellectual, creative and writing aspirations of most people. I am amazed by how productive some pastors are. They produce more thoughtful written prose in a month than many professors do in a year.

    Eugene Peterson, of course, is another Regent College example of a prolific pastor/writer/reader. Peterson talks in his books on pastoring – see Under the Unpredictable Plant and Working the Angles about his prioritizing Scripture, Prayer, and Spiritual Direction (i.e. time with people one on one) over going to meetings. Still, I think it is helpful to think of pastoring as 1/3 preaching including prep and reading, 1/3 people work though you will at first have to be intentional about creating space for people, and 1/3 administration (meetings, email). As the main teaching pastor (senior pastor) at a church with 2000+ attendance, one can have their own administrative assistant, an executive pastor to “run the church,” and a visitation pastor to do much of the people work – if that is desireable. But for most pastors, it is more like what Peterson describes (who was in a church under 300 attendance for 29 years) – scheduling one’s time to prioritize preparation for preaching. He talks of putting F.D. on his calendar as an appointment (Fyodor Dostoevsky) – I think he talks about this in his book “Contemplative Pastor.” See Peterson’s book “Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List” which his annotated list of books he recommends for pastors. Gordon Fee remarks that Peterson was one of the first and only people to compliment him on his commentary on 1 Corinthians AFTER READING THE WHOLE THING.

    Andy Rowell
    Th.D. Student
    Duke Divinity School
    Durham, North Carolina
    Blog: Church Leadership Conversations

  2. Jeff Loach

    John, you make some excellent points in this post, both to encourage people toward ministry and to encourage those in ministry to read and write more and better.

    As someone who has served in congregational and paracongregational ministries, I have found the blessing of time to read and time to write – even if none of that writing is published beyond the pulpit.

    At one point, you wrote, “In short, some students bent on a career in the academy should instead consider the pastorate. Indeed, they should aim to become the pastors they wish they had.”

    I’m sure this occurred to you as you wrote, but let’s not forget that considering the pastorate is also a matter of the call of God. I think it was Spurgeon who said to aspiring clergy, “If you can do anything else, do it.” It would be a mistake for someone without a clear sense of call, who doesn’t think s/he can hack it in academia, to inflict him/herself on a congregation.

    In the tradition in which I serve, we do a crackerjack job of producing many seminary graduates who should be teaching assistants in leftish theological institutions. Trouble is, they end up in congregations, leading and preaching as if they were teaching assistants in leftish theological institutions. Would to God that more people with pastors’ hearts were teaching in seminaries, especially in the mainline churches! It would go a long way toward nurturing pastors’ hearts in pastors!

    And, as you point out, if pastors engaged in the disciplines of reading and writing well and regularly – including reading the Scriptures for personal spiritual development primarily – the Canadian church might be in better shape, by God’s grace.

    Keep up the good work, brother!

    Passionately His,

  3. Ward Gasque

    Having served as a professor/academic administrator for most of my adult life and never having considered ‘the pastorate,’ I have found the past three years as a pastor (2x interim, now indefinitely)as rewarding as anything I have done in my life.

    And being the English Ministries Pastor of a large and thriving Chinese congregation is a quadruple-blessing: (1) No ageism here; rather, they honour age, very much as the Bible does (so no one thinks I should retire, unless I want to). (2) They value education, so my having a PhD is a plus rather than a minus (as it would be in many anglo evangelical congregations). (3) The congregation is made up of a majority of first generation Christians (whose major concern is that their relatives and friends also come to Christ). And there is an open door to use my teaching and strategic planning gifts, enabling me to implement the Regent College DipCS type education within the context of the local church.

    I never dreamed that being a pastor could be so much fun!

    W. Ward Gasque
    English Ministries Pastor
    Richmond Chinese Alliance Church
    Richmond BC Canada

  4. Ryan Cochran

    Thanks for your last two blogs, Dr. Stackhouse. I am a (young) pastor in Vancouver who has been wrestling with my options for continuing education over the last year. Both blogs were helpful.

    I am seeking to be just what you describe in your blog as an “unabashedly intellectual pastor.” It has been my experience that it is indeed possible to dedicate a portion of my week toward study (outside of sermons) when I commit the time to doing it. Not only that, but have been only encouraged by my congregation to do so.

    So, here’s my question: Would there be value for an “unabashedly intellectual pastor” to pursue a Ph.D for the purpose of improving their mind and ability for the sake of their pastoral calling?

  5. John Stackhouse

    Brother Ryan,

    There definitely would be value in such a pastor pursuing a Ph.D. My own doctoral supervisor, Martin E. Marty, enrolled for a Ph.D. as a young Lutheran pastor in Chicago because written into the call of every member of the staff of the (unusual) church he served was the requirement that each pastor pursue a doctorate! Marty got his, and then planted a church in suburban Chicago, leading it for seven years before the academy claimed him back for the rest of his storied career.

    The Ph.D., all going well (and please note that heavy qualifier), offers training and experience not only in advanced reading and writing, but also in self-management. It’s such a large and complex endeavour that it compels one to develop skills in managing time, money, energy, and focus. It also offers one many opportunities to learn better skills in marriage!

    But I don’t want to wax too positive about the experience. Lots of people start Ph.D.’s and don’t finish–usually with heartache, frayed relationships, and considerable debt. Others do finish, but having revised their dissertation into a book, never publish a significant work of that size again. And lots of holders of Ph.D.’s, as we all sadly know, are no better at marriage than anyone else.

    The main benefit, then, is simply the obvious: to undergo the most advanced training in scholarship available. For some, but only some, it is a deep, rich, electric experience that changes one’s outlook and furnishes one’s mind for life and ministry. I hope it might be that for you!

  6. Ryan Cochran

    My church is a bit unusual as well… but not quite that unusual. At least I don’t think they would be. They continue to surprise me.

    Thanks for your continued reminders of the many and varied pressures that a PhD brings. I easily romanticize the quiet hours in the library with my (smuggled and well-hidden) coffee. It is good to be reminded of all the other not-so-romantic things that come along with it.

    One other question, if you would oblige. I’ve had some people suggest that a PhD can be done while working full time as a Pastor in the church. You’ve given an example of Martin Marty as one who did it. To me, that sounds like a really good way to never finish. Plus, most programs that I have looked into require residency for at least a portion of the time. So, I guess I actually have two questions.

    1) Is it really possible to do a PhD while working full time elsewhere (Pastorate or otherwise!)?

    2) If so, do you know of programs that allow for short residencies?

    Thanks again,

  7. Yvette

    John, this thread has been fantastic. My question would be similar to Ryan’s. Are you aware of respected/accredited distance ed PhD programs?

    Thank you so much for this help.

  8. Patrick

    Thank you very much for these blogs.

    I have been struggling with my calling for several years now. I served as a pastor for several years, only to find myself burned out. I moved on to secular work, and devoting myself as much as possible to the work of the church, through adult education classes, retreats, etc.

    I have Ephesians 4:11 as my “calling” verse, particularly the “and some to be pastors and teachers”. I thought I had tried the pastor part, and that didn’t work, so I would go on to the teaching part and try that. I need to seriously consider both of them combined.

    I feel strongly that I’m being called to complete a PhD, but not sure about what follows after that. That’s why I asked you the question on your previous post about other venues.

    Thank you very much for giving me more to think about.

    In Christ,


  9. John Stackhouse

    Brother Ryan and Sister Yvette, there are indeed accredited Ph.D. programs that can be done long-distance with no extended residency program. UNISA (University of South Africa) and the University of Wales come immediately to mind.

    The problem is, however much the academy congratulates itself on its progressive thinking, it’s pretty conservative in lots of ways. And here’s one of them: no reputable school I know of would look twice at a job candidate with a doctorate from one of those places.

    So if you’re looking to undertake a serious “guided study” project and perhaps a credential that non-academicians will value, then sure, look at those schools. It’s also possible that schools in other countries will take those doctorates at face value–I’m speaking only of the North American academy in which I have spent my career when I warn you about their limited value.

    Having said all that, however, I’m not entirely clear about why such degrees are pooh-poohed the way they usually are. It’s one thing if you expect a Ph.D. program to include substantial coursework and then comprehensive examinations conducted at an advanced level in the company of other elite students, as happens at, say, the best Canadian and American universities and seminaries and a few British programs. You can’t replicate that experience by distance ed.

    But the Oxbridge model of “dissertation-only” doctorates does make one wonder. You’re mostly on your own, seeing your advisor so rarely that it would be cheaper to live in Canada or the U.S. and fly to Britain whenever you did need to see him or her! So why insist on full-time residency? Is there something about the stones of Cambridge or the “dreaming spires” of Oxford that infuses one with academic excellence unavailable anywhere else? Maybe, but I’ve yet to see that case made!

    So maybe there is no good reason to insist on residency in such programs. But the prejudice remains against distance education Ph.D.’s, and I can’t say that I see any erosion of it happening now or soon. So as convenient as those degrees may look, “Caveat emptor” indeed.

  10. Allen Mickle

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    I totally agree with you about an academy trained pastor. While I do not serve in the pastorate currently, I do feel the call to serve in a preaching-teaching situation where I can use the teaching gifts God has given me. I also hope to teach the occasional class and use the pastoral experience combined with the academy training to help create better pastors!

    Now, you mention Wales and UNISA as not being well-recognized. I am enrolled in the PhD through the University of Leiden. I have a supervisor there (Ernestine van der Wall) and a supervisor here (Michael Haykin). So, I do get to have guided study from people and everything is not just over the internet. Now, what do you think of Leiden? Would schools in North America view it the same was as Wales or UNISA? Many thanks! I do enjoy your blog highly!

    Allen Mickle
    Coordinator of Training and Equipping
    Slavic Gospel Association

  11. Josh

    Great post! As one on the brink of seminary and considering Ph.D work down the road, the posts have been helpful.
    I know of two other distant-ed. programs. Regent University has a Ph.D. in Renewal Studies. This is a great option for Charismatic and Pentecostal students. While many question Regent’s (keep in mind, this isn’t Regent College)academic strength, it has several strong scholars on campus. Amos Yong is probably the best Pentecostal scholar in the world and he teaches there. If you had him as your mentor you wouldn’t have any problem landing a job. They also have Graham Twelftree, Stanley Burgess, and others.
    Talbot school of theology also offers a distance-ed Ph.D. They are a conservative, reformed seminary. There Ph.D. is in Christian Ed. They also offer an Ed.D. (Doctor of Education)


  12. John Stackhouse


    I think highly of Amos Yong, but I would like to know why you are convinced that a Regent University degree earned under Amos (or anyone else there) would guarantee you a job. I know people who have graduated from Yale, Chicago, and Duke (which, in my view, are the best religious studies programs in the world) and who didn’t get an academic job, at least not right away, and some not ever.

    Furthermore, some pretty impressive people supervise Ph.D.’s at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Fuller Seminary, and the like, and yet those of us with experience in the guild know that graduates of those programs have trouble competing for jobs against those with doctorates from Big Name Not-So-Christian places–even at evangelical schools.

    I certainly am not defending the situation. Someone who had earned a doctorate under, say, Nancey Murphy or Rich Mouw at Fuller, or under Kevin Vanhoozer or Don Carson at Trinity, can be presumed to know their stuff as well as anyone. But I’m pretty sure that they nonetheless labour under a deficit when they’re looking for work at a lot of places, including, as I say, places ideologically/confessionally similar to those very schools.

    Again, look at where recent hires have earned doctorates at the schools at which you’d like to teach someday. That will give you probably the best sense there is of how various degrees stack up.

    Last point, however: Notice the exceptions, as well as the general trends. Here at Regent College, a school with a strong tradition of Anglo-Canadian-American cooperation, our recent hires have earned their top degrees at the following places: Oxford (big surprise), Oxford again (ditto), St. Andrews (another ditto), Chicago (okay, no surprises yet), Toronto (O Canada, etc.) . . . and Utrecht (which will send some of us to the atlas or Google Maps!). It is the whole package, not just the prestige of the doctorate, that is always properly in view.

  13. John Stackhouse

    Brother Allen (#10),

    I don’t know anything about the University of Leiden. A North American search committee would likely begin by investigating your supervisors as a clue to the status of this program. It would also look immediately at the requirements of your program. And it would use its network of contacts to find out about this program, its personnel, and its graduates.

    Be clear, then, that one of the first facts turned up in such a search would be the academic affiliation of your NAm supervisor, namely, Toronto Baptist Seminary. And remember that NAm schools in particular focus hard on where someone teaches as an indication of the quality of his or her scholarship work–sometimes, to be sure, wrongly, but that’s the way it is. So the prestige of your University of Leiden program would now be either enhanced or diminished by this linkage with TBS via Professor Haykin.

  14. KSW

    An observation: I prepare my best sermons when I am also reading a good novel.

  15. Josh

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    Thanks for the response. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that a Regent University graduate is guaranteed a job. (though after reading it over, it certainly sounds like that) However, I was simply trying to make the point that Regent,though lacking a strong academic reputation, is a great option for distance education, especially for Charismatics and Pentecostals. On another note, classical pentecostals can sometimes be like Southern Baptist’s in regards to who they hire. There are more Charismatic schools than people know and most of those schools are probably looking to hire professors with a pentecostal/charismatic background. I have checked out many of the schools and they have an awful lot of D.min’s from pentecostal seminaries teaching. Regent’s Ph.D is new and I’m confident that they will fill positions in many pentecostal/charismatic seminaries.

  16. Josh

    Dr. Stackhouse

    I forgot to ask, do you know anything about the University of Birmingham?

  17. John Stackhouse

    Josh (#16), once you’re dealing with a typical or “regular” university, as you would be with Birmingham, you need to proceed to particular departments and faculty members. So I don’t have anything generally to say about the U of Birmingham.

  18. Josh

    I was referring to their theology department. They have a focus in their Ph.D. department on Pentecostal studies. I’m no Pentecostal, but I was wondering if you knew anything about it.

  19. Tony Wong

    Dear Dr. Stackhouse,

    Firstly, I agree with you that pastor should be scholarly trained and have passion to teach in the congregation. As someone who has participated in the pastoral ministry, I can testify the joy of teaching and preaching to the congregation. Also, I can say that it takes commitment of reading and writing in the pastoral life. In my last pastoral role, I published my sermon on my church monthly newsletter (I was preach in Chinese, so I published in Chinese).

    As you said that the degree from UNISA might have limited advantage of finding academic job in seminary / university level. I have known that few Th.D. graduates/canadiates are getting a academic positions from seminary in Eastern Canada. I hope that is a demonstration of slow process of accepting distance education.

  20. Derek Keefe

    I’m coming very late to this conversation, but the trajectory of the comments carried it away from the question that’s been brewing in me for some time–one that seems more in line with the thrust of Professor Stackhouse’s initial remarks.

    I’m not interested in the credentialing pragmatics of whether a certain PhD will earn one a position within the academic guild, or respect from it, but whether the tools, skills, tastes, and sensibilities cultivated by undertaking a research and writing project of this scale and specialization serves one well as a local pastor.

    It seems to me that the PhD process equips one for a very particular kind of work, and perhaps increases one’s hunger for it, but often makes that same person unfit for–or at least much less content with–other kinds of work. Or, to put it another way, the PhD process creates an itch for scholarly research and writing that can only be satisfied by more of the same, and the academy is about the only culturally sanctioned and funded space for such work.

    I think I would delight in the intellectual refinement and creative challenge of the dissertation process, but wonder if it would “ruin” me for other kinds of work, including typical (there’s the rub) pastoral work. I don’t want to feed a hunger I’m not likely to be able to satisfy in the regular course of my work. Wouldn’t this simply be a recipe for frustration? Do we have good reason to believe that the pool of salaried pastoral positions that provide time, funding, and congregational encouragement for scholarly research and writing is as large as the pool of tenured academic positions, small as it may be?

    It would seem to me that as a rule the MDiv/ThM sequence is a more fitting preparation both for the scale of research and writing one is likely to have time for as a pastor, as well as the extent of intellectual discourse likely to be found in even exceptionally well-educated parishes.


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