Trevin Wax has recently offered his counsel for those considering a Ph.D. I really appreciated his post, because it’s something I’ve prayed about many times. In the end, I opted to pursue a D.Min. in “Ministry to Emerging Generations” through Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which I completed in January of 2014. I had known that I would pursue a doctorate of some kind for a few years, but I was torn between Ph.D and D.Min.

Version 2There was a long time where I didn’t consider a D.Min a “real” doctorate and looked down on it as an imposter doctorate… something people get when they want the title “Dr” but they aren’t smart enough to get a Ph.D. Obviously, my opinion has changed.

My hope is that this post will help clarify the differences between a Ph.D and a D.Min while offering what I wish I had known going into the program.

What’s the Goal of the Doctorate Program? 
A Ph.D is targeted to aspiring scholars who want to plumb the academic depths of a focused area. These programs are designed to help you understand exhaustively what you are studying while challenging you to make an original contribution. Perhaps there is an interpretation no one has considered? Maybe there’s some statement made by a theologian that has never been fully unpacked.

The D.Min focuses on equipping pastors and ministry leaders to understand the biblical, theological, and cultural research that has been conducted on the topic of their degree program, but the emphasis is on application. The emphasis is this, “Now that you understand what the Ph.D’s have researched and written, what are you going to do with it?” A D.Min thesis is not a dissertation trying to create new theories; it’s an explanation of how your particular ministry has put the biblical/theological research into action, and then evaluating the “results” with suggestions for others who are interested in the same thing.

An Example from Medicine
Gordon Conwell presented the following example: Ph.D programs are like those who work to discover new medicines, procedures, and treatments to cure diseases and help those who are ill. A D.Min is like an M.D., equipping doctors to diagnose real-life patients and prescribe the right treatment to return them to good health.

A D.Min is a real doctorate in the same way a M.D is a real doctor. They both need to understand what the scholars and researchers have written, but their expertise has to do with practice, not research. This is why a D.Min is referred to as practitioner’s doctorate. It is also why you see so few university professors with a D.Min.

How Did I Decide?
Personally, I chose to pursue a D.Min because I know God’s calling on my life is to preach and give my life to the local church. There are those who are called to serve the Church through the academy, but I am called to serve the Church by serving in the local church.

While I was struggling through the D.Min vs Ph.D debate, John Piper and DA Carson discussed The Pastor as Scholar & The Scholar as Pastor as a recent Gospel Coalition Conference (audio here). Since then, a number of books (here and here) have been published on the Pastor Scholar. These sharpened my resolve to be a Pastor Scholar rather than a Scholar Pastor.

Whichever one (pastor or scholar) holds the most weight will help you discern the right degree for you. Of course, this whole process should be bathed in prayer and the counsel of trusted friends, family, and colleagues.

How Much Work is a D.Min?
Personally, I needed to average reading one book every 9 days. Since I set a goal to read 50 pages every day, I needed to read for 2:30 every night since I’m a slow reader (on a good night I’ll read 25 pages/hour, most of the time I’m between 18-20).

At Gordon-Conwell (and I believe this is fairly consistent with other schools), the D.Min requires one two-week residency each year. Each week of the residency represents one class, with class running for roughly 6 hours/day. A 2-3 page response paper allowed us to interact with each assigned book, discussing what we learned, agreed with, and disagreed with, and they were due at each residency (20-24 books, if memory serves right). In addition, there was a “project” for each residency (usually 20-25 pages) which would be agreed upon during the previous year’s residency, and if planned well, this could be edited then integrated into your final thesis.

The final Thesis is your opportunity to address the problem you are working to resolve, explore the biblical/theological foundations in play, unpack what has been written about that topic from various viewpoints, and then explain and evaluate what you’ve done in your ministry. This must be well researched and written academically, even though it is best to write in a way that an interested lay-person may be able to read and understand. When applying for approval to write your thesis, you will be assigned a mentor who will walk you through each part of your thesis, and he/she will give the green light for when you are ready to officially submit your thesis. Your thesis defense is not a firing squad, and the goal is not to prove who is the smartest person in the room. Instead, the goal is to ensure you have done your research, you can defend your rationale, and you are aware of both what worked and what didn’t work in your project/application (and why it worked or didn’t work). Even if your work project failed, there’s wisdom to glean from why it failed and what you learned that will benefit both you and others in the future. Remember… the D.Min is meant for applying sound doctrine for the sake of ministry. Sometimes we learn most from failure.

Random Thoughts & Unsolicited Advice About a D.Min.

  • Know where you’re going. Currently I serve as a youth pastor, but I won’t be a youth pastor forever. That said, the generation I’m serving now will be the generation I will serve for the rest of my life… understanding their worldview today will only benefit my ministry moving forward. Therefore, I selected a thesis topic that will serve me as a youth pastor and as a senior pastor someday.
  • Embrace your passions. If you get bored with your thesis topic, you’ll probably never finish. Since I love theology and church history, I positioned my thesis to hit that passion and put it into action.
  • If you’re married, your spouse needs to be as committed as you are to the program. Don’t sacrifice your marriage for a degree. If I need to explain this more, then please do NOT consider any doctoral program.
  • Know what your ministry’s expectations are. When I applied, my church wrote me an endorsement letter (which is typically required). Then, when the program began I was asked to not use any “work time” for classwork. Remember that your commitment should be first to the ministry God is entrusting you to lead, but it can be discouraging to have mixed-expectations because you didn’t discuss the details prior to the program.
  • Learn how to cite references the right time, the first time. Going through your thesis and changing commas to periods and colons to semicolons is monotonous. Pay attention to the details and recognize that “close enough” simply isn’t, so learn the citation rules and follow them precisely. The editors will notice and require you to change them eventually anyway. Just do it right the first time.
  • Be prepared to learn as much from others in your cohort as you will from the professors. Obviously the professors and instructors will teach you a lot. If they don’t, then you’re in the wrong program. The diversity of fellow-students (ethnicity, various ministry philosophies, urban/suburban/rural, church/parachurch/university, etc.) allowed us to learn from one another.
  • Don’t slack on your equivalency requirements. If you have not completed an M.Div upon acceptance into the program, you should expect to be given additional classes to complete before you will be allowed to submit your Thesis Proposal after the third residency.