About halfway thru my undergraduate degree in “biblical text,” I discovered my love of learning. I found a sense of excitement and fulfillment in the matrix of research, writing, critical thinking, and discourse that is academic scholarship. For all intents and purposes this was the discernment of a vocation. I mapped my future dreams and ambitions around it. Yet, as I neared the completion of my M.A. in Theology, these dreams began to slip away. The birth of my first child, high student loan debt, and the indeterminate wait for acceptance into a Ph.D. program, made this life an unrealistic choice. I found myself being dragged, internally kicking and screaming, into a life in ministry, one which I had consciously and publicly rejected in the past.
Kelly J. Baker conveys the real struggle that trained academics with advanced degrees face in today’s professional climate:
Relentless perusal, I assured myself, was for the best: My grace period will eventually end. I’ll need to know what kinds of jobs are available. “It’s just research,” I say aloud. My infant son gurgles at me skeptically. My husband and I talk about possible career options; we strategize about turning my CV into a resume. I tell him that maybe the perfect job will come along. He nods supportively. I smile tentatively.
Baker communicates a kind of courageous defeat that graciously accepts an authentic, but tough reality: genuinely intelligent and gifted people with advanced degrees cannot obtain the jobs for which they have trained and dreamed. People with advanced degrees in religion often find themselves teaching in private Christian secondary schools, laboring in administrative or counseling positions, or working in ecclesial ministry—none of which make the most direct use of their intellectual gifts and academic training. This set of circumstances can be understandably dissatisfying.
Sarah Coakley, channeling P. T. Forsyth, references “a promising philosophy student who sets aside an academic career to support his [or her] family. … [as] submit[ing] to ‘drudgery’ in ‘modern industrial conditions’ (which of course blunts his [or her] intellectual brilliance!).”1 This scenario haunted me as a would-be academic facing such a hard reality. I feared the real-world needs that pushed me into ministry would also prevent me from keeping up with my friends and peers who followed my desired path towards the academy. Further, I was concerned that I would clash with others in my chosen vocation who held definitions of success that differed from my own. I did not desire to be a popular preacher with great hair and a multitude of repetitious inspirational books. I believed that my decision to enter into ministry meant that my dreams of becoming a respectable scholar were over. Upon experience and reflection, I have learned that such a turn of events was not the kind of ‘drudgery’ I reasonably feared. Moreover, on behalf of the case for ministry, I argue that it affords important opportunities for the skills of a scholarly-minded person.
First, ministry creates a space to see scholarly interests come to life for the church. The ivory tower stereotype is over-dramatized in our society, but nothing checks the bravado with which many of us speak so prophetically (and derisively) in academic settings like being challenged by Christian communities struggling to live out their values. While the academy allows the necessary space for ideas to be discussed and sharpened, the necessary work of Christian praxis, discernment, and implementation happens within our churches and communities. Ministry, therefore, is a call to see the truths and arguments we champion born out in the lives of people for whom we love and care. At the same time one’s scholarly interests can provide innovative and exceptional answers to problems that arise in ministry.
For example, my first ecclesial job outside of graduate school was youth ministry. As a small, urban church it struggled to function in a ministerial paradigm meant for larger, suburban churches. My solution to the problems in our youth ministry developed directly from my scholarly pursuits. I wrote a thesis on the monk John Climacus and ascetic theory. After a year of observing and learning, I proposed that instead of regular, fun programs that few attended and that held little value, we would instead begin a day-long retreat one Sunday a month, which was undergirded by the logic of ascetic theory. I designed these regular retreats as a geographical break that supported a deeper break from the social norms my teens experienced in their regular lives. As such, the retreats provided us with an opportunity to resist an established social order and praxis and to cultivate new patterns of thinking and relating to God, one another, and ourselves. Not only did these monthly retreats establish a sense of community and identity among a fragmented group of teenagers, they also provided a space that synthesized play, community, discipleship, and worship. This innovation was a direct outgrowth and application of my scholarly research!
The second important opportunity ministry affords a scholarly-minded person is an accommodating space for the continuation of one’s scholarly pursuits. In ministry there are always a million things to do, including pastoral care, preparation for worship, handling church business, establishing community contacts and relations, and so forth. Many ministerial duties, however, involve hours reading, writing, studying, and praying. After a little while a rhythm emerges that makes it possible, occasional emergencies aside, to devote time to academic interests. I am fortunate that my church provides monetary resources for books, continued education (e.g., conferences), and other avenues so that this academically-minded minister can simultaneously develop pastoral and intellectual skills. Although one must wrestle daily to make one’s studies profitable and accessible to the church, I find this to be an exciting challenge rather than a burden. At the end of the day ecclesial ministry offers an alternative space and resources for scholarly pursuits.
As a graduate student I felt like the only way I could do the things I wanted to do was to get a Ph.D. and work as a college professor. My suspicion is that this is a common narrative for many graduate students. I would like for graduate students in Religion programs to see ecclesial ministry as a viable vocational path. I am by no means alone in this plea. It is not difficult to find developing outlets and resources for scholarly-minded ministers. Notable examples include Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s forthcoming book, The Pastor as Public Theologian, and websites such as Theologues and The Center for Pastoral Theologians.
Academic study is crucial to the life of the church, and we need more of it in the church. There is no reason to suppose that ministry is the death of one’s academic career or interests. It is simply a different, albeit very amenable, way of living out one’s vocation. One might even find, like I did, that ministry offers many additional concrete and life-giving ways to work for God and God’s people.
- Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 21. ↩