This post is a week overdue. Via Twitter and Facebook, I announced last week that I was beginning the Doctor of Ministry program at McCormick Theological Seminary. What I hadn’t anticipated was how seven or eight hours of class per day—largely spent talking with five other people—would wipe this introvert out.

So—better late than never—here is some clarification about this new direction in my academic and pastoral life.

Many readers of this blog know that I have been enrolled for several years in a PhD program at the University of Chicago Divinity School in Biblical Studies. After much discernment and fence sitting, I have decided to discontinue this degree and begin the DMin at McCormick.

Some background might be helpful.

After feeling a call to pastoral ministry during my senior year of high school, I decided to major in Religious Studies at Rice University. These years of studying religion in the academic setting of a non-religious university were transformative for me. Having grown up in the conservative Southern Baptist Church, for the first time I was introduced to the critical study of the Bible, theology, Christian history, and religious experience. In course after course, the uncritical faith of my childhood was deconstructed. Fortunately, and unlike many of my friends, I was gradually able to reconstitute a meaningful faith from the pieces.

By the end of college, I had left my Baptist roots and felt drawn to the Reformed tradition of the Presbyterian Church. I had also fallen in love with the academic study of religion. My understanding of ministry possibilities had expanded to include becoming a scholar. When it came time to apply for graduate school, I was torn between pursuing a ministry degree and proceeding directly to doctoral work in biblical studies. After considering good options in each direction, I decided to attend the University of Chicago Divinity School as a ministry student with intentions of continuing on to doctoral studies.

After completing my MDiv, I did in fact begin a PhD course of study in Biblical Studies, focusing on the Hebrew Bible. At this same time, I also served part-time on the pastoral staff of the church at which I did my seminary internship. All the while, I was still wrestling with vocational discernment as I felt called to both academic studies and the congregational ministry in which I was engaged.

After several years of holding these together, I accepted a call to be the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. It only took a few weeks of serving in this position for my vocational ambiguity to gain focus. After years of thinking that I was an academic with pastoral interests, I suddenly realized that I am a pastor with academic interests. While my studies had always been grounded in the practice of ministry, I became more interested than ever in producing scholarship for the church. The completion of my PhD therefore became less about gaining admission to the academic guild and more about advanced study that would benefit the church.

However, at about the same time that I began my ministry at Fourth, my advisor at the Divinity School passed away. This tragic loss coincided with the completion of my course work and the beginning of my preparation for exams. Without my advisor—and in the midst of a more-than-full-time pastoral job—my doctoral work lost some of its focus. By the time a new Hebrew Bible faculty was hired, it was clear to me both that I wanted to do something more theological and practical with my studies and that the new faculty was not the best fit for this kind of project. I eventually concluded that I am less committed to writing biblical commentaries—though I still find this kind of work interesting—and more engaged in reflection on the practice of ministry. More and more, my reading and writing focused on youth ministry and the “emerging church” conversation.

I did consider changing my PhD course of study, but given my family and ministry commitments, that does not seem like a realistic option at this time. So, I began to think more seriously about a Doctor of Ministry. The part-time nature of a DMin program, which is designed to work well for full-time pastors, is a good fit for me right now.

The idea of pursuing a course of study that is firmly grounded in the practice of ministry is very appealing to me. Indeed, I am fascinated by the concept of contextual ministry as a laboratory for theological reflection. In fact, I think this is what I am already doing—my current reading and writing is all rooted in questions and issues that arise from my pastoral work.

I am excited about this new direction. My first DMin class was mostly about getting to know my cohort, with whom I will complete the majority of my coursework. As we talked about group dynamics and shared case studies drawn from our ministry contexts, it became clear to me that this degree will help me be more reflective about my role as a pastoral leader.

My DMin thesis will most likely be about some element of youth ministry. At this point, my intention is to do a project on confirmation, but there are some other ideas in the hopper as well.

I’m sure I will write about these developments and my DMin work on this blog, so stay tuned for more reflections on the journey.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

Reader Interactions


  1. Congrats on the decision, John! I was never sure how one
    could do a PhD at U of C and work full time at Fourth and be a
    husband and father, but if anyone could I never doubted that it
    would be you. But I’ve always seen your pastor’s heart, so I’m not
    too surprised that in the end this is your vocational choice. As my
    dear religious studies professor told me years ago when I told him
    I was going to seminary, and I share this with you: “I think it
    will be good for you and I know it will be good for the church.” We
    can never have too many thoughtful smart and educated pastors in
    the service of ministry. Good luck!

  2. I think you have made a good call on this … it reminds me of an experience in my own past. Fresh out of undergrad, I enrolled in a Master of Accounting program because I’d enjoyed a few classes in accounting that I’d taken and thought I wanted to be a CPA — mostly for the money, though I did find many aspects of it fascinating. About halfway through the first semester, I definitively lost my vocation…it turned out, to the relief of nearly everyone around me, because I was very obviously quite clumsy with the whole thing. So back into history I went…a better degree (once I finish it up this summer) to go with library science, where I ultimately wound up, anyhow.

  3. John, I really appreciate this post. I’m finishing up an M.A. in youth ministry this year at Luther Seminary, and I don’t expect it to be my last degree. I’ve been weighing some of the options, and your post helped to bring some things to light.

    Besides the obvious increase in workload of a PhD vs a DMin, where do you think a PhD in practical theology falls into the mix here?


  1. […] in the (sometimes painfully narrow) minutiae of biblical studies as I once was, which was one of the reasons I discontinued my PhD studies. So one of my goals moving forward is to understand how theology fits in the AAR and whether or not […]

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