Back in my PhD days, I was a regular attender of the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. In 2005 I contributed to a panel discussion of congregation-based biblical scholarship and in 2006 I presented a paper on sovereignty in Ruth. But when my academic and pastoral interests began to shift, I took a hiatus from these annual conferences.

Last week these conferences were in Chicago, so I didn’t really have much of an excuse not to go, though I couldn’t attend all of it because of church responsibilities. I went to several sessions on Monday and Tuesday, connected with old friends, and met some new ones. While it was fun to be back in this environment, my re-entry did prompt some reflection on where I am vocationally and how (or if) I might still have a place in the SBL or AAR.

For one thing, I found myself more interested in AAR papers than I had ever been before. In the old days, I would almost exclusively attend SBL sessions. But I’m just not as interested 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 I might fit into that picture. (I’ve long observed how biblical theology does and does not fit within the SBL.)

In particular, I was intrigued by a practical theology session I attended. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the academic field of practical theology. In seminary, I studied with Don Browning, who wrote one of the standard texts in the field. And I’ve noticed recently that there are several seminaries offering PhDs in practical theology. According to the Association of Practical Theology, there are seven doctoral programs in this field.

During the required research methods class for my DMin at McCormick Theological Seminary, I became more aware of the fact that the DMin thesis is essentially a project in practical theology. In the past year, I’ve read a PhD dissertation from one of the doctoral programs in practical theology. It read like a dissertation. I’m much happier to be doing practical theology than writing about practical theology. I’m curious, though, if that will get much play in the AAR.

Either way, like I said, I’m happier doing practical theology than just talking about it.

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

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    • There’s no doubt that a DMin is less intense than a PhD, and there are certainly plenty of pastors who want to be called “Doctor” and choose the easiest of the two routes. I discontinued my PhD because I felt that the time it would take to finish it was better spent with my family and my pastoral work. My sense of DMin work is that you get out of it what you put into it. In my case, I think I’m getting as much out of it as I would a PhD in practical theology because I’m putting the same level of thought and work into it. And I love the “ministry as laboratory” nature of DMin work versus strictly library or research work in a PhD.

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