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In my last post I explained my shift from pursuing a PhD in biblical studies to a Doctor of Ministry program that will, among other things, focus on my practical engagement in youth ministry. In the past, when I’ve talked about such a shift, people have responded with some kind of comment about all of the time I have invested in the PhD program. The assumption behind these comments seems to be that without getting a diploma, those years of learning will go to waste.

I must admit that this was probably a major part of my struggle to make the leap from one course of study to the other. I came to Chicago over a decade ago with the intention of getting a PhD in Hebrew Bible. After all of this time, there is a sense of sadness that I didn’t finish what I set out to do. But, as John Lennon famously sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I have no regrets about the path I have followed and the experiences I have had along the way.

I eventually came to the conclusion that regardless of whether I earn a PhD or not—and I don’t want to rule out the possibility that I may revisit a PhD in some other season of my life—the learning I have done will never go to waste. All that I have done as a PhD student has informed and shaped who I am as a person and as a pastor. I don’t feel like I’m losing something. Rather, I feel like I am embracing what I have done and redirecting it in a way that feels truer to who I am—and who I feel called to be.

There is no doubt in my mind that what I do in the future will continue to reflect what I have done in the past. I am a pastor deeply invested in the critical study of the Bible, theology, and religion. In fact, the DMin project I currently have in mind will bring my critical studies and pastoral ministry together in intentional—and, I hope, productive—ways.

The last course I audited as a PhD student was a class that essentially covered the different modes of commentary writing. I realize that this is not the sum total of what I was being trained to do, but it did help me clarify in my mind what that program was about. As much as I enjoy that kind of work—and think I could do well, if I invested the time that it requires—I simply no longer envision that as the focus of my professional life. I still value this kind of scholarship, and I fully intend to use it as a springboard for the kind of work that I really want to do. But I don’t need to be the one producing it. Instead, I want to produce scholarship grounded in the practical theology of pastoral ministry.

One of the books that helped me think about this shift was Bill Placher’s final work, his theological commentary on Mark in the Belief series he was to have co-edited. In the series introduction, he talks about the rationale for this set of biblical commentaries:

The writers of this series share Karl Barth’s concern that, insofar as their usefulness to pastors goes, most modern commentaries are “no commentaries at all, but merely the first step toward a commentary.”

This series is intended to go beyond the standard critical commentary and provide a resource for pastors and church people that will help them understand the Bible as theologically meaningful for today. Critical biblical commentaries are not ends themselves but rather prolegomena to the important work of listening to the Bible as a living voice in contemporary faith communities. This is what I’m most interested in: theological writing that builds on critical biblical scholarship, in service of the church.

Many years ago, as I was discerning my vocation and applying to the PhD program at the Div School, my MDiv advisor, Margaret Mitchell, asked me quite pointedly who I think my audience is. Even then, I was clear that my audience is the church. For me, this step beyond the foundation that I laid in my (unfinished) PhD program is an attempt to be more focused and intentional about that audience.

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 johnvest.com.

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