I am often asked, “How do you pastor while pursuing a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies?” Such questions typically originate from people that understand the workload of pastoral ministry and the academic demands of an accredited Ph.D. program. To be sure, the decision to pursue a Ph.D. will exact a cost on those who dare to pursue it. There will be sleepless nights and groggy days full of anxiety, self-doubt, and irritability. And, if you are a pastor, the consistent and constant demands of pastoral ministry will be ever-present. In many cases, in addition to your academic studies, you will be preparing at least one sermon for Sunday mornings and one prayer meeting meditation for Wednesday night. If you teach Sunday school or lead a Life Group, you will also have to be prepared for those meetings. So when would a pastor be able to find time to prepare for all of their pastoral obligations while keeping up with their Ph.D. studies? Here is my recommendation: Intentionally build overlap into your preparation and instruction.
What does it mean to “intentionally build overlap into your preparation and instruction?” Maybe I could put it this way – Do not isolate your pastoral work and your academic work from one another. For example, when you are preparing to preach through a particular passage of scripture, take the time to translate the text (or at least a portion of the text) from the original language, consult the critical commentaries, and brush up on your critical methods. Read up and familiarize yourself with the most recent and best research on the text and/or topic. In other words, do the work of a pastor as one who is well-trained in biblical studies. Do not use your gifts and preparation to lighten your pastoral load. Instead, use your gifts and preparation to work harder in your preparation as a pastor, and do this with intentionality. You do not have to take off the scholar’s hat when you do pastoral work. Nor should you take off the pastor’s hat when you do scholarly work.
Let me give you an example from my own study just a few weeks ago. I was preparing to preach from Hebrews 3:7-4:13. In this passage, the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95:7-11 as a warning to his audience about hardening their heart to the Word of God. Instead of simply working through an English translation, I opened my UBS and started working through the text. When I did not recognize a word or a form, I referenced my Bible software. After identifying the key verbs and getting a sense of the flow of the text, I looked up the psalm that the author of Hebrews quotes in my passage. First, I looked the passage up in my LXX, which was actually Psalm 94. I compared the UBS text to the LXX text, noting the differences on a piece of scrap paper. After working through the psalm in Greek, I turned my attention to my BHS. My Hebrew is much weaker than my Greek, so I took a few moments to refresh myself on the Hiphil verb form, which is used at the beginning of verse 8. Once I had exhausted my abilities and knowledge of the text, I briefly surveyed Hossfeld and Zenger’s Hermeneia Commentary and Tate’s World Biblical Commentary on Psalm 95. The most significant contribution that this survey made to my preparation was on literary unity and correspondence with other festal psalms. Both commentaries noted the use of Psalm 95 in Hebrews, so I returned to my original passage and worked through Ellingworth’s NIGTC commentary on Hebrews. Over the course of just three hours of sermon preparation, I engaged Scripture in its original languages, consulted three first-rank critical commentaries, wrestled with the literary analysis of a psalm and the rhetorical structure of an epistle, and had my heart warmed and warned by exhortations and encouragements of God’s Word. At that moment, I longed deeply to “hear His voice” and “not harden my heart.” The scholarly rigor of the study did nothing to quench my affections for Christ and His Word. Instead, it reinvigorated my afternoon while also equipping me for my oral examination next Spring semester.
Some may question the necessity of such study for the benefit of a congregation, but trust me when I say this – God’s People want to be fed God’s Word. The coolest and most refreshing waters are often found deep in the well, and the sheep of His pasture want to drink deeply of the Well of Life. And while it might be easier to preach a sermon after a cursory study of a passage, the return on investing sufficient time in the deep study of God’s Word for His people is nearly incalculable.
To be sure, one does not have to pursue a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies to dig deep in God’s Word. There are many well-qualified pastors without academic credentials. Furthermore, overlapping research efforts may take other forms. For instance, I have been teaching through a theology of the book of Revelation on Sunday nights over the summer. So, while I have not been working expositionally with a particular text of scripture, I have been engaging resources on apocalyptic literature and forcing myself to give attention to how John used the Old Testament in Revelation. This type of research and study has added an extra level of depth and clarity to my Sunday night lessons. My people might not care anything about first-century Jewish apocalyptic literature, but the benefit of the study is present in the lessons, even if it goes undetected by the untrained eye.
In sum, if you feel led to pursue a Ph.D. while pastoring a local church, do not deprive your people of the depth of study afforded to you in such academic work. Use the tools that you have been given to take them deeper into God’s Word. Expect more of them as listeners. Challenge them. Do this with passion and pastoral concern for their spiritual well-being, and I believe they will thank you with great appreciation in their hearts.