In the last two decades, the wily old PhD has been challenged by a feisty upstart, the Doctor of Ministry. High-achieving individuals dedicated to some field of theology, biblical studies, or pastoral ministry often hop back and forth between the two, wondering which better fits their needs and life situation.
First, some terminology. Let’s begin with the Doctor of Philosophy. In North America, this research degree is usually abbreviated Ph.D, while in Great Britain PhD is more common. There are variants, of course. Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School, for example, offer both a Ph.D. and a Th.D. The latter abbreviates Doctor of Theology. Although there are fierce debates inside Harvard regarding the equivalence (or not) of the two degrees, people on the outside generally regard them as two variants of the same course of study. On the other side of the Atlantic, Oxford University offers the DPhil.
For our purposes, we’ll group these variations together and refer to them collectively as the PhD. This is a research degree with a book-length thesis serving as one of its anchors. In effect, one hones one’s research skills either after a course of doctoral classes (the common scheme in North America) or by way of the research and ‘writing up’ itself (a distinctive of the British PhD, which requires little or no formal coursework).
A conventional distinction that still serves as a point of departure holds that the PhD is an academic or research degree in contrast to the D.Min, which is a professional degree.
Let’s get into that: the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) has flourished among clergy and related professionals during the past twenty-five years. Seminaries that never imagined themselves offering a doctorate now have active D.Min. programs whose enrollment sometimes rivals or even exceeds its coterie of Master’s Degrees.
Clarity on one point is essential: the PhD and the D.Min. are not variations on a common theme. They are completely different programs of study. This reality alone should ease the angst of the aspiring student who cannot decide which fork in the road makes the best sense. In truth, they are two completely different roads traversing the same theological-ministerial terrain.
It stand to reason, then, that the D.Min. is neither a mini-PhD nor a PhD lite. It is something else altogether.
Let’s talk about how that works.
The PhD in theology or biblical studies is intended to hone the intellectual skills required to form thought leaders in these fields. In the right hands, it can provide immense benefit in pastoral or other ecclesial situations, but that is a side effect rather than a principal objective. In biblical studies, for example, one typically masters a range of ancient and modern languages and achieves control over the scholarly literature in question. Since the thesis or dissertation is a kind of first book written by the student on his particular field of endeavor, the PhD (I use the term now of the person who has earned one) is already in theory a publishing scholar. This dissertation, written under the guidance of one or more mature scholars in the field, is defended before a committee, panel, or small group of fellow scholars whose job is to insure their constituencies that its author possesses the skills required of the guild.
There are of course very good thinkers with PhDs. There are also very bad ones. The difference is measured not only in lucidity of thought but also in the contribution one makes over a career to advancing the scholarly argument and teaching or mentoring others who will do so in turn.
PhDs in theology often serve outside the academic world (‘the academy’) with stellar results, though this demands formidable powers of translation in order to move beyond the intellectual habits and the native vocabulary of the academy.
The D.Min. developed in order to fill a vacuum of learning opportunity that was perceived to exist in the lives of clergy who had earned a conventional Master’s Degree (usually the Master of Divinity or M.Div.) and then accrued five or more years of vocational service. What was to be done with such a promising, experienced, teachable professional who did not desire to leave his ministerial employment or whose life circumstances precluded such a move?
The D.Min. was touted as the answer. Usually undertaken as a part-time course of study intended to mesh with the student’s ongoing professional concerns, the D.Min. often has minimal residence requirements (some of the best meet once a year for two weeks over three years). One of the emerging trends that has proven most useful is the ‘cohort system’, whereby professionals enroll and make their way through the D.Min. curriculum as fellow travelers. Veterans of the program often cite the learning that takes place among cohort peers to be a most valuable part of the experience.
As with the PhD, the D.Min. is usually shepherded by one or two respected mentors. In addition to completing the coursework—usually a premium is placed on the integration of the theoretical work with one’s life and professional situation—the student completes a thesis-like project.
Typically, one graduates not to a new position in an institution that has recruited the student but rather to enhanced performance in the place one is already laboring. The D.Min. is not usually seen as a credential that opens the door to a teaching position in the academy, though countless D.Min.’s add value to the seminary process by serving as adjunct professors or lecturers in their area of expertise.
Both the ancient PhD and the relatively novel D.Min. are moving targets. Readers of this post who know one or both of the programs well will already have cringed at some egregious generalization I’ve made in this brief sketch. Perhaps others will have gained some clarity in the distinctions that make these two doctoral programs completely different courses of study. Each one stands on its own merits. Each one can be done well and done badly, depending on the competence of the host institution and the efforts of its professors, mentors, and students.
Both demand time and money, though the PhD asks for more of both. In the experience of the student, each can be a thing of beauty or a spectacular train wreck.