Updated: Sep 14
Well, now you know. I’m starting a PhD.
I noted toward the end of last year that I was working on a large project that would take up some of my time, and this was it. I spent a good deal of my free time from November-February studying and preparing for the PhD entrance exams — and I sat for those exams in late February of this year.
And I’m pleased to report that I’ve been accepted into the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, to study Pastoral Theology. I am excited and I'm nervous!
The Doctor of Philosophy is the highest academic degree achievable and is a research based program. The goal of the PhD program is to train and produce scholars. This is where experts are trained and equipped. And, specific to Southeastern, and our 5 other Southern Baptist Seminaries, the goal of the seminary PhD program is to train and produce scholars for the Church of the Lord Jesus; this program makes the Doctors of the Church.
My Journey with Education
Some of you may be wondering, “Why are you going back to school!?”
In case you don’t know my story, I’ve had quite a journey when it comes to schooling. I made my way through high school with very little effort, and rolled easily into an undergraduate program at the University of NC Charlotte. Unknown to me at the time, I was wholly unprepared for college. Not because high school had failed me, but because I had no motivation and no desire for academics. I lacked discipline and wasn’t committed. My time there didn’t last long, and by the early part of my third semester I had dropped out. I was 19 years old.
I began working full-time with a tire company and preparing for marriage. I was content, so I thought, to work my job, get married, and live out my life. But, it was during this period that the Lord truly saved me, opening my eyes to see both my sin, and Jesus the Savior. And it was also during this time that the Lord planted the seed of learning in my heart and mind. Shortly after our wedding, I told Tera I felt God was calling me to vocational ministry, and that He was calling me to attend the College at Southeastern Seminary in order to prepare. After some time and planning, we moved from Gaston to Person County in order for me to return to college. Without going into all the details, I spent the next 3 years studying and growing. It was slow growth, and I had to learn how to learn, but a love of academics had been birthed in me…and it was growing.
As I neared the end of my time in the College, I made plans to roll into the Seminary and begin work on a Master’s degree. That’s where I intended to end my academic career; finish the Graduate degree and get to work in the Church (even though I was already serving a local Church in Durham). But, when the time came for me to graduate, I was hungrier than ever academically. I considered seeking entry into the PhD program, but it didn’t seem like the right time. We were preparing for a major move and a new ministry position.
But, there were other academic programs that proved more in line with our life at the moment. So, in 2015, I began the Doctor of Educational Ministry (D.Ed.Min.) program at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Unlike the research based PhD, the D.Ed.Min is aimed at helping pastors become more skilled in their field and work. It's a professional degree aimed at producing skilled practitioners. The program seeks to equip pastors to be expert practitioners in their fields, but not scholars. So, after 3 years, I successfully completed and defended my doctoral project, which focused on applying Christian Ethics to transgenderism in the local Church setting, and graduated in December of 2018 as the Reverend Doctor Benjamin A. Francis.
Throughout my journey with education, my desire for academics, education, learning, and growing has never dwindled. It has only grown in intensity. I love reading, studying, teaching, and preaching, and love using all of it for the equipping of God's people through His Word. I also just love to study for study's sake.
All of these things I see as personal confirmations that the Lord has called me to shepherd His church through preaching and teaching, through studying, and shepherding a body of believers (Eph. 4:11-12).
I love the rich heritage of men and women throughout Church history who have served her through academics and a seriousness about studying and teaching God’s Word. God is so kind and diverse in His spiritual giftings, and He always gives His Church exactly what she needs. And one of the things that the Church needs in every generation is her Doctors. She needs those men and women who devote themselves to serious study, gaining expertise in the things of God.
And ever since I neared the end of my undergraduate work, I’ve had a burning desire to be one of those Doctors for the Church in my generation; one of the experts, doing the work, producing needed theology for today's church, leading and guiding under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
And while my educational journey thus far has been time well-spent, I have a deep sense in my soul that there is yet more to do. More to study, more to learn, more to write, more to produce, and more to accomplish. Some of that is my own personal drive; but, I also believe that it is a burden and gift from the Lord for His Church.
What is the Purpose of the PhD Degree?
There are lots of misconceptions around the PhD, specifically around pastors going back to school. Some people pursue degrees for employment prospects, and some pursue schooling for professional advancement, or to open doors for themselves. But throughout the history of the Church, her Pastors have almost always been men who study, learn, write, and teach theology all for the Church's sake. In fact, the Apostle Paul clearly instructs a young Pastor Timothy to identify and equip other men who can faithfully teach the Word of God and instruct the Church in doctrine (2 Tim. 2-4). He also instructs Timothy to watch over the doctrine of the Church, guarding it from the perversion of false teaching (2 Tim. 4).
Studying, teaching, and equipping others in theology and doctrine is essential pastoral work.
Many pastors seek seminary education, not for professional advancement, but for personal edification and a sincere desire to serve the Lord’s Church. And this is my desire; to exercise the gifts the Lord has given me in order to serve, guide, and protect the Lord’s Church.
Most PhD’s fall into 1 of 2 categories:
1) Those who pursue the degree in order to teach in academic settings like Colleges and Seminaries.
2) Those who pursue the degree in order to serve in the local Church context.
When most people hear about the PhD, they tend to only think of the first category: The academic setting. “The PhD’s teach in the schools, and the non-PhD’s work in the Churches.” But this is not the rich history of the Church. For much of Church history, the Doctors of the Church have served her from the inside. Throughout Church history, many of those producing the theology and doctrine that has led and guided the Church have been the pastors leading from the pulpits.
In recent years, a group of Pastor-Scholars known as The Center for Pastor-Theologians have been doing lots of good work resurrecting this ancient vision of the Pastor-Theologian. These are men who have a love and desire both for high-level scholarship AND a deep commitment and calling to Shepherding a local Church.
This is exactly where I fall.
My pursuit of the PhD is not an attempt at professional advancement. For me, it is the faithful response to a desire that God has placed in my heart; to be one of the Doctors of His Church. I have no desire nor any intention of leaving the local Church. I also cannot say what my future holds, just as none of us can. The Apostle James reminds us, “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
But, what I can say with certainty is that I love the local Church and am deeply committed to her; and I am humbled that God has called and equipped me to be a Shepherd and Overseer of His bride. It is my sincere desire to pursue this program as a means of strengthening my ministry inside the local Church as one of her faithful Pastors, and to serve her well in my generation.
Gerald Heistand, co-founder of the Center for Pastor-Theologians, calls these men the Ecclesial Theologians; meaning those men who are experts in theology and theological study who also live and work inside the local Church. They do their theological work inside the Church as Pastor-Shepherds who watch over and lead a people.
This is the dominant picture of the Pastor throughout Church history: Men who have a burden to shepherd the people of God; men who are leading, preaching, counseling, visiting, marrying, burying, and being with their people—all the while, devoting themselves with complete seriousness to the eternal Word of God, studying, writing, and building the beautiful witness of Christian scholarship for the sake of the Church today and for the years ahead.
What Will I Be Studying?
As I noted above, I have been accepted into Southeastern’s Pastoral Theology Program. Per Southeastern’s description, “The PhD in Pastoral Theology…is for pastor-theologians who desire to advance the understanding and practice of theology from a shepherding perspective. This track integrates four sub-disciplines (theology, preaching, counseling, and leadership) in order to prepare students to be pastors who are scholars and scholars who are pastoral in their academic pursuits.”
My personal goal/desire is to research and write in the areas of the Church, power in the Church, power in Church-Denominational life, the use and abuse of power in both Church and denominational structures, and the ethics of religious power.
The specifics of my research and writing will become more clear as I advance through the program.
What Will Change?
For most people looking in, not a whole lot. My most important roles will not change: Full-time husband to Tera, and daddy to my children (these are always my top priorities). I will also remain in full-time pastoral ministry to my church (something that both I, and Southeastern take very seriously). These things will always take the top spots in my life.
Tera and I have had long conversations about this for many years, and I am entering the program with her full support. I am so thankful for her constant love and support. I could not do this without her. She is my best-friend and biggest fan, and she's been there every step along the way.
I also have the support of those I share Church leadership with, and those I work alongside.
This will, no doubt, be a shared endeavor.
What will change is what I’m reading, how much I’m reading, extra study time, what I’m writing, and what I’m studying in my free-time. The PhD is no small commitment. In fact, it is a major commitment that will span several years and will dominate a portion of my life. It will be costly in numerous ways: time, energy, money, and more. But, by God’s grace, I am entering it well equipped, and I am as prepared for what is to come as I can be on this side of things.
I’m set to begin my studies this Fall…
How Can You Be Involved?
1 - Pray.
Please put me on your regular prayer list. I would covet your prayers in several areas…
Faithfulness to my family, my Church, and my studies.
Steadfastness for the long road ahead.
Sturdiness for the workload that is to come.
2 - Encourage Me.
Ask me questions about my schooling; tell me that you’re praying; encourage me in other ways. I’ll be needing it!
3 - Support Me.
Along with prayer and encouragement, this program comes with a significant financial cost. I am already receiving support from grants and through other means, but there will be significant costs that remain. My goal is to complete the program debt free, and I am trusting the Lord to provide. If you would like to hear more about how you could financially support/partner with me in this project, I would love to share more. You can reach out to me at Ben.firstname.lastname@example.org
I plan to write about this journey as it progresses and unfolds. I think it is important for Churches to know and understand the process. It is, after all, a process for the Church! It not only benefits the pastors in the program, it also deeply benefits the Lord’s Churches directly as her shepherds grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord, becoming well-equipped in the things of God.
A personal note: Writing this post is a big hurdle for me. I would naturally rather keep this kind of thing to myself…just in case I fail. And I HATE failing! I hate not being seen as successful. I would almost rather not even try than to try and fail. And while I have no intention of failing, I also recognize the size and scope of this challenge. So, please commit to pray me for throughout this process. So, this post is a challenge for me. Its a challenge for me to be that open because it puts me on the line with you.
I'm posting this for clarity sake, but also for accountability. And I hope that, if you’ve read this far, you’ll commit to praying for and supporting me along the way. If so, know that I am grateful.
That’s all for now.
Onward for the Kingdom of God…