Should I Have Started My PhD Instead of Becoming a Pastor?

by Danny Slavich August 10, 2017

Did I Make the Right Decision? 

Some days I wonder. 

Toward the end of my MDiv, I was planning to apply for a PhD program to continue my education. But, the closer I got toward graduation, the more deeply I sensed a call into the local church. This crystalized one night over dinner with my old roommate. He was a few weeks away from heading across the pond to pursue a doctorate in the UK. As he talked about working in the world of ideas, I responded with a splash of sarcasm, “Yeah, because you know Jesus came to die for all of those great ideas.” In my obnoxious attempt at humor, I had stumbled into serious conviction. And I knew I was destined for the local church and not the academy.

The call toward advanced education has never left, but it has been delayed as I submitted to the call to pastoral ministry. I have spent the last seven years in the gritty, grimy guts of the broken and beautiful bride of Jesus. 

And now, after more than seven years, I’m finally starting my PhD. 

All the while, I see friends who have earned and deployed their PhDs. There are guys I shared crummy dorm rooms with, schlepped lattes with, and went to mediocre movies with. Many are now doctors and professors and “experts.” 

And that question comes back: did I do the right thing? 

Scars, Stories, and Schooling

Consider where I could be if I had completed my PhD first. I wouldn’t be 35 and feel like I am just starting out. I could have a big diploma framed up on the wall and an impressive honorific in front of my name. Instead, I’ve got scars and stories and schooling in a degree program only accredited in heaven.

I’ve got scars from people who said they were ride or die, but neither rode nor died, just disappeared. I’ve got jagged and partially healed soul-gashes that, surprisingly, still bleed when they get bumped.

I’ve got stories of men who have met Jesus - some who have stayed, some who have walked away. Stories of when the baptistry waders leaked and my socks stayed soaked the entire Sunday service. Stories of standing next to an older friend at 2 AM as he wept over his dying bride. Stories of baptizing a half-dozen people with skin color different than my own on a Sunday morning in September.

I’ve been schooled by the Spirit, and I’ve learned things. Our church is a diverse mosaic, displaying the heart of God for his church in way unlike any other church I’ve been a part of. Every time our church gathers, we glimpse the beauty of that every-tribe-tongue-people-and-nation multitude from Revelation 5:9.

 I’ve learned to see God’s glory in the grind and the grime, and I’ve learned not to despise the many slow days made of small things. I’ve learned that spiritual leadership and organizational management are very different things. And, though they both have value, one is temporal, the other is eternal, and they should never be confused. 

I’ve learned that some of the clichés are true. Like the one that tells us that Jesus cares more about who we’re becoming in him and with him, than what we’re accomplishing for him. I’ve learned that my identity can be separated from my performance, though performance is clingy and always tries to reattach itself. 

Now that I’ve started my PhD, I’m learning a lot of different and new things. I love it. I’m getting academic credit and, Lord willing, in a few years, I’ll have another framed piece of paper on the wall and two new letters in front of my name. 

Should have I waited? Did I make the right decision to spend my years the way I have? 

These questions still come. But when they do, I always end up answering, “Yes and amen.” I think about Jacob, who worked seven years times two under the cruel hand of Laban for his beloved bride. How much more, under the kind hand of the bleeding bridegroom, would I gladly give these seven years over and over again.