Just recently I finished my doctoral thesis and officially completed all of my requirements for my D. Min. at Fuller Theological Seminary.
This day has been a long time coming, five years, to be exact. I applied for this program in the summer of 2012. Almost exactly five years later I finished.
Let me be honest with you. When I applied to this program, a big motivating factor was that I simply wanted the diploma on my wall and the prestige that came with it. I had also heard that many D. Min programs did not require a lot – three years of coursework, reading, writing, and bam, you’re a doctor.
One of the reasons that I chose Fuller was because of the struggles I had while at Princeton for my M. Div. At Princeton, I disagreed with many of the faculty and many of my classmates about theology and approaches to our faith. So I wanted to go to a more conservative school that would better align with my beliefs.
As it turns out, I was in for quite a surprise. First of all, the program I chose at Fuller was taught by two of the more progressive professors at Fuller. So while I came into the program with my guard down, my convictions were challenged even more deeply than when I was at Princeton. Additionally, there was more to this doctorate than simply reading and writing.
The program actually sought to change my behaviors! The gall!
While transitioning from the Associate Pastor position to the Senior Pastor position at our church, we had our second child, Everett, and this D. Min. program was challenging my basic assumptions about ministry and my Evangelical faith. It was an intense time. One of our professors described the purpose of the program as a “redemptive desconstruction.” And this wasn’t purely an intellectual deconstruction. This challenged the way I was to view my purpose in ministry.
So in a time when I needed increasing support and confidence, I was actively experiencing a deconstruction of my faith and professional priorities – all while being the only ordained pastor in our church for year and parenting a newborn and a two-year-old. Needless to say, I frequently wanted to quit. Quit ministry, quit the program, or sometimes just quit at life.
I remember my second year of the doctoral program being the most discouraging. The program was urging me to embrace new practices at work in the church that I simply did not have the emotional bandwidth to embrace. I felt like I could not continue with the program, but I knew that I was in the last cohort the school was offering in the area of Missional Leadership. The end felt so far away, but I felt like I couldn’t give up, even if I was barely scraping by.
By the grace of God, I remained in the program. In the third year, I started getting on-the-ground help with a ministry coach. Craig Van Gelder helped bridge the gap between the classroom expectations and my day-to-day church expectations. We got a full staff at church so my responsibilities diminished somewhat. Also, our kids continued to get older.
Which leads us back to today. I have finished. I hit “send” on the final, approved version of my thesis. I have reached a point that I had dreamed of, literally for years. Certainly in the last five years I longed for this day. But if I’m honest, the dreaming goes back much further than that. My grandpa, known to those outside of our family as “Dr. Didier” was always a role model of a faithful, successful pastor. I was only really young before he retired. Seeing him lead worship in a large church he had helped to create was a grandiose experience. My childhood image of my grandfather in his ministry feels mythical. His book he had written and published for his doctorate sat on one of our family bookshelves all my life. He was the archetypal 20th century, successful pastor.
To finish my doctorate, to get my grandfather’s doctoral bars sewn on my robe, was to be the ultimate symbol that I’ve arrived as a pastor. I would be confident. God would be using me. My ministry would be experiencing explosive growth. I would preach with authority and feel confident in the pulpit each week.
But something strange happened when I hit “send.” In fact, to be more accurate, nothing happened. Nothing happened at all.
I was still the same person. I turned the paper in that Friday, and I still had more work I had to do for Sunday morning. I still woke up that Sunday morning, as I do every Sunday, wondering whether that day would be the day people would discover that I don’t know what I’m doing. I had arrived like my grandfather had all those years earlier. But the place where I had arrived was the same place I had been all along.
Somewhere along the way, I had believed the lie that if I were to complete all the relevant schooling I could possibly take, I would feel different, more complete. However, like many milestones in life, I woke up the next day, and I was still the same person. The same stresses, shortcomings, doubts, and fears that were present the day before my professor signed off on my thesis were present the day after.
I still have to confront my shortcomings, just like we all do. Hopefully I have a few more tools on my belt now to face those shortcomings and challenges. The temptation is to think that once we hit that next milestone, then we’ll feel confident, we’ll have what it takes, we’ll take that risk, etc…
Perhaps the most valuable thing this doctorate has taught me is that my grandfather probably felt inadequate every time he put on his robe with those doctoral bars, too.