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PhD Pastors: An Interview with David Hamstra
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By Seth Pierce

Okay, give me the biographical breakdown: How long have you pastored? Where have you pastored? How long have you been out of seminary?
I’ve been in full-time pastoral ministry for 10 years (if one year of volunteer youth work in Australia counts and seminary doesn’t). I’ve spent my entire professional career with the northernmost Adventist congregations of Alberta, Canada. I graduated from Andrews University with my MDiv in 2010.

The DMin is the usual doctoral route for Adventist pastors. Tell me a little about your decision to pursue a PhD instead.
I think of myself as a pastor whose ministry specialty is theology. My first call was to be a shepherd to the flock, and God hasn’t indicated that I should have any other carrier ambition. But in addition to that, during my MDiv, God also called me to work on a specific theological project. So for my advanced training, I knew that an academic doctorate would prepare me to make that theological contribution in a way that a DMin is simply not set up to do.

PhD’s are lengthier and more costly than DMins. How are you affording the time and financial commitments?
I have a sponsorship arrangement with my conference covering four years in Andrews University’s residential program with a full stipend and 50% tuition. Andrews University has a scholarship for doctoral students that covers up to 50% of coursework tuition based on one’s combined verbal and quant GRE score. In addition, we own a home with my parents in Berrien Springs that I’m living in payment-free. Between the sponsorship, the scholarship, and family generosity I’m able to study full time.

I also took on a 10-hour-a-week job as the editorial assistant for the seminary journal, AUSS. That adds a bit of extra-income, but I’m mainly doing it for the experience.

What kinds of concerns does your conference have about this path? What are some concerns you have heard other conferences having regarding this type of study?
My conference officers haven’t expressed any concerns to me about this path. The officers are viewing this as a trial run to explore the potential for building up a small team of Adventist pastors who have advanced academic training that has prepared them to assist with theological controversies that may arise in the conference, present seminars, and experiment with outreach to the educated classes.

I suppose the risk a conference might be taking with sponsoring a pastor for their PhD is that the pastor might be using the conference to become a professor. A DMin is safer from that point of view, because it offers fewer advantages outside of church employment. In my case, the dream was to see what kind of difference this academic training could make in a ministry setting. It’s always possible that another church organization might “buy me out” at some point, but I’m planning to fulfill my years of service to the conference, because it’s only fair that they see a return on their investment.

What is your current area of emphasis and expected graduation date?
My big secret is that instead of a PhD, I’m doing a Doctor of Theology (ThD) in theological and historical studies. At Andrews, they’re essentially the same degree except that ThD has two concentrations plus a cognate rather than a concentration and cognate. The ThD also isn’t as well recognized and has other requirements that make it harder, so most people don’t take it. But my area of interest is theology of history, so the dual concentration in theological and historical studies makes the ThD a better fit given my overall goals. Because I’m theoretically able to study full time, I should be able to have my dissertation submitted for revisions before my sponsorship runs out in 2019.

What have been the three biggest differences you have experienced between the MDiv and the PhD from Andrews University?
(1) There are more opportunities for scholarships and grad assistantships; (2) there more perks like extended hours at the library and fully funded trips to scholarly meetings; and (3), at least in my departments, I’m able to take mainly 800–900 level—as opposed to cross-listed 500–600 level—courses. Those doctoral level courses have about six participants, are more in-depth, and require more work. One other major difference: the professors and just about everyone takes you more seriously.

How has the transition to academia impacted your family?
We had a difficult transition in a couple of ways. I came early, which put a strain on our unpacking and settling-in as well as our finances. I also overloaded on credits this semester, because I wanted certain classes that wouldn’t be offered again for a while. So I have less control over my schedule now, than I did as a pastor. On the other hand, I just had a three-week semester break to recover and spend time with the family, and I made a commitment to my wife to under-load on credits this semester, so we can get our house and family life re-established.

Have you experienced any negative comments about your decision to pursue a PhD?
I have had some people wondering why I’m doing the ThD, but overall people who know me know this is something that suits my interests and personality. I like to say that it feels like I get to go to Disneyland for theologians every day. My church was not happy to see me go, but they were supportive of my transition on a personal level.

What advice would you give pastors contemplating doctoral studies? What would you tell those waffling between a DMin or PhD path?
It’s foolish for a pastor to do a degree at the doctoral level just to get some letters behind their name. It’s spendy in terms of time and finances. (My retirement account is going to be non-existent when I finish.) It is also a lot of hard work, and you will feel like quitting at times, especially if you don’t have a passion for your area of research. The list of doctoral students who have crashed out during coursework or never finished writing is much longer than that of those who have graduated.

If you’re a pastor, you hopefully have a calling or conviction about what God wants you to do in ministry. Has that calling led to a research goal for extending knowledge in a particular area of theology, history, biblical studies, or ministry practice? If so, consider whether a PhD/ThD or a DMin would be a better fit for that goal. Or perhaps your calling requires you to develop your skills in a particular area other than in research based learning. A Master of Family Therapy, a MBA, a nutrition certification, or some other line of education might be a better way to enhance your capabilities.

Another piece of advice: Put in the effort to get a good GRE score. It took me about 80 hours, but it paid off big at Andrews. And if you don’t have connections at the university you’re applying to, it could make the difference on your application.

What would you tell other conferences considering this type of sponsorship?
I’m of the opinion that the ministry benefits from pastors with a variety specialties, including academically trained theologians. Not every conference has the vision or the resources for training that kind of pastorate. For those who lack the resources, there may be creative solutions like partially sponsoring a pastor for a less expensive non-residential PhD at another Christian university or holding a space for someone who is accepted into fully funded PhD program, like the one at Notre Dame.

For those that lack the vision, consider the impact that pastors with academic doctorates—people like John Piper and Gregory Boyd—have been able to make in the evangelical world, both as evangelists who have grown large churches and as leaders of their respective intellectual movements. I believe the Adventist Church will become stronger as we develop such leaders.

Seth Pierce is the lead pastor for the Puyallup church in Washington. David Hamstra is a pastor in the Alberta Conference