I suppose a reflection like this one is bound to be somewhat self-indulgent. It is personal and particular. But I hope it also proves useful for others considering a similar path. And perhaps it will serve a deeper purpose. At the heart of my journey is a question of vocation, tangled in a messy relationship with values inherited from my church tradition and cultural background as well as my own commitments to God’s mission. I wonder (still!) how to live in the tensive space between the church and the academy and how to serve God’s purposes with the peculiar gifts and acquired skills that pertain to scholarship. What follows is a narrative, neither prescriptive nor critical. It is how I remember this journey.
The Journey to Doctoral Study
I went to Harding University (Searcy, AR) in 2000 to pursue a BA in missions. There was enough wise counsel in my life at that time to convince me of the need for both a college degree and preparation for mission work. I never seriously considered attempting to go straight to the mission field, but by the time I graduated high school I was set on cross-cultural mission work, and I was impatient to get to “the field.” The degree was a means to the ends of effectiveness and fundraising. Yet, I was convinced of the need for education, and I had a thirst for knowledge. That lost-in-the-desert, cracked-lip kind of thirst. One of my dearest friends, Bryan Tarpley, and I imagined for ourselves a future in the tradition of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Inklings—thinking, writing, and arguing in a pub about the deep matters of faith and their representation in our work. These were childish ambitions, no doubt, but they were at the heart of my love for learning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was already torn between the desire to get to work in mission and the longing to understand.
Harding was a life-changing experience, as the university should be. I quickly realized that my seriousness about learning was a relative outlier. Megan Bills, who would become my wife, was in my freshman Bible classes for majors. (Her brothers, who were also ministry majors, told her about the loophole that allowed Bible minors to take the “best” Bible classes, so she declared a minor and enjoyed the benefits.) She likes to recount her memory of the long-haired guy who constantly (and impatiently) raised his hand with questions at the end of class, preventing early dismissal. For me, questions about God were urgent, and the university was there to answer them. I revelled in the pursuit of their resolution. I needed it. And I found that I was good at seeking answers and finding even better questions.
By the time I graduated—with two minors (Spanish and Psychology) and a glut of elective biblical Greek courses—I had discovered an unrequited love of scholarship. I had also realized that I was not yet prepared for mission work.
I applied to graduate schools and chose Harding School of Theology (at that time, Harding University Graduate School of Religion) in Memphis, TN. Part of the Harding school system, HST is a separate campus, the closest thing to a dedicated seminary among Churches of Christ schools. The experience of graduate education was a sheer delight. I completed an MDiv with voracious pleasure (and painful labor), all the while working on mission-team formation and fundraising, as well as serving in ministry with a Spanish-speaking congregation. In that course of study, I took one of Evertt Huffard’s courses, Spiritual Leadership. Evertt was a mentor in many ways, but this course in particular culminated in a spiritual autobiography that served to identify a personal “bent in life.” Through this process, I identified my trajectory as that of a “missionary scholar.” I knew that I was called to the concrete practices of mission work, but scholarship now had a permanent place in my life. I didn’t know what this would entail, only that it was true.
My family and our teammates landed in Arequipa, Peru, on September 1, 2008. We gave ourselves to the best practices I had learned in the previous eight years of study: language and culture study, relationship formation, and prayerful discernment of God’s purposes in our context. In the meantime, I launched Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis because I couldn’t let go of the scholarly dimensions of my vocation. God blessed our work and taught us so much along the way. I was far from the best missionary during the six and a half years we lived in Arequipa, but God was faithful. I believe we bore witness to the kingdom of God in our faltering ways. But above all, I’m grateful for what my Peruvian sisters and brothers taught me about God. Those lessons have shaped my vocation more than any others.
My family went to Peru prepared to stay for ten years but intending to question our place there after five. In 2013, we began thinking about how to transition in a way that would leave the church in a healthy place (a story for another post). For our family, the primary motivation for this question was Megan’s and my sense that the next phase of our journey toward a scholarly vocation was on the horizon. The decision was fraught, to say the least.
God called us to Peru. We staked a great deal on that perception, and nothing in our experience suggested it was wrong. I was not an academic who had ended up in the mission field but a missionary who had fallen in love with the academy. But was that love also in service of God’s mission, or was it a betrayal of my family’s calling? We decided that following Jesus meant applying to PhD programs and returning to the US.
Application and Admission
The first step in application to PhD programs was the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) test. Although I had taken the GRE for grad. school applications, the scores are valid for only five years, so retaking it was necessary. The exam must be taken at an official test site, which required me travel from Arequipa to Lima to make the attempt.
To say I hated this process is an understatement. The test consists of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. According to my natural gifts, words come easily, and math is a nightmare. If you wonder what math has to do with a PhD in theology, I can confirm that nothing is the answer (usually). Nonetheless, I had to suffer the indignity of demonstrating that my mathematical abilities place me in the 50th percentile of GRE test takers. I’m not an idiot savant, just a math idiot, and my math score was not likely to improve with further attempts. Competitive programs sometimes take all three scores into account, and I had no idea how this would affect my applications. I scored quite well on the verbal reasoning portion, but the further rub was my writing score. Unlike the other two sections, analytical writing is scored by a human. Despite the subjective element of this process, I had confidence in my writing abilities. After all, I had excelled in writing throughout my academic career so far, and I had spent four years editing others’ composition. As it turned out, however, I scored a 4.5 of 6, little better than the 3.5 average score. It was a travesty, in my estimation, proof of the fallibility of timed writing exercises and standardized grading practices alike. Still, the feedback was humbling, and I had to decide whether to retake the exam on the chance that the score would improve. Since a 4.5 was sufficient to apply to the programs that interested me, I decided to rely on the second step of application, the writing sample, to make my case for admission.
To serve as my writing sample, I wrote an article for Missio Dei titled “Currents in Missional Hermeneutics.” I intended that missional hermeneutics would be the focus of my dissertation, one way or another. This intention also shaped the selection of the programs to which I applied. PhD study is largely a function of “fit,” the extent to which one’s research interests match the faculty of prospective programs. That is, I applied to schools with faculty whose interests seemed to match my own. Ultimately, a single faculty member must choose to take on an applicant, becoming an advisor or mentor (called Doctorvater [Doctor Father] in the German tradition that dominated theological studies for centuries). Missional hermeneutics is an interdisciplinary endeavor, so I looked for programs in which missional theology, biblical interpretation, and theological hermeneutics might converge. I applied to three: Fuller Theological Seminary, Boston University, and Southern Methodist University. In each of these programs my degree would have been different. In other words, I was not pursuing a specific degree—systematic theology, missiology, practical theology, or biblical studies—but a place from which to develop missional hermeneutics interdisciplinarily.
In the mean time, we left Arequipa, arriving in the US on January 12, 2015. We lived with my wife’s parents and prepared for a move to Pasadena, Boston, or Dallas with the awareness that I might not be accepted anywhere. It was a time of nervous waiting and hope. I worked on my in-laws’ farm and taught Bible class at one of our supporting churches as we coped with reverse culture shock. Finally, I received a no from SMU and a notification that I was on the wait list for Boston. The acceptance letter from Fuller came last. Shortly thereafter, Boston let me know that I had been moved from the wait list to accepted status. The financial prospects were far better at Boston, but I believed that Fuller was the best fit, and Joel Green, my future mentor, would be best suited for guiding my interdisciplinary pursuits in missional hermeneutics. So, we set our sights on Pasadena, California.
Residency at Fuller
The PhD is built to guarantee expertise, which traditionally has meant depth at the cost of breadth. This is not an arbitrary mode of operation but a requirement of mastery. The sheer amount of work already done in any single, small area of scholarship is staggering. A scholar can easily and profitably spend an entire career focused on one aspect of one subspecialty. To attempt more is typically the work of a lifetime that stays within the confines of a single discipline. It is, therefore, no wonder that so many scholars look askance at supposedly interdisciplinary work. All too easily, work between disciplines does injustice to each specialty at issue. I pursued a degree in theology, commonly called systematic or constructive theology. Given Fuller’s structure and faculty, this was my best approach to missional hermeneutics. My focus meant working in hermeneutics from a theological perspective (so-called theological hermeneutics) and crossing into biblical studies and missiology. The traditional divisions between systematic theology and biblical studies already problematize this project. The further division between theology and missiology, expressed at Fuller in the existence of two separate schools—the School of Theology and the School of Intercultural Studies (formerly the School of World Mission)—indicates the complexity and hazard of my undertaking.
I was right about my fit at Fuller. In 2020, the seminary made the groundbreaking decision to combine the two schools as the School of Mission and Theology. This was, to say the least, a significant development. But it predates my coursework. When I entered, separate faculties and relatively incompatible degree plans were the norm. Nonetheless, my program was open to me crossing into the School of Intercultural Studies for missiological coursework. This was a tremendous privilege that benefited my thinking and writing in significant ways. Even in the discourse called missional theology, which is my point of departure, the division between missiology and theology has persisted in powerful ways, and I was looking for a bridge across the gulf. Fuller afforded that possibility. Moreover, Dr. Green is an expert in and a practitioner of interdisciplinarity. His guidance helped me to navigate the tensions between the methods and interests of distinctive approaches to my subject matter in a way that, I believe, does justice to their particularity. I like to say that I did a systematics degree under the guidance of a New Testament scholar in order to develop a missional approach to Scripture. Whatever the result, I found in Fuller a place to make the attempt.
Doctoral study was a delight, even as it was grueling labor. Over and over during those years, I looked up from my reading to marvel at the opportunity to focus exclusively on the pursuit of understanding and gave thanks to God. Dedication to research and writing is understandably of interest to few. More than that, it is a privilege. I could not have asked for more, and I loved every minute, both the successes and the failures. Seriously. The flood of reading, the seminars, and the struggle to put it all together in words brought me great joy.
I have to mention the mentorship of Dr. Green as a highlight of the experience. He is one of those rare individuals with the capacity for an unbelievable amount of productivity at the highest level. Among his unusually large number of doctoral mentees, how he manages to do so much is a commonly discussed mystery. A scholar of the first degree who publishes prolifically, he was both the dean of the School of Theology and the seminary’s Provost when I entered the program. Despite this, he was always available to offer counsel and hosted a reading group in his home every Tuesday evening for most of the school year. His communication was prompt and his feedback on work was extensive. His guidance was kind and generous. I’m not being compensated by Fuller to say such things! These are the facts of my experience. I undertake my career in the academy with his mentorship as the standard that I will try to meet.
Working as a teaching assistant and a research assistant was another valuable part of the experience. I served as a teaching assistant for ethicist Erin Dufault-Hunter and, later, for New Testament theologian Marianne Meye Thompson. From these outstanding professors, I learned important lessons about teaching in graduate theological education. I also worked as a research assistant for Dr. Green, gaining further insight into the scholarly publication process. These jobs allowed me to earn a bit of income while remaining focused on my vocation. I did not take those opportunities for granted, and I remain grateful to have worked under scholars of such high calibre.
Shortly after landing in Pasadena, my family found a spiritual home at Hollywood Church of Christ. For me, theological scholarship is for the church and is properly rooted in the life of the local congregation. HCC is the church family that grounded and sustained my PhD work. This is to say too little, but words fail. Our time in California would have been immeasurably impoverished without the love of the sisters and brothers in Christ who gather to worship God as HCC. It is impossible to imagine our lives at Fuller without these spiritual friendships.
At the same time, integrating with HCC was challenging because we had only recently left behind our roles in Arequipa, where ministry was a lifestyle and, therefore, a key piece of our identity. To land in a church as nothing more than new members was a shock. We had to begin learning what it would mean for us to live like we had taught others—not as employed missionaries but as missional disciples. Seven years later, I can’t say we have figured out what exactly that means—or, rather, that I have figured it out (I think my wife is way farther down the road). But I’m profoundly thankful that we began that journey with HCC.
Our family life during those Pasadena years is full of sweet memories. Our kids grew from 8, 6, and 4 years old to 12, 10, and 8.
The five of us lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment on Fuller’s campus—the most “affordable” option in Pasadena that would allow us to function with a single vehicle. Megan commuted to her job teaching middle school in a charter school in downtown Los Angeles, and I walked the kids to school. That first year, Cohen (our youngest) hung out with me while I studied and stayed with church friends or babysitters while I was in class. The diversity of LA was a huge blessing for the kids, who saw themselves as Peruvians. The girls’ half-year in the small-town school system of Tullahoma, Tennessee, had been jarring. They had been the only White kids in their Peruvian schools, so the multiethnic experience of the McKinley Elementary School (host to more than 80 languages) was a relief. I remember Ana (our oldest) happily explaining after her first few months in school that her two best friends were from India and Colombia, and she was from Peru. When she went to the Colombian fiend’s birthday party, her mother was surprised to learn that Anita was a gringa. In truth, LA eased culture shock for me and Megan too. That emotional monster loomed over us for some time to come, and the diversity of both Fuller and Megan’s job, as well as our new church family, was a joy.
Maintaining emotional health in a PhD program is no easy feat. Across disciplines, rates of depression and anxiety diagnosed among doctoral students are extraordinarily high. Christian schools are no exception. A friend recently said the experience sounds like prolonged hazing, and I think the analogy is apt. The pressures are immense. Fortunately, I did not experience the extreme suffering that many do. I believe a strong support system made the difference—my wife, church family, and mentor deserve credit. But, without a doubt, longterm friendships helped me maintain sanity. I have to thank Kyle Smith (my former teammate in Arequipa), Bryan Tarpley, and John Middleton for serving as a pressure release valve. I cannot imagine what might have become of my emotional health without their encouragement. I managed to escape every summer to spend days playing Dungeons & Dragons, laughing hysterically, and soaking in their companionship. They were a blessing in ways they do not understand.
Likewise, finding friendship among colleagues was a tremendous blessing. It happened that the minister at HCC, Martin Rodriguez, started a PhD in intercultural studies at Fuller at the same time that I began my program. Martin is a first-class missiologist and a gifted practitioner whose spiritual companionship proved to be among the most life-giving serendipities of my time at Fuller. Similarly, a number of my classmates, who also participated in Dr. Green’s weekly theological interpretation reading group, became friends. That group—I’m thinking especially of Reed Metcalf, Jason Moraff, Ryan Gutierrez, and Melanie Dzugan—continues to reconnect at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting and spur one another on in the pursuit of scholarship. Finally, I am grateful for the friendship and collaboration of Carlos Cevallos, the director of Fuller’s Centro Latino and my co-author on “Between Service and Scripture: A Qualitative Study of Missional Hermeneutics,” an article published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation. Carlos generously introduced me to his lovely church community in the course of our research. I treasure the experience of working with him to produce that article.
Another vital dimension of my experience was participation in two scholarly societies. First, the professor who guided my independent study in philosophical hermeneutics, Dan Stiver, encouraged me to present my work at the Society of Ricoeur Studies (dedicated to the study of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s work). I did and became an SRS member. Until the pandemic, I was a regular at the annual meeting, presenting a paper every year and savoring the high-flown philosophical discourse of those gatherings. Delving the depths of Ricoeur’s thought has been such a life-giving experience. That must sound strange to most readers, probably for more than one reason. But it’s true. Laboring through his translated works (I don’t read French, yet!) is difficult, but I have found a sense of—the best word for it is relief in his insights. It’s a feeling like everything has been a bit out of focus, and you didn’t know that was the problem, but you could sense that something was wrong, and then suddenly everything shifts into HD resolution. I’ve had similar experiences with other philosophers (Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer) and many theologians: that sensation is the high that scholars chase. But wrestling with Ricoeur was unique in the extent to which it gave me clarity. It has been such a privilege to get to know SRS members and learn from them. I’ve been warmly welcomed as an “evangelical” (that’s how they see me) theologian, which no doubt has much to do with the fact that Dr. Stiver, a Baptist, is a founding member of the society. Thank God for trailblazers.
Second, the Society of Biblical Literature’s Forum on Missional Hermeneutics is the group I was most eager to join. I had been thinking about missional hermeneutics as such almost since the Forum’s inception, though I was unaware of its existence before I found some of its conference papers posted online around 2009. So I went into the doctoral program with every intention of hanging around the Forum meetings at the SBL conference until they let me in or told me to go away. It turned out (no surprise) that they were open and inviting to anyone with interest in missional hermeneutics. And let’s just say, I was aggressively interested. The Forum cochairs, Michael Barram and John Franke, whose work I had been incorporating into my thinking since grad. school, were an encouragement as I began to participate in Forum discussions and share my work. In 2020, I presented a paper (via Zoom, of course) titled “Revisioning the ‘Mission’ of Missional Hermeneutics as Solidarity: Womanist, Mujerista, and Feminist Contributions to a Postcolonialist Missiology.” In 2021, I participated in a review panel for Dr. Franke’s book Missional Theology: An Introduction. Delightfully, my program ended up tapping Dr. Franke to be the external reader for my dissertation. I suppose turn about is fair play! I’ve served on the Forum steering committee for a few years now and help keep our website updated. To be affiliated with this cohort of scholars is a deep privilege.
All the while, my work with Missio Dei continued. Shortly before our departure from Peru, I brought together the first board of directors for the Missio Dei Foundation (MDF), the legal entity under which I had created Missio Dei. My intention was always to build from the journal, whose management was feasible while I was a full-time missionary, to an organization with a larger agenda. During my years in Pasadena, the board grew and began to explore new initiatives. Principle among those was the establishment of a section dedicated to mission studies at the Christian Scholars’ Conference (CSC), an annual meeting of Stone-Campbell scholars and friends. I have had the opportunity to convene or participate in a variety of the ensuing sessions. One of the most memorable CSC events during these years was the banquet we hosted in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Mission journal, a watershed publication for Churches of Christ. In conjunction, I edited the oral history of Mission, written by my long-time friend and graduate school companion Bob Turner, and conducted an interview with some of Mission‘s key protagonists. The MDF board has built the Mission and World Christianity section of the CSC into a vital forum for missiological dialogue among Churches of Christ and Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Lately, our energies have been directed toward the establishment of the Gailyn Van Rheenen Endowed Session in Mission and World Christianity, whose inaugural lecture will take place at this year’s CSC. Like the other scholarly conferences, these meetings were formative and life-giving. I am especially grateful to David Fleer, the CSC director, for his patient support of our work. Among the MDF board members, Chris Flanders of Abilene Christian University, who also serves as an editor for the journal, became a friend and mentor. Chris is a graduate of Fuller’s intercultural studies PhD program and a brilliant missiologist. His partnership has meant a great deal during the turbulent years of doctoral study. But I must add that collaboration with all of the MDJ editors, MDF board members, and CSC participants has been a profound privilege. Once again, I cannot conceive of my doctoral study years without these relationships shaping the experience.
In addition to the constant composition of editorials, articles, and book reviews for Missio Dei, conference papers, and other writing assignments, I was fortunate to share my work in various publications. Those are listed in my CV and do not bear specific mention here. I should note, however, that most of these publications are largely a result of the encouragement and aid of my doctoral mentor, Joel Green. Wise counsel is worth more than silver and gold. Especially noteworthy is the publication of a coauthored work, Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future (2020). I was privileged to collaborate with my former teachers Mark Powell and John Mark Hicks on this important project. In keeping with my emphases in the doctoral program, I worked especially on the chapters devoted to the themes of Scripture and mission. To say I was delighted by this opportunity would be an understatement. Mark and John Mark played a major role in my theological formation, and writing with them was a joy.
I would be whitewashing my story of postgraduate study if I failed to mention the financial hardship that came with it. Talking about money is gauche. It tramples the strict divide between public and private in American life. And it risks the appearance of a sort of whiny self-pity. I was raised among a people who would say, “If you want money, get a job. If you want more money, work harder,” so I feel this hazard keenly. As missionaries, we chose a lifestyle of financial hazard. In some ways (including some unhealthy ways!), this choice affords a spiritual validation. Serving God whatever the cost is its own kind of blessing. To be clear, we wanted for nothing in Peru, and our supporting churches (congregational support is the model among Churches of Christ) provided faithfully for our family’s needs. Nonetheless, the notion of accruing savings, much less wealth, is typically foreign to the missionary lifestyle. Perhaps this is as it should be. Regardless, it made the move to expensive doctoral study in southern California daunting. Megan’s public school-teacher salary was our primary income, and the cost of living was significant. We paid for the program and the margin of expenses that a teacher’s salary could not cover with federal student loans. I obtained some doctoral fellowship money from Fuller, but the model there is competition for limited funds (things would have been different at a highly endowed school like Boston University). We accrued over $90,000 of debt in my four years of coursework at Fuller. This is not a complaint but a fact. Like most doctorates, attaining a PhD in theology does not result in significant financial prospects: it allows one to work as a university professor, which is not a lucrative career path. This is the vocation I have pursued, and the cost of doing so in the early twenty-first century economy of higher education is part of that calling. As one of my graduate professors advised, if you can do anything else, do not get a PhD. I could not choose anything else, and I do not regret its cost. But the financial reality of that decision deserves to be recorded in this recollection.
The culmination of doctoral coursework is comps. (comprehensive examinations). In my program, this consisted of four exams: one on the methods of my primary concentration (systematic theology), one on the methods of my secondary concentration (New Testament studies, focused on biblical theology), and two on theological subjects of my choosing: theological anthropology and the doctrine of atonement. I took one quarter (Fuller’s is a quarter system), which is effectively ten weeks, to study. For each exam, students are given an extensive bibliography and a menu of example essay questions. While the adjective comprehensive is somewhat misleading—the point is not total knowledge of a subject, which is impossible—the process serves to demonstrate mastery through wide-ranging, nuanced discussion of major questions in a given subject area. Alongside the dissertation, these exams represent the bar one must clear in order to earn the title “doctor.” I read, took notes, and organized my thinking with an intensity that far surpassed anything my studies so far had required. Essentially, I created and memorized a detailed outline of my understanding of each subject area. I can say without reservation that preparation for these exams was the hardest single thing I’ve done. The experiences was exhausting, but it was gratifying to realize that I had achieved a grasp of and a perspective on each topic: passing the exams instilled a profound sense of accomplishment and did a great deal to subdue the feelings of inadequacy, usually referred to as imposter syndrome, that persisted despite my strong performance in my courses.
Exams behind me, the dissertation proposal was the next step. This consisted of another quarter-long research process, focused now on determining the problem the dissertation would address. The proposal consists of a paper-length discussion of relevant sources and issues and, at last, a preliminary outline of the dissertation itself. This is submitted to one’s first and second readers, who must approve the project before it can move forward. In addition to Dr. Green, who was my first reader by default, I asked Dr. Stiver to be my second reader, knowing that theological engagement with Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy would play a major role in my argument. He graciously agreed, and I got after it. Frankly, this portion of the process was not difficult. In fact, it was a relief to put together the ideas I had been developing throughout the program in a focused thesis, and the proposal came together readily. Drs. Green and Stiver approved it with the advice that I would likely have to reduce the scope of the argument in one way or another. (They were right.)
Teaching and Dissertating
I began gleefully working on the dissertation the following quarter, producing a bloated and incomplete initial chapter by the end of the term, and then launched into another chapter the next quarter. I loved being immersed in the project, straining to build the largest argument I had ever attempted. Having the space to run at full-throttle was a blast. That freedom was a function of both the space a book-length project affords and the privilege of researching and writing full-time. I was aware that the latter was not a financially sustainable situation, however, so I rejoiced in the opportunity while it lasted. In the meantime, we began making plans to escape the southern California cost of living.
After applying for a couple of teaching positions, an opportunity to teach at Lipscomb University (Nashville, TN) as an adjunct (part-time) faculty member came to my attention. I applied for the position, and in June 2019, four years after our pilgrimage to Pasadena, we said goodbye to our dear friends and church family and set out for a new home in middle Tennessee. With no guarantee of a full-time position, this was a risky move. But it put us in proximity of Megan’s parents (our kids had never lived near grandparents), and a part-time position in a more affordable economy was the best option for continuing to work on the dissertation while paying our bills. We landed in Murfreesboro, TN, half-way between Lipscomb and the grandparents. Megan got a job at a Murfreesboro middle school, and I set about finding a rhythm of teaching and writing.
Learning to be a university instructor is, of course, challenging all on its own. Even teaching part-time (3 courses per semester instead of the 4-course full load), the constant temptation was to neglect the dissertation. More, it was disheartening to recognize that splitting my attention between two important endeavors, not to mention family and church commitments, meant that I was doing nothing as well as I wanted. Everyone faces this challenge in one way or another, so I do not mean that the difficulty was unique. But I will say that writing a dissertation is demanding in a special way. As many have said, only those who have done it can appreciate the challenge. The demands of pursuing a research agenda at the highest level are tremendous, but unlike other sorts of scholarly writing, the psychological pressures of finishing the degree add a complication that is difficult to express. I have no doubt that others have faced this situation more gracefully, but in my experience, it was a long, hard road to travel.
In my second semester of teaching, COVID-19 began running through the US. The result was that more than half of my dissertation was written during the pandemic. For many who have similar stories, this no doubt compounded the difficulty of writing. I recall colleagues experiencing a malaise during the period of intensive social distancing that sapped their creativity and will to write. My students certainly displayed such struggles. I must admit, however, that, for me, it was an unbelievably productive period. It cut out my commute to Lipscomb and freed me from the seemingly endless parade of social obligations, activities, and school events that frustrated my concentration. (For me, long stretches of uninterrupted focus tend to produce more pages than cumulative small chunks of work). And, as a strong introvert, I conserved a great deal of emotional energy during the shutdown, which allowed me to manage the stress of writing more effectively. (This is not a retrospective assessment. I’m introspective enough to have noticed the comparison at the time. At the risk of seeming at least a little antisocial, I felt really good emotionally for almost the entire shutdown.) The result was that I got more done than I can explain. Looking back, I truly can’t recall how I managed to arrive at the summer of 2021 with only a fraction of the dissertation left to draft. I certainly recall the sensations of bogging down in endless reading, getting lost on rabbit trails, languishing over a paragraph, giving hours to a single footnote, and imagining that the dissertation would never end. And during this period, we bought a house and moved in. It doesn’t seem that the dissertation should have come together, but it did.
Along the way, I cut a chapter from the original proposal and wrote and discarded the better part of another. Still, the word count of the complete draft was nearly 20,000 words over the allowed 100,000. The revision process was bloody, and some darlings died. But finally, I cut it down to size, added the front matter, formatted the bibliography, and submitted. After generating the PDF of the final draft, I cried. Not from a sense of relief—the result remained unknown—but of gratitude and joy.
From the date of the dissertation’s submission, the committee (the first and second readers, plus an outside reader unknown to me) had six weeks to read it. The defense date was set for February 1, 2022. At Fuller, the doctoral defense entails a meeting (via Zoom in my case) of the candidate and the first and second reader. The outside reader submits written feedback, which the first reader represents in the defense conversation. Those six weeks were nerve-wracking, not because I lacked confidence about the work I had done but because I was ready to know the result. I was concerned about the possibility that I would pass “with revisions,” meaning I would have to put in significant time reworking some aspect of the argument in order to finish. I would have been happy to pass “adequate,” meaning no revisions were necessary, but I had worked with the ambition to pass “with distinction,” Fuller’s highest honor for the PhD dissertation. The day finally came, and I logged on to Zoom with great anticipation. Dr. Green put me in a waiting room for a few minutes while he and Dr. Stiver discussed their thoughts and the third reader’s (John Franke’s) written feedback. Then I rejoined the meeting and we talked for over an hour about various dimensions of my argument and the questions that it raised for them. Once we got started, my nerves subsided and I settled into a truly delightful conversation.
After this, they put me back into a waiting room while they deliberated. Then I rejoined them and Joel delivered the verdict: pass with distinction. I was elated! But the additional feedback was overwhelming. All three readers expressed high praise for my work and encouraged me to seek publishing opportunities. I feel awkward sharing that feedback. But, to be transparent, I also feel tremendous gratification at the success that years of wholehearted work produced. I continue to feel surprise that the argument came together and gratitude to God, my family, and the church for the gifts that made it possible. I can hardly believe it. After almost seven years, I became doctor!
Unanswered Questions of Vocation
During the past seven years, I have struggled with the question of what doctoral study has to do with mission. My dissertation specifically addresses the theological definition of participation in God’s mission and argues that it is essential for the church’s engagement with Scripture. To a great extent, it is an argument for practice—theory for the sake of practice and theory that depends on practice. The result was a pressure to write not only from prior experiences of practice but in the midst of practice. Yet, the time that writing required, at least in order to finish relatively quickly, precluded significant participation in mission. In fits and starts, I gave time to what opportunities I could. But the truth is, research, writing, and teaching are consuming endeavors. The sense that I had left mission for the academy was a constant source of angst.
There are tidy answers to this dilemma. Some are content to point out that each part of the body has unique gifts and contributions. Others highlight the idea that scholarship is itself an aspect of ministry, a practice in its own right. These are valid points in the abstract, but I find them unsatisfying apart from the concrete practices of participation in God’s redemptive work in the world (which the academy frequently seems to ignore). This is an idea that requires explanation, but I’ll leave that to the dissertation! And that is precisely the bind that I find myself in: theory and practice, understanding and action, exist in an indissolvable tension. I am still working out the nature of this relationship for myself. Given my tradition’s skepticism about “theology” and the powerful cultural current of anti-intellectualism that sustains it, my tendency is to advocate for the value of rigorous, critical engagement with the ideas that inhabit practice. At the same time, my sympathies with those who call in good faith for action persist. It seems to me that the burden to justify the value of scholarship for the church is heavy. To be a “doctor of philosophy” necessarily calls for a reckoning with the wisdom of the cross, which any follower of Jesus may embody. Yet, theology, in the sense that vocational focus affords, best serves the church’s need to delve the deep things of God. Participation in mission that ignores theological critique is naïve at best and frequently destructive. So I set out on the next leg of the journey committed to theology on the way. For me, “faith seeking understanding,” as theology is classically defined, must be faith embodied in the practices of participation in God’s mission. No other faith is worth the quest for understanding; faith demands nothing less than the quest for understanding.
2 thoughts on “Doctoral Study as I Remember It”
I enjoyed reading this. It was fun to see both the similarities and differences of our paths. I found the most resounding similarity in your description of comps. My study/memorization of outlines and info leading up to the exams was definitely the most grueling thing I’ve ever done. After completing the exams (with a fair amount of confidence that I had done well), I was in an emotional “funk” for several days. I had never experienced anything like that before. Congrats on your work!
Thank you for your insightful reflection on your journey through a Ph.D. program and what scholarship may offer to an often anti-intellectual fellowship of churches. As one who has not (yet!) cleared all the hurdles of doctoral study, but who engaged for over twenty years in a field of mission I had not anticipated, I found your post encouraging and helpful.