I just entered the third year of my PhD studies. The last three years have been a time of academic, vocational, and ministerial transition. Since I started the program at Fuller Seminary the focus of my studies has not changed significantly. I am still doing research on the same kinds of topics: atonement, Jonathan Edwards, and T.F. Torrance. The dissertation topic I proposed when I applied to the program has also mostly stayed the same. I still plan on studying the relationship between Torrance’s doctrine of atonement and his theological anthropology. Besides the fact that these elements of my academic studies haven’t changed much, there are a couple areas that have seen development.
My academic interests haven’t changed much from when I started the PhD, but yours might. I hear that is super normal!
The last two years I spent as a part of the Analytic Theology project have been formative in several ways. One of the most important ways that it has been formative has been in terms of my academic and professional development. The writing groups and reading groups that were a part of the project were especially significant. The opportunity to be with the team during these times sharped my theological-philosophical thinking and improved my writing. As a result of these groups, I was able to publish several articles and chapters.
If you can gather a community of friends who you can exchange ideas in this way. Do it! It has been so key to my development as a student-scholar.
The weekly seminars were also helpful for my professional development, as I was able to meet and develop friendships with a number of our guest speakers. These friendships have led to other theological-philosophical, professional opportunities.
This might seem obvious, but you should be interested in people for who they are and not what they can do for you. People can sense when you are only interested in “networking” because of what you think they can offer you. I’ve been to conferences where people have immediately cut out of conversations with me when they find out I’m just a PhD student. Don’t be that guy.
The Analytic Theology project has also been formative in regards to the direction of my academic research. When I began my studies, I did not have much of an academic interest in petitionary prayer, but as a result of the first year of the project and some other circumstances, this became a new field of study I started to engage with.
You would be surprised to known how many “research interests” you actually have. And you wouldn’t know about them unless you dive into the deep end with them!
Additionally, the AT project help solidify a number of research projects I am pursuing, i.e. atonement and theological anthropology. As a result of the project, I feel as though I am walking away from these last two years as a better thinker, writer, and theologian. I also feel as though I have a better grasp on the nature of the projects I want to engage with in the future.
Besides my academic formation these last two years have been instrumental in my vocational formation.
If you are chugging your way along your PhD and haven’t stopped to consider issues of “vocation” then you are doing something wrong. Starting a PhD isn’t just a career move, it’s a matter of vocation.
For some time now, I have been aware that my vocation involves the task of equipping God’s people for the sake of mission. The process of vocational formation led by the VF Office has helped sharpen my sense of my calling. As I reflect on what my calling is a few images come to mind. Images of a sports team equipment manager or a person who stocks and distributes equipment from a military armory comes to mind. Both roles equip people to do their given task.
The Vocational Formation Team at Fuller has encouraged us to use metaphors or to employ images to help articulate our sense of vocation. I think this is good advice.
Furthermore, a specific phrase comes to my mind: “bringing out of storehouses.” As I reflect upon this phrase the verse that is connected to it is Matthew 13.52: “He said to them, ‘therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the Kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” This is the passage which I believe defines my vocation in this season. My role as a disciple in the kingdom is two-fold: First, to be the kind of person who turns the church’s attention back to the past for the sake of addressing new situations that confront the church. Second, to be the kind of person who deploys new arguments and ways of thinking in order to defend the coherence of the Christian tradition. This sense of vocation has shaped a number of recent writing projects I have worked on.
This sense of vocation is one reason why I’m so interested in Edwards and Reformation studies.
In regards to my ministerial formation these last several years have also been a time of transition. Due to the demands of my studies I went from overseeing the college ministry at my church to working in it in a support role. Eventually I transitioned out of a staff role in the ministry to a volunteer role. My role allows me to preach and teach on a quarterly basis. It also allows me to teach some adult education courses at church.The main transition, however, has been to serving with a ministry called Young Life. This new ministry opportunity presents some challenges and opportunities. These challenges and opportunities are birthed out of the fact that this ministry primarily engages the non-churched and that it primarily consists of an urban and multi-ethnic demographic.
You can’t serve The Church with your PhD if you remove yourself from the local church. If you are earning your PhD with no intention of serving The Church, then… well then, just go home. Okay?
As I move out of the coursework stage of the program into the dissertation writing stage, I anticipate that the developments listed above will play a key role in how I engage with the program. I will continue to do research and I will continue to sharpen my sense of vocation. This latter area of growth will be especially important as I begin to look towards my future career in education. Finally, I will continue to reflect on how my academic training fits in with the roles that I have with various ministries.
After you finish stage one of your PhD work it’s a good idea to step back and reflect on what has transpired in the last couple of years and to look forward to what God might have in store for your future.