Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome – Part 5

Today’s post is part of a multipart series on Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome.
Click here for last week’s post.

E.A.S. and the DMin-ization of the Clergy

By Ken Howard

Have you noticed that more and more clergy are getting DMins these days: going back to seminary for a part-time advanced degree program that culminates in an additional honorific before their name on the church bulletin?

While some might think this positive development, I’m not so sure that this DMin-ization of clergy is entirely a good thing. In fact, I think this proliferation of Reverend Doctors may well be another symptom of Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome.

By DMin-ization I mean the increasing numbers of ordained, working clergy pursuing DMin degrees. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any problem at all with clergy seeking DMins, IF that’s what God is calling them to do. And while I do not doubt that the vast majority of DMin-seeking clergy believe that’s the reason they are in the programm, my guess is that many (if not most) have merely convinced themselves that is what God wants them to do.

DMin stands for Doctor of Ministry. A DMin degree is sort of like a PhD in ministry, only less rigorous. The difference between the two is that a PhD in, say, theology is generally considered a prerequisite for teaching, while a DMin is considered a prerequisite for… nothing that I can think of.

DMins Are “In”

Many seminaries hold out their DMin programs as an opportunity to do a deep dive into a specific aspect or area of ministry, or the theology underpinning it, in order to benefit the profession of ministry by disseminating deeper understanding or broader knowledge. But having been to dozens of graduations over my more than two dozen years of ministry, and having reviewed the dissertation topics for the DMin degrees awarded, I have been astounded by the obscurity and/or irrelevance to the practice of ministry of those a large number—perhaps even a majority—of those topics.

It’s hard to see how a dissertation on the history of your parish’s stained glass window – no matter how engaging it might be for you and your congregation – adds to the depth of understanding or breadth of knowledge of the field of ministry. This is not to say there are not many examples of DMin dissertations that do exactly that. There are quite a number I have read and learned much from. But these are rapidly becoming the exceptions that proves the rule.

While one might ask, “What’s wrong with a dissertation about a stained glass window? Isn’t that harmless?”

And my answer would be, “Exactly!”

For the Church in its many forms to survive and thrive in these turbulent times of rapidly rising uncertainty and accelerating change, it must find ways to become increasing visionary, context aware, agile, and experimental. What the church needs now is not safe research and harmless theology. Neither will bring health to the church. What we need are Dmin candidates doing research and theology that challenges the ecclesiastical establishment and DMins that are dangerous!

It’s also worth noting that D.Min’s have become a fast-growing cottage industry in a significant number of seminaries, providing an additional stream of student income, sometimes rivaling the number of students in their Master of Divinity and Master of Christian Education programs. In some ways, it becomes a kind of conflict of interest, with seminaries invested in promoting a kind of “gotta-have-to-get-ahead” rubber stamp, which in turn accelerates the proliferation of DMin students, which in turn makes more clergy feel like they need to have the degree to just stay equal in status to those their DMin-ized colleagues. Repeat PRN.

Yet another way seminaries have become a vector in Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome.

In our next post we will discuss the problem of “Bishops Who Wannabe.”