Each spring people at various levels of educational achievement encounter the word commencement. To some the term does not make any sense. After all, the meaning of the word commence has to do with the beginning of something new. And most of those who participate in "commencement," especially after a grueling couple of weeks writing papers and studying for final exams, feel as if they are at the end of something, not the beginning.
By and large, however, men and women who are graduating from theological seminaries—especially those who are headed for pastoral ministry—constitute the exception to the norm. As hard as three (or more) years of seminary education may have been, most realize that pastoral ministry is far more challenging. Thus, seminary graduates for the most part realize full well that their graduation truly is a commencement, a new beginning. While the master of divinity degree has provided them with the practical tools and theological perspectives required for them to step out in ministry, in many ways their true education is about to begin.
Enter the D.Min. degree
More and more pastors today have come to recognize and appreciate the important contributions that continuing education in some form can make to effective ministry, particularly to pastoral ministry. And one of the most significant developments in continuing education in recent years has been the development of doctor of ministry degree programs. These have grown substantially in terms of quality, sophistication, and diversity of offerings.
The primary goal of the D.Min. degree is to enable pastors to become more effective in a particular area of ministry. While specific program structures may differ, all are designed in ways that enable participants to continue in ministry while they pursue their degrees. Congregations routinely report that they reap the benefits from their pastor's continuing education venture right from the beginning.
Among the most important fringe benefits of pursuing the D.Min. degree is the opportunity it provides for spiritual refreshment and renewal for participants, regardless of the specific area of focus or study. Who pastors the pastor? Sometimes the answer is "A good D.Min. program." These benefits are passed on to congregations in addition to all that the pastor may learn and apply as part of his or her program.
The following testimonies from D.Min. alumni collectively capture many of the benefits, both educational and spiritual, of the doctor of ministry educational experience. Together, these accounts support the assertion that the D.Min. degree may constitute just one small step for a person, but it enables men and women to take a giant leap forward in successful ministry.
George Fox University
Missionary Andy Meeko says he entered George Fox Evangelical Seminary "reeling from the impact of being gifted with a deaf daughter." While at George Fox, he says he began putting the pieces of his life back together.
A second-generation missionary to Japan, Meeko and his wife, Junko, work with Campus Crusade for Christ's Family Life Japan program, leading marriage seminars for missionary families, U.S. military families, and Japanese families.
Meeko came to George Fox grappling with the disability of one of his four children. His daughter Sophia had been born deaf, and this experience gave his doctoral dissertation, titled "Spiritual Empowerment of Special-Needs Families," a very personal application. "I explored the depths of my heart," he says. "The prophetic and incarnational possibilities of our new identity as a family broke forth."
In Japan, as in the U.S., homes of children with disabilities have very high divorce and abuse rates. "Families with children possessing disability face crushing challenges physically, economically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually," says Meeko. "Sadly, most succumb to this onslaught and disintegrate."
Meeko says his dissertation applied the premodern field of spiritual direction and the postmodern field of narrative therapy to empower these families. Through his courses and his research, he was revitalized: "Meaning was birthed, insights flourished, and I discovered a passport for life and ministry in this new experience."
He has returned to Northern Japan, where he is applying his learnings and "sharing a new level of existence to those without hope."
Gordon A. Wright Jr.
Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Gordon A. Wright Jr., Senior Minister of Masonboro Baptist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, unsuspectingly embarked on a very personal journey of healing when he enrolled in the D.Min. in Ministry to Marriage and Family at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Through course work on universal family dynamics, Wright confronted his own wounds, particularly his estrangement from his father.
"A program requirement was that I probe my father's story of victimization by his father, who had womanized, boozed, and deserted his family," he says. "When he finished sharing his experience, I said, 'Of course, you realize you just told my story too!'" Reconciled after 40 years, Gordon now sees that life and sin are best understood systemically. "It aids forgiveness to recognize that many forces contribute to making a human being. We can play a role in each other's maturation and redemption. Sons can welcome prodigal fathers. Even enemies can be loved when they are understood."
In eastern North Carolina, Wright has experienced hurricanes, including the eerie calm of the storm's eye—the place from which one can view damage, make repairs and prepare to withstand the backside of the storm. Claiming Jesus' promise—"In the world you will have tribulation, but fear not, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33)—as an invitation to bring human woundedness into the healing presence of Christ and Christian community, Wright, who graduated in 2001, was led by his D.Min. experience to a discovery that changed his ministry.
"The church," he says, "like no other organization, has the remarkable capacity to become that safe center—the eye—out of which we can understand ourselves, our personal histories, and the manner in which God's love seeks to bless us and make us whole." He adds, "Whole persons are not perfect, but they are able to own both their brokenness and their promise in Christ. So blessed, we can embrace God's promise of becoming the blessings we were created to be."
Ana Maria Campos
Dallas Theological Seminary
Ana Maria Campos, the first Latin American woman to receive a doctor of ministry degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, is now professor and chairman of Christian education at seteca (translated "Central American Theological Seminary") in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
As a church planter and Youth for Christ worker, Campos recognized her own need for more training as well as the need to train other Latin Americans in Christian Education. Her husband pastored churches in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador before they came to Dallas for doctoral training.
Using the tools she gained through Dallas Theological Seminary's D.Min. program, Campos developed seteca's Department of Christian Education and is currently helping to build the first master's program in Christian education in Latin America, which will serve as a model for other seminaries in the region.
Students from 21 countries attend seteca, which makes this program a strategic equipping ministry for Latin America as students return to their own countries and teach others what they have learned. "Through this program, 2 Timothy 2:2 is being fulfilled," she says. "That was my dream, and the Lord has enabled that dream to come true."
Lin McLaughlin, assistant professor of Christian education at dts, says Campos used her training to hone and mature her natural gifts for even greater effectiveness: "The D.Min. program was just right for her because it allowed her to address her unique talents and ministry responsibilities in a way that maximized ministry opportunities. She is truly a joy to watch in action!"
Of all the tools Campos received in the program, the applied research project and dissertation have been most valuable for her current ministry, helping her to prepare a needs assessment for the curriculum of the master's program in Christian Education at seteca. Says Campos, "Without the training I received, I wouldn't be able to do what I am doing now."
Beeson Divinity School
"Ryan came to us with good leadership skills instinctively," says Wallace Williams, associate dean for Community Life at Beeson Divinity School. "We helped him develop those skills for real effectiveness in the church."
Since earning the doctor of ministry degree in Beeson's inaugural class in 1996, Ryan Whitley has served faithfully and effectively as pastor to the Centerpoint First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Under his leadership, the church has consistently reached the lost and has developed vital ministries to its community amidst sweeping demographic changes. Today the church plays host to a thriving Hispanic congregation. In addition, a second campus is under development, and the church is engaged in international missions at an unprecedented level. Whitley is respected as a Christian leader in the Birmingham metropolitan area, and he regularly contributes to the mentoring of others preparing for ministry.
The capacity to provide such leadership is attributable in part to the training Whitley received in his D.Min. studies. A solid biblical grounding, a heart yielded to the lordship of Jesus Christ, the discipline of action and reflection in the practice of ministry, and the analytical skills to be faithfully strategic in ministry leadership are just a few of the indispensable traits that were emphasized and strengthened through that process. Whitley's program of study concluded with a ministry project in which he led his church in the development of a mission statement and strategic ministry plan.
"In the past I often used a trial-and-error approach to ministry," says Whitley. "The Beeson D.Min. program helped me learn to make sound decisions, to take calculated risks, and to evaluate ministry for the sake of the gospel." Such a transformation is consistent with the D.Min degree objectives of equipping ministers for proactive leadership and training them to be lifelong learners.
The doctor of ministry program at Beeson builds not only on the foundation of previous theological studies but also on solid ministry experience, helping Christian ministers and the churches they serve to realize more fully their potential for excellence in ministry. Ryan Whitley is a prime example of one individual who has reaped such benefits from his D.Min. studies; his investment is yielding greater benefits to the church and community in which he serves.
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
Lon Allison enjoys his ministry. As director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, he has the opportunity to direct a comprehensive team whose goal is to "Stimulate Global Evangelism." Furthermore, as associate professor of evangelism and spiritual formation at the Wheaton Graduate School, he is helping to mold the minds and character of the leaders of tomorrow's church. According to Allison, however, these opportunities for influence would not have been possible without his doctor of ministry degree in preaching from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
How has Allison's Gordon-Conwell D.Min. helped? He says that the cohort nature of Gordon-Conwell's D.Min. provided an ideal environment for networking. Spending three residencies over three years with the same students encouraged the development of significant relationships with students as well as with faculty mentors and instructors. The friendships that resulted from his years of study at Gordon-Conwell have not only opened doors for ministry, but have also sustained him in the midst of ministry.
The combination of theological rigor and freedom that his faculty mentor provided in the classroom was also of benefit to Allison. The mentor of his preaching track, Prof. Haddon Robinson, demanded that his students discipline themselves to think clearly and to treat the biblical text with integrity and respect. There could be no theological compromise in the substance of the sermon. On the other hand, Robinson also gave his students the freedom to do everything and anything possible to communicate God's Word effectively to today's world.
According to Allison, one of the finest expressions of this combination of theological rigor and freedom came "when Haddon asked me to use my background in acting to give a two-hour presentation to our class on bridging the worlds of the actor and the preacher." This opportunity not only validated Allison's skills and previous training in acting, but it forced him to bring them under the scrutiny and discipline of the Scriptures. The encouragement that Professor Robinson gave him to minister as a creative evangelical has been of great benefit in the years since graduation.
Says Allison, "My degree has released me to minister with an effectiveness that would not otherwise have been possible."
"Ministry is more about being than doing."
This statement, made by a professor in the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, changed the direction of Steve Holt's ministry. Holt, a 1999 D.Min. graduate, and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Surgoinsville, Tennessee, entered the program with the primary goal of enhancing his position in professional ministry.
However, after three years of challenging course work, Holt saw that God was more interested in who he was as a believer than in the more tangible measurements of ministry. In his words, "This program was more about what God was doing in my life than about what I could do for God."
Three aspects of the program brought Holt to this conclusion. First, the faculty challenged students to grow spiritually. Led by Dean Thom Rainer, Graham School professors encouraged personal discipleship as well as increased church growth skills. "It was not uncommon for a professor to stop class to pray for a student who was struggling," Holt says. Today, he emphasizes spiritual preparation in his own church, always leading it to "pray before we plan."
Second, the coursework was personal and practical. Assignments such as developing a personal theology of evangelism, reporting evangelism contacts, and completing leadership assessments required Holt to examine his own life. He adds, "I never worked on any project at Southern that was irrelevant to my role as a local church pastor."
Third, Holt completed his D.Min. with a cohort group. "The group was an important part of the curriculum," he states, "because we learned the ups and downs of ministry as we shared openly about our church situations." This cohort approach led Holt to focus his church on developing relationships that promote evangelism and discipleship. He wants his members to be growing believers as they do ministry—just as he learned.
George Fox University
Kate Conolly says earning a doctor of ministry at George Fox Evangelical Seminary has revitalized her 25-year-old spiritual calling and brought into focus her sense of purpose for her congregation. As pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Oregon, she came to George Fox seeking a fresh understanding of how the church helps to transform people spiritually into the image of Christ.
Conolly says her church had strong, loving relationships, but something was lacking. "My congregation is made up of warm, wonderful, kind, generous people who are not, by and large, 'on fire' with their faith," she says. "Although they possess a noble sense of duty and obligation to the church, most congregants do not practice their faith with joy and enthusiasm."
She describes her church's problem not as a lack of "passionate spirituality," but a lack of "transformational spirituality." Says Conolly, "If the church isn't able to bring about transformation, it isn't doing its job."
During her class work and dissertation she rediscovered the works of John Wesley. "I just loved reading his sermons, and I really got into his journals and letters." She says she stumbled into Wesley's understanding of grace and how that applied to the lives of the people among whom she was ministering. She was so inspired by two aspects of Wesley's view of grace—as pardoning love and power to change—that she chose to write her dissertation on the topic.
As a goal of her research, she set out to develop an educational tool to teach the Wesleyan concept of grace, offering a theological framework and using such "tools of grace" as prayer, Communion, Scripture reading, fasting, and small-group fellowship. This fall she plans to offer an eight-week course to her congregation.
Conolly notes that at George Fox the dissertation is considered the beginning of a process, not the end result. Her journey toward understanding and communicating grace in a way that will unleash its power has begun.
Darryl B. Starnes
Beeson Divinity School
For eleven years, Darryl B. Starnes Sr. searched for a doctor of ministry program that would allow him to focus on evangelism. When he was appointed to be pastor at the Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1993, he found the kind of school he had been seeking: one that was academically rigorous and promoted a high view of Scripture. In January of 1994, he enrolled in Beeson Divinity School, excited about the opportunity to study under Prof. Lewis Drummond, the Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism.
The program at Beeson emphasizes certain core disciplines that are essential to every form of Christian ministry. These include seminars in advanced hermeneutics, theological reflection, and congregational studies. "The program also allows for a concentration in an area of the student's interest. Every course enhanced my ministry as a preacher, pastor, and leader," says Starnes. "However, the courses in the area of evangelism and church growth radically changed the course of my ministry. Through these courses I began to sense the call of God to devote myself more fully to the work of evangelism." Starnes subsequently offered himself to the denomination for full-time evangelism, and thus in 1996 he was elected director of the Bureau of Evangelism for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
In one course, the Reverend Richard Owen Roberts, a student of revival for more than 50 years, stressed the importance of genuine repentance and God's manifest presence for personal and corporate renewal. "Not only did this lesson transform me and my family," says Starnes, "but it has impacted ministers and congregations wherever I have shared it." Professor Drummond, who has devoted more than 50 years to the ministry of evangelism, was Starnes's adviser for his ministry project, which focused on teaching adults to share their faith. Says Starnes, "The insights into faith-sharing that I gained from sitting at the feet of Dr. Drummond are used every day as I train pastors and congregations in the ministry of evangelism."
Assemblies of God Theological Seminary
The Reverend Anuparp Wichitnantana, the general superintendent of the Thailand Assemblies of God and pastor of the Bangkok Liberty Church, has been a part of the agts doctor of ministry program for several years. He found the program's emphasis on leadership to be a strong influence in his life. The stress on rigorous academics in a cohort format had a profound effect: "This made my outlook on the church and ministry more positive, and it gave confidence in my ability to serve more effectively."
The flexibility of the program also appealed to him. Often, Wichitnantana felt that the curriculum was designed for him as if the seminary knew his specific situation. He chose to concentrate in the area of cell church planting, which is in line with his vision to pioneer churches throughout Bangkok and Thailand using a cell model. He says this gave him "the opportunity to read, think, and thoroughly reflect, leading to adjustment and increased effectiveness in ministry and fulfilling the vision God has given me."
Beyond this, the thing that was most influential for "Reverend Anuparp" was the cohort format of the agts program. Students are intentionally chosen to create diversity. Each group of students studies together in each core class, creating closeness and lasting fellowship. This format also allows for new perspectives from the experiences of each person, not just from the professor or the textbook.
One of the strengths of the D.Min. program at agts is that it chooses churches that have good ministry models where students can go, study, and analyze. Wichitnantana notes that, according to a Thai proverb, "ten witnesses are not equal to having seen for yourself."
During the course of the program, Wichitnantana's dream for Thailand began to be realized. In March of 2001 he organized and led the first Church Planting Boot Camp ever conducted in his nation. Church leaders expect 40 new congregations to be planted as a result of training the 50 people who attended.
Reformed Theological Seminary
As the traffic on I-65 rumbles outside his study at Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama, Steve Lawson leans back in his chair, eyes toward the ceiling, recal-ling a period of his life 15 years earlier. The year was 1987, and he was serving as a pastor in Little Rock, Arkansas. He had completed his master of theology, yet he found himself wondering what options were available to him for further training.
"The Th.M. was good preparation for stepping into the pulpit to preach," says Lawson, "but now that I was out in the pastoral ministry I wanted to be deepened and broadened in those responsibilities that take place out of the pulpit." So he enrolled in the doctor of ministry program at Reformed Theological Seminary (rts) in Jackson, Mississippi. "I would be gone for two weeks, two times a year. Of course, it involved sacrifice, but I knew that I wanted serious training."
Lawson found that the D.Min. leadership classes provided immediate returns for his ministry back home. The practically focused curriculum covered a wide variety of church issues, including administrative strategies, conflict management, and effective communication skills. In addition to the class work, Lawson remembers how the professors encouraged him in his pastoral ministry. He recalls, "One professor in particular took an interest in me during a time when I was feeling a little isolated in my ministry. He really pastored me while I was pastoring a church."
Five years after receiving his D.Min., Lawson moved with his wife, Anne, and their four children to Mobile. He has since started a daily radio ministry, a weekly TV ministry, and a weekly men's Bible study that meets in the local minor league baseball stadium—all while pastoring the congregation of Dauphin Way Baptist Church.
He juggles these tasks with a renewed confidence in God. And his positive outlook, he claims, is due largely to his being well equipped for ministry: "The D.Min. program at rts gave me the tools I needed to effectively shepherd the people of God."
Biblical Theological Seminary
When Pete Theodore, pastor of family ministries at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia, was searching for a D.Min. program, he took note of Biblical Theological Seminary's tag line of "Preparing Leaders For Life." He realized the importance of pursuing a D. Min. program in a place that emphasized leadership. Did he exit the program as a better leader? According to Theodore, the evidence is not in how he feels about it, but rather in how his congregation views him.
"My congregation will tell you that the D.Min. program I chose really did prepare me as a leader for life," says Theodore. "The diversity of subjects taught by experienced scholar-practitioners consistently left me intellectually stimulated, professionally enhanced, personally matured, and relationally broadened."
Theodore cites the key strength of his D.Min. experience as the relational emphasis of the program combined with assignments that were practical and applicable to his ministry. When asked to compare his master's level experience with the doctor of ministry process, Theodore states that, although the same intellectual rigor underlies both, there are some key differences. "For one thing, when I began my master's education I was eager to learn but had little practical experience. I didn't yet know what ministry-related questions to ask. As a doctoral student, I had a foundation of experience to build on. I not only knew what questions to ask, but I had some insight into the answers. The exchange of ideas and perspectives between peers and professors within the ministry context is what makes the D.Min. program so rewarding."
The doctoral program at Biblical prepared Theodore to exegete the culture in which the church is situated. In fact, for Theodore, gaining insight into the postmodern culture and how the church can reach it was a key highlight of the program at Biblical.
Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary
"If someone wants challenging professors, cutting edge courses, and peers who are serious students, then Liberty is just the place! I studied over the years at some great institutions, but Liberty surpassed them all. The program at Liberty enriched my personal devotion to God and equipped me with the knowledge and skills to build a church." So says Terry Faulkenbury, the founding pastor of the West Cabarrus Church, Concord, North Carolina. A little more than a decade ago Faulkenbury left Texas with his young family to begin this brand-new work. To say the church has been successful is an understatement. It now owns more than 50 acres of land on the road to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Its first building, a $2 million dollar sanctuary, was debt-free when they moved in. This spring, the church broke ground for a new $4 million addition.
"One particular course in my D. Min. program was worth a million dollars," Faulkenbury reports. In this class he read a small book giving instructions about how large donors could give to nonprofits such as his church and receive a tax credit. With this in mind, he paid a visit to the administrators of the Charlotte Motor Speedway. They seemed to have plenty of land, and it looked like a good place to plant a church. They agreed to sell him 46 acres for $2 million, which was about $2 million more than he had. But he had an idea—taken right out of his textbook. And it worked! They drafted a proposal for the speedway to donate $1.08 million dollars to the church and finance the remaining $902,000 at no interest. The rest is history.
Faulkenbury was recognized in 1991 by North Carolina Baptists as Church Planter of the Year. In 2001 he was awarded the Jerry Falwell Church Growth Award by lbts. The subject of his thesis project was "A Pastor's Discipleship Program for Men." He cites Liberty's D.Min. program as being key to the impact he has had on the community.
Douglass P. Norwood Jr.
Assemblies of God Theological Seminary
For generations, Suriname's Christian minority has been hampered in areas of evangelism, church planting, and church growth by factionalism and divisions of long standing. Douglass P. Norwood Jr., executive director of Broken Jars, designed his D.Min. project at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary to address the problem of disunity by assembling 14 national church leaders in a first-of-its-kind colloquium to initiate a new focus on the common mission of the church.
Central to the success of the project, according to Norwood, was the dynamic balance in the D.Min. program between the academic and the personal. Cutting-edge contemporary perspectives on timeless biblical truths and rigorous reading schedules both broadened and deepened his theological core. At the same time, the intimacy of the program's cohort experience encouraged the development of new ideas and methods while challenging him to keep his focus during the many stages of the project's development.
Weaving biblical principles of unity within the body of Christ together with contemporary understandings of appreciative inquiry, learning organizations, and team building, Norwood arrived at the conclusion that the core of success for any organization in the twenty-first century is a vision of a common mission. That common mission for the church, he discovered, is represented within several biblical models that form the core of an integrative conversation, powerfully effective because they provide the language and the landscape of a shared biblical culture.
The colloquium participants included the leaders of all of Suriname's Christian denominations and parachurch bodies. Through their time together those leaders developed deep personal relationships, grasped an understanding of common mission, and began to focus on developing joint missional strategies. Within weeks of their initial meeting, colloquium members had already organized an interdenominational prayer rally that brought over ten thousand Christians to pray together in the national plaza.
The above recollections of the D.Min. educational experience are by no means unique. In fact, they represent the experiences of hundreds of men and women who each year graduate from one of the nation's seminaries with a D.Min. degree. By and large, those who make the sacrifices necessary to earn this degree are very serious about the ministries to which God has called them. And congregations around the country—indeed, around the world—are better as a result.
Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.