Why did I choose to earn a Master of Divinity degree?
Upon graduation from Huntington College in 1996 with a BA double major in Bible & Religion/Educational Ministries, I enrolled in the Huntington College Graduate School of Christian Ministries. It was the quickest way to fulfill requirements for my ordination in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ denomination. My wife had found a teaching job in the area, we didn't have much money, so earning a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from a local school I was fond of made a lot of sense. However, my whole senior year I perused the information on graduate schools at Duke, Drew, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Fuller, and maybe one or two others. Those schools were really quite different than HCGSCM, and as it turned out, not all that realistic to attend at the time.
But the desire was there to go to a great school and get a great graduate degree that will help me grow spiritually, intellectually, vocationally, and personally. HCGSCM did that as well, but in its own way. And, interestingly, no pastor I knew at the time encouraged me to attend the larger seminaries, only HCGSCM. I was told I should pursue an education that emphasized practical ministry, since that is what directly changes churches and lives for God. Who was I to doubt them. And the practical ministry training I received was helpful for sure. It helped that the fall I entered my masters program in 1996, I also began ministry as associate pastor of North Summit Church. Brooks Fetters was the senior pastor of his church plant - and at the time we were meeting in a Holiday 6 movie theatres. Exciting times. It was really, really helpful to be part of this new and surging church while working my way through the masters program on practical ministry stuff like: worship, small groups, leadership, preaching, counseling, etc.
My ministry wrapped up at NSC in fall of 1997, mostly due to funding issues. I still had another year of my MA to wrap up - including an internship. I was hired on at Emmanuel Community Church in October of 1997 as the intern pastor, where I finished up my MA in Pastoral Ministries. What a great experience! I wouldn't trade my ministry experiences at the NSC church-plant or the ECC mega-church. And I really enjoyed earning my degree while doing real ministry that really mattered.
In spring of 1998 I graduated from HCGSCM. Also in that spring, an interesting ministry opportunity emerged: a local UB church in downtownish section of Fort Wayne needed an overhaul, maybe a restart - and ECC was considering taking the lead on it in partnership with the conference. Many of the conference leadership details are not privy to me, but at the local level, I was really excited that my church was willing to consider this exciting opportunity, and maybe I could be part of it in some way. By September it had been decided that I would be the lead pastor of this new church restart, Third Street UBC would become Anchor Community Church. Now I could put all my training and education to work in the real world in a new way. I was eager to implement my ideas, try my style of ministry, get to know the people of the community and make a difference for the kingdom.
Why did I choose to earn a Master of Divinity degree...I'm getting there, hang on!
After a couple years of pastoring at Anchor, I found myself becoming interested again in the MDiv. While I was increasing my competency in practical ministry areas of teaching, leading, administrating, counseling, worship, etc, I was also increasing my interest in theological and philosophical matters. I wanted to sharpen up my understanding of the Christian doctrines and thus the material from which I am preaching and teaching each week. My college education was good, but five years later I was hungering for more depth, more probing questions, and I was more ready for the answers. But, how to pursue a massive MDiv degree while pastoring full-time? Is it necessary? Is it worth it? Tara was finishing up her Master of Education from IPFW, so once she finished, did we really want to send me off to school again? I started checking out schools in 2001, and narrowed it down to schools I could drive to: Winebrenner, Grace, Trinity, Concordia. If I was going to do this, I wanted to go to the best I could afford and in the region: Trinity was my choice. But how to make the time? It was easy to not make a decision, 2001 flew by with many good things happening at Anchor - do I really need this degree?
Then Matt was killed Sunday morning, December 30, 2001.
Stunned. Numb. Very, very, very angry. Bewildered.
And then the week following the funeral I tore my right Achilles tendon, and had surgery two weeks after that, making me a grieving invalid who needed a ride to work and home each day. Now I'm angry and humbled.
Earlier that summer Tara and I had begun attempting to have our first child. Following Matt's death, we decided to wait awhile again, I was not ready to be a dad at that time in life. We had waited seven years following marriage to have children, now we were waiting again. And there was deep despair. Faith in crisis.
The desire to go to school began to remerge, but with a different reason: to find a faith I could embrace. I needed someplace to go where I could be guided in rigorous reading and critical analysis of thought-systems and beliefs.
2002 came and went with no decision to go to school, I was too consumed with grief amidst my ongoing work as a pastor. That fall I helped coach boys highschool soccer at Elmhurst with Steve Saddington - that was good for youth ministry and my soul. By then I knew that next year at that time I might be in school. But nothing was definite. We were pregnant with our first child at the time, and I knew that if I didn't go now, there is no way I could make the time once we were done having kids. If we thought our life was busy now...
Once Emma was born in March 2003, I knew that the coming fall had to be the beginning of my MDiv program. I applied that summer, was accepted, and August was the first day of class. It was a tough decision for Tara and I; we knew that it would be significant time and money commitment. But the primary reason for us deciding to do it was this: I needed to pursue this mode of education to help me keep a faith, to rebuild a faith, to explore the next one.
Anchor was supportive of me going, though they would have been happier if I had not gone. No one there thought I needed it to be a better pastor, I was doing just fine as it was. And in that sense, they were right. I didn't really need it to be a better pastor when it came to practical ministry. But if I was going to stay their pastor, I needed this degree in order to stay a pastor. Inevitably my energy level and focus diminished some towards Anchor. In 2001 I was very involved in Anchor, leading youth ministry, leading the church, teaching small groups, preaching sermons, leading stuff...in 2002 I felt like a spiritual zombie, and by 2003 I had a newborn baby in the house and MDiv homework on the kitchen table. But it is what I needed to do.
Were there other factors in my decision to earn my MDiv? Once I had decided to attend TEDS, I began to find out all these other pastors who had an MDiv and were thankful for the education. The argument against getting the degree, as I heard it, was that it didn't help pastors become better at growing churches, it actually hindered it. But I knew I wanted the degree, and I was meeting more pastors who were involved in thriving ministries, who had a MDiv, and who went to Trinity. Though I was going for the actual education, I knew that I also wanted the respectability that comes from having this professional degree.
And now I'm about done with my MDiv at Trinity. I've done plenty of reflecting of how my decision has impacted Anchor. That is another post for another day.