Context for my PhD Studies
Dear friends, I’m writing this post with a mix of grief and excitement.
Some of you will know that I’ve been slowly working on a PhD since 2019. I took on this challenge for 3 reasons. Firstly, I believed that pastors should never stop learning and growing. I have a motivational poster (lol) that I’ve been hanging in my study room since I was training to be a high school teacher, and it says that “those who dare to teach must never cease to learn”. I think this is true not only of teachers but pastors as well. Back then, I graduated with a GPA and wrote a masters thesis that gave me entry into the PhD program. And I had some funding secured (thanks to our Principal Dr Ian Smith) which generously covered my tuition fees. So I thought “alright, let’s do this”.
The second reason I jumped on is because I loved the topic that I was going to write on. I fell in love with patristics during my M.Div studies and felt particularly drawn to Augustine. His conversion story felt so relatable, his faithful ministry was so inspirational, and his theological output is unmatchable. To think that I could spend years just diving into this excited me. I also realised that Reformed evangelicals didn’t really touch on patristics. There are obvious notable scholars. But not enough.
Thirdly, I knew that a PhD was a necessary qualification to teach in a college/seminary. I wasn’t sure where God would lead me. But I knew that 1) it was important to raise the next generation of pastors, Gospel workers, and Christian leaders, 2) I knew that colleges and seminaries were one of the places to do this, and 3) I knew that there are increasing demands for institutions of higher education to have academically qualified faculty who holds doctorates. I currently train ministry apprentices at GracePoint and I’ve often asked myself “who will we entrust to theologically shape these leaders?” So I enrolled in the PhD with the idea that I could possibly be an answer to the questions I raised. And so it was a privilege when I was asked to join the faculty just a year into my studies.
The Challenges I’ve Been Facing
All this being said, many of you will know that my studies has been a bit of a hard slog. Being a pastor means that you have quite a bit of discretionary time. But over the past few years, I’ve found myself filling that by spending time with people, developing new programs and projects for the church, and considering ways to strengthen and grow our ministries. And I have absolutely loved it. I love being a pastor.
To be sure, I love research and writing as well. Sitting in my study or in the library, poring over books, and writing is a really invigorating and refreshing experience. I loved preparing and defending for my confirmation of candidature. I loved writing and publishing journal articles. And I really enjoyed the entire process. This is probably why I constantly felt torn. On the one hand, I loved being called to be a pastor – to journey with people, to apply the Gospel to them, and to see them transformed by God! On the other hand, I also loved being a researcher – to retreat in order to develop resources and material for the academy and the church, to dive deep into theological debates in order to further the work that others have done, and to learn from the wisdom of the ancients.
I tried to hold these loves in tension for as long as I could. And I started to make some plans that would enable me to take extended leave from pastoral ministry in order to focus. But a series of events, conversations, and reflections took me on a different turn.
Many of you will know that our dear daughter Anastasia was born in March this year. And she has brought us more joy than we could ever imagine. However, her birth also caused me to ask some really hard questions about my calling and my priorities. Put simply, writing a PhD and pastoring was like competing in two different sports in the Olympics. They are both sports and so there are overlaps. And they are both in the Olympics so they are played at a high level. But the demanding differences drown the similarities. One is Olympic diving and the other is boxing. They are similar in many ways – they all require physical strength, disciplined training, and a team to support you. But they are also different in many ways – one is in the water and the other is on a platform, one has an opponent and the other doesn’t, and one has a shorter competitive time frame while the other is longer.
A Turning Point
It soon became extremely clear to me that I could not do both, and one had to go. Through lots of prayer, wise counsel, and reflection, I decided that it will be best for me to step aside and withdraw my PhD. It is a painful decision because it took a bit of effort to get into the program, because I love what I do, and because I really believe in the potential of what could come out of it. Yet at the same time, it wasn’t that hard to decide because I love my family who need me to be particularly present during this season and I love my church.
You see, one of the things I was considering is taking extended leave (approximately 1 year) from pastoral ministry to hammer out the PhD. But I felt a particular discomfort as I was planning to do this. It needs to be made clear that I don’t think the church needs me at all. We have a team of gifted pastors, elders, and leaders who do amazing work. But I never felt at peace with the decision. GracePoint is going through some major changes and it felt pastorally irresponsible to just take time off like that. A wise mentor also told me that taking 12 months off is not exactly just taking 12 months off. I would effectively be losing 3 years of momentum. The 12 months leading up to my extended leave would be focused on transition, the 12 months I actually take off would potentially be in maintenance, and the 12 months from my return would be a process of rebuilding. Again, this is not the be all and end all. But it caused me to ask: “how important is finishing the PhD to me? Is it enough to go through all of this?”
As these things were brewing in the back of my mind, God was allowing me to experience real highs and lows with our people at GracePoint. Only a handful of leaders at church knew I was processing these things. No one else did. But God in his kindness allowed me to enter into the depths of peoples lives like never before and gave me the privilege of pastoring people through these trials. Puritans were often referred to as “physicians of the soul” or “surgeons of the soul” and I didn’t understand its full meaning until recently. I just saw firsthand how the Gospel of hope, joy, and eternal life is exactly what we need. And there were times when I’d sit down after a long day, feeling spent, and then just thinking to myself (and sometimes saying to Sherilyn) – this is exactly what God is calling me to do. I love our brothers and sisters at GracePoint and I count it a real joy to be their pastor. Furthermore, their love for our family and receptivity to our ministry was also an important sign that the work of pastoring is not yet finished. Thank you GracePoint for loving us.
As a result, my PhD will come to a premature end. But I pray that I will be able to come back to it someday. This was actually very helpful in my decision making process. My dad reminded me that I am still in my early 30s and that there’s always the possibility of picking it up again. Christ College’s Academic Dean Dr Greg Goswell helped me to process some of these decisions. And while he worked hard to dissuade me from withdrawing, he finally relented and sighed “well, you’ll probably write a better doctorate down the track anyway”. I hope that’s true. I think it can be true.
So that’s the grief.
But there’s also some excitement. Because part of my hesitancy from withdrawing is that the PhD was really helpful in keeping me fresh – forcing me to read books that I don’t usually pick up, to read and write at a higher level, and to just be exposed to really helpful things that we often neglect while being in the trenches of ministry.
This is when I recalled my friend Dr Cam Clausing saying to me once after a Higher Degree Research seminar: “I reckon most seminary PhDs really should be DMin dissertations”. That comment really stood out to me. Quite simply, he believed that a lot of ministry-practice oriented dissertations should really be written as professional doctorates (like DMin) rather than research doctorates like PhDs and ThDs). Otherwise, candidates face the issue of being frustrated at being told that it’s not sufficiently academic enough while also wanting it to be applied and relevant. Cam doesn’t know this, but when he said that, I thought to myself “wait, that’s me”. My doktorvader John McClean knows this as well. He had to work hard at persuading me to take out a few chapters of my PhD proposal which was focused on the implications on preaching. His suggestion was that I should spin it off into a more popular book down the track. I took his advice and passed my confirmation of candidature. But I knew where my heart was at.
So when I put together 1) my desire to keep learning and growing, 2) my love for thinking theologically about ministry and practice, and 3) the hope of producing something helpful for the church, it became clear that perhaps what all of this means is not the end of study but the end of a type of study. Perhaps this is not the season for a 100,000 original research dissertation, but it can be a time of taking time away for coursework and then producing a shorter dissertation for the church.
With this, I’m excited to announce that I have officially been accepted into the Doctor of Ministry program at Talbot School of Theology (Biola University). This announcement and acceptance is a result of many months of prayer, conversation with others (thank you to those who provided guidance), and enquiry. For those who are less familiar with the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) program, it is specifically designed for pastors serving in the trenches of the church. Therefore, this would make it more similar to playing two sports in the Olympics but in similar categories – much like doing a 100m sprint and relay race. They are different. But the similarities are great enough so that training and preparing in one can yield benefit in competing in the other.
I’m happy to write a longer piece in the future about why I’ve chosen Biola as my school of choice. But this doesn’t mean that our family is moving to the US. I just need to travel in once a year for a 2 week period for coursework and the remaining work is done while I’m back in Sydney. My hope and prayer is that this will be really helpful and will have great benefit for GracePoint and beyond. I’ve chosen the Ministry Skills track and so I’m excited to sit under great pastor-professor-practitioners like Dr Benjamin Shin and others. I’m also keen to rub shoulders with other ministry leaders who come from and serve in different contexts. There is no doubt that this sort of cross pollination will refresh and sharpen me.
Doing this by coursework and dissertation later means that this will be less taxing on our family. And it means that I don’t have to always be thinking about dissertation writing (which is sort of happens right now!) It’s hard to unplug when you’re writing a PhD because every moment could be spent reading another journal article, writing another chapter, or following up on another footnote.
Prayer and Support
So please pray for us as we start this new journey in 2023. But would you also be so kind as to consider supporting me in my studies? I have to raise a pretty significant amount of money to pay for tuition fees, airfares, accomodation, and resources. Pastor Eugene has been so helpful in gathering some major donors and my heart is so filled with thankfulness for their pledges. But I still have a little to go. Therefore, a member at church is helping me with this, and his family is going to match your giving, dollar for dollar, up to $10,000AUD. This will help me get over the line. You can give as a one-off or smaller regular contributions over a period of 4 years (which is how long I hope to finish the DMin). Would you be so kind as to consider this? I’d love to chat with you. I have more information that I can send to you as well. Please do drop me a line!
I am also starting a new blog with the help of Jayden Liang. This will be a space where I will hopefully post more regularly – especially with updates on studies. My other blog will still be up for awhile but I will merge the two in the next few months. So if you’re able to, please subscribe to this for latest updates!
Thank you friends for reading this and for sharing in my grief and excitement. I’m praying that this change will help me to be sharper, fresher, and healthier as I lead my family and GracePoint into the future. Soli Deo Gloria!