(Fourth in a series. To be continued.)

We’ve seen that the man who aspires to serve as a shepherd of God’s flock desires a good thing and that this desire often runs down family lines, from father to son to son. In the last post, I gave an account of the importance for my own training and development of serving in pastoral ministry in a congregation where my gifts and calling could be tested for a year—which I did the year between university and seminary.

Providing an account of the reason we Bayly brothers chose Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for our formal training for ministry, the previous post ended with Mary Lee and me, with our three-year-old daughter, Heather, moving to the suburbs of Boston to start seminary; and then, finally, the three things Dad had to say to me about seminary as we moved to Boston:

  • If you’re going to be a pastor, you’ll have to get an MDiv. It’s the union card.
  • The only thing seminary has in common with Jesus’ training of His disciples is that both are three-year institutions.
  • Tim, it took me three years to get through seminary and seven years to get over it.

Before opening up the significance of these statements, what should we not think about them and the man who said them? This requires us to know some things about Dad himself and his training for pastoral ministry, so please be patient while I provide some context for these quite-negative statements about seminary.

First, a few words about Dad himself.

Joe Bayly knew higher education about as well as any Evangelical of his time. It’s true he didn’t have an earned doctorate, but that wasn’t a weakness. Rather, it was his firm principle. When schools tried to award him honorary doctorates, he resisted and only twice was his resistance trumped by factors beyond his ability or willingness to oppose. Twice he was feted at a school’s commencement (once by Gordon-Conwell), but the family was sworn to secrecy and he never allowed himself to be referred to as “Dr. Bayly.” I can remember his irritation one day when an envelope showed up in our mailbox addressed to “Dr. Joseph T. Bayly.”

After being ordained by John Knox Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I realized if I wanted to serve a tall-steeple church within any Presbyterian denomination in twenty or thirty years, since I didn’t have a British accent, I’d have to earn a doctorate. Thus I wondered if I should take time out of the next decade to work on a doctorate in theology at Edinburgh, for instance? A friend who was dean of the grad school at Wheaton had recommended this to me and I asked Dad what he thought.

“Dad, do you think I should earn a doctorate?”

“That’s your decision,” he responded; “you have to do what you think is right.”

“Yes, I know, but I want to know what you think.”

“It’s your decision,” he said.

“Yes, I know it’s my decision, but if you were me today, what would you do?” I persisted.

“I have no reason to regret the decision I made,” he said, and the conversation (if it rose to that level) was over.

Could Dad have earned a doctorate if he’d wished?

Oh my, yes. He was a bright one. It might not have been child’s play for him, but he would have taken to the reading and learning as a fish to jello. His whole life was reading and learning. Our family life was reading and learning.

What about a dissertation: would he have been able to actually finish one the profs found acceptable?

Knowing this eventually subverts the hunt for tenure by many assistant professors who are all-but-dissertation (ABD), I answer, “yes.” During his senior year at Wheaton he wrote a seventy-page exegesis paper, so the discipline of research and writing were no high mountain for him.

No, Dad’s decision not to get a doctorate was never a matter of fear, inability, or intellectual incapacity. He spent a quarter-century speaking and preaching to university students and faculty, and after he left Inter-Varsity his speaking engagements largely came from those students and faculty who now wanted him to minister to them at their summer camps, conferences, college chapels, and congregations once more as he had ministered to them at colleges or universities. Dad turned down a number of job offers from colleges and seminaries, including the presidency of a seminary.

As a Staley lecturer, he spent a good bit of time speaking at Christian colleges. He was a regular speaker at Evangelical seminaries—particularly Gordon-Conwell, Dallas, and Trinity. So as I said, Dad’s decision not to get a doctorate was not due to any weakness in his gray matter or ability to hold his own among scholars.

The obvious question then is why Dad was opposed to getting a doctorate?

Fifteen years ago, I got to know our youngest son’s future father-in-law, a South African who had moved to Bloomington to work with a group of scholars busy repurposing Indiana University’s cyclotron from research to providing proton therapy for cancer patients. We were talking one day and he expressed frustration over the difficulty of working with professors. He said profs never wanted to pull the trigger until everything was perfect.

The son of a sheep farmer, his own training was in nuclear medicine and he had the can-do attitude of every son of the farm. No matter the difficulty of the thing proposed, he was ready to jump in and do what was necessary. Meanwhile, the profs were saying “maybe” and “wait” and “no.”

I can’t quote my Dad explicitly on the question, but this frustration of the father of my (now) daughter-in-law seems to go a long way to explaining Dad’s decision against a doctorate. He wanted to be useful wherever he was and whenever he was needed. He’d say he was “a generalist, not a specialist,” and he believed this was essential to pastoral ministry.

We’ll have more to say about the difference between scholarly and pastoral training for the ministry, but for now it’s important to recognize that Dad was not speaking from insecurity when he expressed his concerns about pastors being trained in seminaries and getting doctorates.

Returning to my own life in ministry, I too have never regretted not having an earned doctorate.

Back at my previous church, one of our assistant pastors told me he was going to pursue a doctorate in education while serving our congregation. There were several reasons I wasn’t pleased, although he didn’t know it. He never asked what I thought so I never told him. A significant part of my concern had to do with the actual education and degree he intended to get, but my main concern was something else.

The Scripture that kept going through my head was the Apostle Paul’s declaration:

No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. (2Timothy 2:4)

The Apostle Paul was referring to pastoral ministry when he spoke of being a “soldier” here, and it seems clear to me that this is a statement guiding pastors away from second, and towards first, priorities. What can be a higher priority for a man ordained to pastoral ministry than preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and shepherding God’s flock?

Sure, there are certain men inside and outside the church who will be impressed by a pastor with an earned doctorate–perhaps even an EdD—but those are almost never the men a pastor should aim to please.

So if Dad was neither a country bumpkin nor an anti-intellectual, why did he think as he did about seminary and the Masters of Divinity?

We’ll open this up more in our next post. Please be patient; we’re working to lay a good foundation for recommending pastors colleges.

(Fourth in a series. To be continued.)

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