What to do with a PhD in Theology? Nonprofits and Parachurch Ministry

Part 6: Nonprofit Work and Paraachurch Ministry

A PhD in biblical and theological studies provides skills that could be used in a variety of nonprofit or parachurch organizations that engage in activities like political activism or pastoral support. Since one of the great challenges for many scholars is facing the gap between scholarly work and “real life,” nonprofit work and parachurch ministry allow scholars to use their biblical training to address real needs on the ground.

Dr. Kristi Miller Anderson

Research and Programs Officer | 4th Purpose Foundation (https://4thpurpose.org/)

Though my work from a secular worldview would be described as activism, to me it’s just an ongoing exegesis of biblical social justice expressed in secular vernacular. The Old Testament has much to say about our attitudes and interactions with the societal outcasts who are vulnerable to abuse by people in power (especially within the court system). My PhD in Old Testament/Hebrew did not help me land a job in the prison reform nonprofit space, but it has prepared me to do this work in many ways. Theologically, the knowledge of God’s attitude toward my target population, as depicted over thousands of years in various cultural settings, ensures that I always head in the direction of human dignity and goodwill. Practically, the dissertation process equipped me with research and writing skills that I employ regularly as I identify and disseminate best practices of penal reform from around the world. I also draw from the exercise and experience of teaching in that I must inspire and educate correctional leaders in effective ways in order for change to take place. 

I, too, started out hoping that my educational journey would lead to a full-time tenure-track teaching position. As much as I love teaching in the biblical studies realm, however, I figured out early on that I didn’t want to spend my professional career finding answers to questions that nobody seemed to be asking. I knew I had to take this rich educational experience and make it come alive for me in “real life” ways. If more of our highly qualified and skilled people in PhD programs across the country would turn their efforts to tackling the worst of societal woes, we would see God’s Kingdom come and we would force our exegesis and theology to extend out of the classrooms and into the “real world.” Our interaction with theological academia from that context, whether through adjunct teaching or writing, gains a whole new layer of credibility. 

Dr. Trevor Laurence

Executive Director | Cateclesia Institute (https://cateclesia.com/)

The process of completing a doctorate does not merely equip one with new knowledge and skills. It is simultaneously a person-forming exercise—the person shaped in the crucible of PhD studies is in significant respects a different person from the person who started. This means that, when contemplating the utility of doctoral study, one must not only ask, “How can I use the information I will gain?” but also, “How can I participate in God’s mission as the person I will become?” From the beginning of my doctoral studies, one of my animating aspirations was to direct what I would learn and who I would become toward blessing both the academy and the church, engaging in rigorous scholarship while addressing the wider body of Christ with the hard-won fruits of those labors. Aware of the well-documented challenges facing students seeking traditional academic posts, and unenthusiastic about uprooting my family from the deep relationships of our local church to follow whatever opportunity might emerge (which, I’ll add, is a less discussed but nonetheless tremendously consequential cost of life in academia), I set about establishing an institution that would root us in place and engage in the substantive work I dreamed of doing.

The Cateclesia Institute is a nonprofit that exists to cultivate biblical imagination in, with, and for the academy and the church. Cateclesia endeavors to create and distribute ecclesially minded scholarship and holistically formative resources that aid scholars, pastors, and laypeople in developing the instincts necessary for navigating the story of God’s word and for navigating God’s world according to that story. In my role as executive director, I get to put my training to work—research, academic publication, conference participation, public engagement, and writing for ecclesial audiences are ongoing tasks as I contribute to Cateclesia’s mission, and I look forward to expanding our activities to offer multimedia resources, instructional courses, and hosted symposia. At the same time, founding and leading a nonprofit like Cateclesia involves all sorts of other responsibilities as well: website development and maintenance, budgeting and nonprofit tax compliance, inviting and editing written submissions, coordinating with a board, organizational planning, and fundraising, to name a few.

Nonprofit work with the Cateclesia Institute provides a context for directing the formation I received in PhD study toward an exhilarating end: helping God’s people inhabit God’s narrative. How might current or prospective doctoral students prepare for a future with a nonprofit institution? Those intrigued by the vision of an existing entity would do well to establish a relationship with the organization and its leaders, to explore possibilities for involvement while one is yet a student (volunteering, contributing written material, attending events, receiving mentorship), and to even focus one’s research in areas that contribute to and prepare one for those types of labors. For those interested in potentially launching a new initiative, consider what unmet needs exist within your local community when contemplating an institutional raison d’être. Invite the counsel of your close support network to discover if they too see the impetus for the venture and your fitness to lead it. Reach out to the heads of similar organizations to learn from their best practices and the obstacles they have experienced. Consciously construct and conduct your PhD research—and all the other practices of your life—with an eye toward becoming the kind of person who is able to follow in the way of Jesus faithfully and to bless others in the realm in which you hope to professionally invest.

Nonprofit work, especially with a fledgling enterprise, requires prayer, patience, and perseverance. And doctoral study can be a rich training ground for precisely those virtues.

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