What to Do with a PhD in Theology? Teaching with Support Raising

Part 1: Academic Teaching with Support Raising

One of the closest parallels to a traditional academic job is teaching in a position that requires raising financial support. These positions are generally available in schools outside North America, and typically involve living in a different culture. Teaching in one of these schools fills a substantial need for the theological education of the global church and provides an opportunity for rich cross-cultural learning. However, significant time must be spent raising money, both in preparing to go overseas and in continued communication with financial supporters. In addition, these kinds of positions can involve a high level of administrative work and may not offer as much time or as many resources for publishing.

Dr. Stephanie A. Lowery

Theology Lecturer and Program Coordinator | Africa International University (Nairobi, Kenya)

I’m currently serving in theological education in the Majority World—in this case, in Kenya, East Africa. To teach at a university in Kenya, a PhD is essential; the government requires it for a person to teach full-time and also to hold an administrative position. I’m a lecturer in theology, and currently also serving in an administrative role as program coordinator (head of department) and academic advisor for our undergraduate in theology students. As a full-time lecturer at an evangelical school, I am eligible for promotions based on experience and publications, just as I would be anywhere else. I am here as a missionary, so I have raised support to allow me to be here without causing the school any financial drain. One benefit of being a self-supported lecturer is that I really can teach just about anywhere I want; I have gone through just 2 interviews total since arriving here 5 years ago (one at each school where I’ve served).

Personally, teaching here in Kenya has long been my dream. In the Majority World as a whole, there is on average one trained church leader for every 450,000 people! So by investing here, I know I am making a substantial difference. I can influence students from across this vast continent: we currently have students from nearly 40 nations at our school. Also, by being in a cross-cultural setting, I am continually being pushed to grow and learn as I encounter different perspectives. For instance, one day in class a question came up about baptism under a flag, which was a practice I’d never heard of before. My students are from more communal cultures, which means they notice aspects of the biblical text that I (being from a more individualistic culture) have missed. The list of things I have learned simply by being in this context goes on and on.

I hope more people will consider serving in theological education in the Majority World. If this sounds interesting, please spend time praying about it and reach out to someone who is currently doing it to get their perspective. There are opportunities to come and teach short-term, to “get your feet wet.” I have never regretted being here; teaching cross-culturally can enrich your life in ways you can’t imagine!

Dr. Matthew Newkirk

President and Professor of Old Testament | Christ Bible Seminary (Nagoya, Japan)

Early in seminary I became interested in two seemingly incongruent career paths: academic ministry and missions. Soon I found out that these career paths are actually not incongruent, since well-trained seminary professors represent a huge need on the mission field. The only incongruence was my lack of ministry imagination and a reluctant disposition toward the prospect of raising support. Let’s face it: no one looks forward to raising support. And while I certainly experienced my fair share of discouragement and frustration during the support raising process, I also found it to be a richly rewarding and faith-deepening experience. Like many others, initially I viewed raising support as sort of a spiritualized form of Christian begging. But as I prepared to engage in it, my view shifted dramatically—rather than asking people to give something to me, I realized that I was offering them an opportunity to invest their resources in a gospel work for God’s sake. (I’ve written more about a theology of supporting missionaries here: https://newkirksinjapan.com/2014/09/05/toward-a-theology-of-supporting-missionaries.) And to be honest, having a PhD was an asset during support raising. People knew that I had spent many long, difficult years training to serve this way, which gave them confidence to partner with me. Moreover, since my objective in entering academic ministry was to teach people about the riches of God’s word and train them to live as fully-devoted disciples of Christ, support raising ended up being a great opportunity to teach and train people to view God’s kingdom as the global reality that it is and to give sacrificially toward it.

On the mission field, I now serve as President and Professor of Old Testament at a small seminary in Nagoya, Japan. In this sense, the work I do here is the same as it would be if I were serving in such a role in North America, and therefore my PhD is equally relevant for my day-to-day life. I lead faculty meetings, teach classes, grade papers, do research, mentor students, and preach occasionally in nearby churches. The rather large difference, of course, is that after coming to Japan I spent two years studying Japanese full-time in order to live and serve here. Language acquisition varies for different people, and different languages present varying levels of difficulty for native English speakers (for rankings of languages in terms of difficulty, see here: https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training). But one thing is clear to me: my years learning Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, German, and French—as well as the discipline required to complete a dissertation—provided very helpful training for me to engage in the rigorous work of acquiring a foreign language. I’ll be honest, it can be frustrating to operate in a foreign language, especially in an academic setting, where precision of expression is ideal and you are not always as precise as when you speak in your non-native tongue. But there are also benefits that far outweigh the frustrations as you have the unique opportunity to experience Christian community and academic inquiry in a way that broadens your personal and spiritual horizons more so than if you were to remain in your native cultural setting.

My advice to those who are completing (or have finished) a PhD is as follows.

  • First, I’d encourage you to consider whether you might use your gifts and education in a place, such as Japan, where trained professors are so scarce. The overabundance of PhD graduates versus the paucity of positions in North America is evidence that God may want you to use your gifts elsewhere. You have received a tremendous privilege from God in your training, and while serving overseas as a supported missionary is certainly not for everyone, ask yourself whether your desired career path is fundamentally for the fame of God’s name, or whether it is limited by your desire for comfort, security, and academic recognition.
  • Second, that said, don’t decide to become a missionary only after you fail to secure a tenure-track position in North America. Living and serving in another language and culture requires a level of dedication and commitment that cannot be faked or fabricated, so it doesn’t work as Plan B for anyone. If you’re open to the prospect of serving overseas, pray and ask God to direct you, engage in a full study of a biblical theology of mission (which I’ve written about here: https://www.amazon.com/Fill-Earth-Creation-Mandate-Missions/dp/1532693400), talk and pray with your spouse if you’re married, and really try to discern if this could be God’s calling for you. I always encourage people to consider missions, but I also emphasize that they need to be committed to missions as Plan A and not as a backup option.
  • Third, talk with people who have already walked this path. Ask missionary professors what their experience has been like. Ask them for their advice. Contact a missions agency and ask about going through their assessment process to determine your readiness. Or feel free to contact me, and I’d be happy to dialogue with you about it (newkirk.matt@gmail.com).

Like earning a PhD, living and teaching as a supported missionary is full of both joys and struggles. Like a PhD it requires stamina, perseverance, and a dogged commitment to press on despite obstacles. Like a PhD it will push you further than you planned on going, but like a PhD it is 100% worth the effort.

Dr. Daniel Owens

Lecturer, Hanoi Bible College (Hanoi, Vietnam) | International Consultant, reSource Leadership International for Theological Education | Global Partner, Training Leaders International

Our family has served in theological education and mission under a financial support model since 2003. It is critical for us to carry out the calling God has placed on our lives because of the financial realities of the church in Asia. For those not having a compelling sense of mission, it may seem like a sacrifice to put in the effort to raise your support. But it is also a tremendous blessing in terms of gospel partnership, as Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes. We have deepened in friendship with those who have walked with us these past 18+ years and made some new friends along the way. Don’t discount this blessing too quickly. I have taught in two academic institutions in Asia. For both teaching posts, I raised financial support.

While in Singapore, my college provided housing, and I was able to teach the Old Testament in English. Singaporean society is highly educated, motivated, and globally connected. And the infrastructure is top-notch. Within walking distance (or a short bus ride) of our college was a Starbucks, a tasty independent burger place, an inexpensive hawker center with local Singaporean specialties, an extensive and beautifully crafted botanical garden, and a reservoir complex with quiet trails (including monkeys and snakes). The joy of teaching there was the opportunity to invest in the lives of students from as disparate places as New Zealand, India, Thailand, Mongolia, and, of course, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. My Mongolian student is now the president of a theological college there. Every student is valuable in God’s eyes. Yet it is also true that some students have a disproportionate impact on the expansion of the Kingdom of God outside the West, which is where much of the growth of the gospel is taking place right now. Their contexts of ministry can be raw, dangerous, and exciting. So teaching them is an incredible privilege and stretches those intellectual muscles that you developed in your PhD studies. If you teach in a school the serves a regional constituency, you are making a strategic impact on future church and academic leaders.

My main professional/ministerial context has been Vietnam. I spent many years learning Vietnamese, so when I arrived in Singapore I was able to speak Vietnamese with one of my students there. He has since become a co-author of a Hebrew grammar/workbook in Vietnamese and a biblical commentator in his own right. I have walked with him from his MDiv days until today, when he is waiting to defend his own dissertation. Following my stint in Singapore, I returned to Vietnam to help a fledgling Bible college in Hanoi. I was able to invest in the school by crafting the BTh program, establishing the library cataloging system, digitizing our student academic records, and setting up Moodle and teaching students to use it, which turned out to be critical as COVID-19 pushed us online. I also have helped start a Christian literature company, which has published three of my books in Vietnamese and many others either translated into Vietnamese or written by Vietnamese authors. This kind of pioneering work in theological education and Christian literature development is not for everyone. But from a global perspective it is the cutting edge of theological discourse. Academics in the West chew on many old questions (and some new ones), but the work is often maintenance or rear-guard defense of a movement struggling to stay relevant. That work is critical, but it is a highly competitive environment, both in finding teaching jobs and getting book contracts. Here I don’t need to compete with anyone to have something to offer, whether as a teacher or as a writer. We help train leaders for a movement rapidly growing among ethnic groups who have only learned of the gospel in the past 40 years. Their questions are fresh and raw. Sometimes they seem odd to us, like the student who asked me just the other day whether mannah, being “the bread of angels” (Psalm 78:25, ESV, and the same idea as the student’s translation), meant that angels also needed to use the restroom. It was a simple question, maybe even silly, but it was an opportunity to talk about genre and interpretation. Harder to answer is what students should do when a traffic policeman demands a bribe. So if you want a challenge to those intellectual muscles developed in your masters and PhD studies, consider investing in global theological education.

Dr. Steve Pardue

Program Director for ThM/PhD in Theological Studies | Asia Graduate School of Theology (Manila, Philippines)

I went into my PhD studies knowing that I wanted to use my degree in an overseas institution. Having grown up in Asia, I saw that while US seminaries and Christian Colleges were oversupplied with teachers and undersupplied with students, the equation was exactly the inverse in Asia. Even before accounting for rapid growth in the Asian church taking place every year, there is already an enormous Christian population in need of trained leaders who can shepherd and disciple them. My firsthand experience also told me that there were institutions in Asia prepared to offer high-quality leadership training, but that their greatest need was adequately trained faculty. 

This trajectory informed the way I pursued my studies. I tried to choose a PhD program where there would be at least some like-minded students who were also preparing for work outside of North America, and I tried to connect with faculty who I knew had experience serving beyond the North American context so I could get their advice. In many ways, my path looked the same as my colleagues preparing for the North American job market—I tried to network widely, publish where I could, and think strategically about how my research interests could advance the state of knowledge in the field. I tried to have the mindset of someone competing for a selective job market, knowing this would allow me to contribute best to my future institution. But I was blessed not to have the same kind of anxiety about job opportunities that my fellow students had. 

Of course, I had a different challenge—connecting with a mission agency and setting up a support network that would create the funds needed to teach at the institutions where I was aiming to work (which do not pay full-time salaries to their faculty in order to make their degrees affordable). For us, this process was actually easier than we expected; we were able to leave for our post in Asia the day after I received my diploma. Many of my colleagues had similar experiences. I think the main reason for this is that we had good partner institutions in Asia who were doing really excellent, strategic work, and they were able to help us communicate that to churches and individuals. We had also been very involved in our church for years, and they had a vision for missions that strongly aligned with our target ministry. In general, my advice to those considering this possibility is that it is actually exciting and encouraging to raise funds for a strategic role in missions where you have specialized training and good partners in the Majority World who are inviting (urging) you to join them. There are so many churches and individuals in the United States who want to be part of kingdom work in the Majority World and are looking for good opportunities to use their resources wisely. Also, it is notable that as Asian economies grow, schools here are increasingly able to fund or partially fund faculty salaries. So be on the lookout for arrangements like this.

Having been working in Asia for 9 years now, I would unreservedly recommend it. For me, I can’t think of a better way to use my gifts and degree than helping Mongolian church-planters better understand the relevance of the Cappadocians’ teaching on the Trinity, or helping a pastor of a Filipino megachurch think more carefully about how good exegesis can protect against the prosperity gospel. At the more advanced level, I get to work with students who will be writing textbooks for Asia’s hundreds of millions of Christians, offering my two cents about how the history of the church or key insights from contemporary theology can inform their work. There are difficult things about our context (the Philippines), of course. Underdeveloped infrastructure causes headaches and drags on quality of life (terrible traffic, slow or inconsistent internet, air pollution, time-consuming banking processes)—though it’s notable that many cities in the Majority World don’t have these drawbacks. Of course, you will need to have an appetite for cross-cultural collaboration, which is supremely rewarding when it works well, but also requires patience and tolerance for more friction than in monocultural work (longer meetings, more need to question your own thoughts, etc.). There will always be more teaching/church/committee work than you can do, as the scale of need is really enormous. But for me, all of those drawbacks are easily outweighed by the chance to work with eager, strategic students who are ready to meet the needs of the growing Asian church for healthy Christian teaching. 

Dr. Austin Surls

Associate Professor of Old Testament | Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (Amman, Jordan)

Greetings in Christ! Since 2015, our family has been living in Amman, Jordan. After two years of language study, I began teaching Old Testament full-time at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary. The Seminary does not provide a salary for me, so we have had to raise support from dear friends and former churches we were a part of. I recognize that many attach a stigma or an onus to support raising, but we have found that it is a great opportunity to get friends and churches to think outside of their immediate context and to put their treasures where their hearts are. 

I believe that my work has fewer responsibilities than some others who teach outside America. I teach two courses every semester (perhaps because I am teaching them in Arabic and the preparation and grading takes awhile [I have no TA]). I also do not have a formal administrative role (yet). Most of my time on the seminary campus is spent preparing lectures and grading assignments. This work is both exhilarating and humiliating at the same time, but there is always room for growth (linguistically, pedagogically, and pastorally). I hope the Lord will give me many years at this work, so that I can slowly increase the depth and breadth of my relationships and my service. In any case, raising children and living life in another culture has given us great experience that will certainly benefit myself and others should we ever return to America for other work. 

If this is something you are considering, I suggest first that you read the following article: Keith D. Campbell, “The American Evangelical Academy and the World: A Challenge to Practice More Globally,” JETS 56/2 (2013): 337–53. Second, do not consider coming overseas if you only want to stay for 2–5 years: effectiveness in another culture comes very slowly, but is perhaps more rewarding personally. Third, email me if you want to discuss this further (austindsurls@gmail.com).

Dr. Jamie Viands

Lecturer in Biblical Studies | Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (Nairobi, Kenya)

First, the premise that “the number of PhDs in biblical and theological studies is far higher than the number of available tenure-track positions” may be true, but it is not higher than the number of available teaching positions, especially in my context in East Africa. If only more with PhDs in the West would be willing to come to Africa, they would find that instead of competing for available positions, there may be multiple schools begging them to come to fill roles that have been vacant for some time with no viable candidates to fill them. I teach at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, arguably the most well-known, most highly respected graduate school of evangelical theology on the continent outside of South Africa. We attract students from all over Africa (about 30% of our students come from outside Kenya), and we currently have about 350 students. Ideally we should have three or four full-time lecturers in OT and three or four in NT, but currently we have only two of each. Our senior NT professor is over 70 and hasn’t retired simply because he is desperately needed and we don’t know how to replace him yet. At the school in Kenya where I formerly taught, they offer Masters degrees in theology and biblical studies, but they have only one full-time faculty member with a PhD (in NT) in the University. He has asked me to teach their Old Testament Theology course because there is literally no one else that he knows of in the country who is qualified to teach it at Masters level. But since I simply don’t have the time to teach it, the course will not be taught. Having been in Kenya for nine years now and networked a fair amount, I still know of only three or four other evangelicals in the whole country with PhDs in OT who are actively teaching. This is in a country that is 80% “Christian” and where there is a desperate need for pastoral training. 

There are both pros and cons to having a PhD in biblical studies in Africa. In terms of the advantages, many countries in Africa are increasingly requiring PhDs to teach in universities. Kenyans are pursuing graduate level education at higher rates, and there remains a great need for advanced theological training for the sake of the growth of both local churches and African Christian theology. More well-trained Africans are needed to model faithful handling of Scripture and to combat syncretism and prosperity theology. Those of us with PhDs are in a position to train others at these higher levels. Since “high-power distance” cultures dominate Africa, those with PhDs are also automatically accorded greater respect and authority than is the case in the West. Though this reality is not entirely positive, it also tends to open more doors for influence for those with PhDs. We also have greater influence in our schools to effect change.

However, having a PhD in Africa does not always feel entirely positive. Those with PhDs are often recruited very quickly for administrative roles that can be time-consuming. Furthermore, serving as an administrator in a foreign culture can be challenging. Miscommunication, differing approaches to organization and oversight, and misunderstandings potentially leading to strained relationship are almost to be expected. At times, missionary teachers without PhDs feel more “blessed” than those with PhDs because they are left alone to simply focus on teaching and are not drawn into difficult administrative roles. Depending on the role, administrative work can enable one to implement a lot of positive change, but it does come at a cost in terms of time and energy (both physical and emotional).

Also, there are other tasks that can only be fulfilled by those with PhDs, including supervision of Masters theses and doctoral students. Although there are joys associated with such supervision, including the opportunity to encourage students to grow in exegesis at a higher level, this is an added time burden that is usually simply added to one’s teaching load. Due to understaffing, some find themselves overseeing 20 Masters theses and 10 doctoral students at once at NEGST. There are other schools without Masters or Doctoral programs (or with few students) where this would not be an issue, but this is the current reality where I am teaching. As a result, it often feels as though there is little time for a break, and there is little or no available time for research, writing, and publishing. 

Teaching oversees does also require support raising. Though such a prospect is understandably unattractive to many who have acquired a PhD, it need not be a painful process, and is even rewarding in some ways in terms of building a network of relationships with friends, family, and churches who are “on your team.” Though everyone’s experience is a bit different, this process of initially raising support could be accomplished in under a year. Although time is still needed to maintain contact with supporters while overseas, this need not take much time. The typical standard is to send out three to four email updates every year. While home, it is still generally expected that one will visit supporting churches, but there has been a shift in missions away from supporting churches toward individual supporters, who usually understand that you can’t (and won’t) see them all whenever you are home. In our case, we have only two supporting churches and 60 individuals, so we are required to do very little traveling while home. Although it is harder to find time for research and writing while teaching oversees, in my experience in Africa this is not because of the need to raise support and stay in touch with supporters, but due to the high demands of our institutions, understaffing, and the lack of any concept of a Sabbatical.

Although there are challenges and downsides in terms of teaching with a PhD in biblical studies in Africa, I believe that the advantages and opportunities far outweigh them. While some may see teaching in Africa as a “back-up plan” if one fails to land a job in the West, I would suggest there is no better place to be if one’s goal is not simply to have a well-paying job and a career but rather to have maximal kingdom impact. First, in Africa a PhD holder is not just another easily replaceable cog in the educational machine. Rather, in most cases they are filling positions that can’t or won’t be filled if they were to leave. We are truly (and sometimes desperately) needed here. Second, teaching here has the potential to have a tremendous impact on the health of local churches. Africa continues to struggle a great deal with various forms of syncretism, and (more recently) with the explosion of prosperity theology. Pastors in our schools here are not only wrestling with infralapsarianism but with fundamental issues concerning what the Gospel is and is not, and how one must properly interpret and apply Scripture to be a faithful preacher. In other words, teaching here is far from “merely” academic, and one readily and constantly senses that the salvation, discipleship, and sanctification of our students and their congregants is at stake. Third, although it can be harder to find time to publish, when one does find the time, there are far more opportunities to make genuine contributions if one’s focus is on speaking to the issues of the host culture. For example, I have found hardly anyone in Africa publishing in biblical theology or using biblical theology to address issues within the church. Thus, publishing in such an area is often breaking entirely fresh ground. For these reasons, personally, there is no place I would rather be teaching, despite the accompanying challenges. I would strongly recommend PhD holders to prayerfully and seriously consider teaching overseas in places like Africa where they are truly needed. Though it may be something of a “step of faith,” they very well may find deep joy and satisfaction in teaching and training in such a place.

The testimonials above were first published on my blog. Brittany Kim teaches Bible classes at North Park Theological Seminary.

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