Journal of Christian Ministry | 2023: Why Are We Educating Doctors of the Church?

2023: Why Are We Educating Doctors of the Church?

2023: Why Are We Educating Doctors of the Church?

MaryKate Morse is the featured speaker for the 2023 DMin Educators Association annual gathering. This year’s topic for the gathering and the Journal of Christian Ministry is “Flourishing In Ministry: Self-Care for Ministry Leaders.”

Why Are We Educating Doctors of the Church?

by MaryKate Morse
Executive Dean of Portland Seminary
Lead Mentor for the DMin degree Leadership & Spiritual Formation

Like you, I am a Doctor of Ministry educator. Since the late 1990s I have fulfilled this calling in one form or another from creating the first DMin program to serving as faculty or dissertation advisor. At Portland Seminary we have three tracks, and I’ve been involved in all three. Today I am the Lead Mentor of a re-imagined DMin in Leadership & Spiritual Formation.

Each year I begin with a new cohort of 16-18 students. They are a diverse group of men and women from all over the United States with a few international students. Their age varies from one or two in their low 30s to one or two in their upper 60s or early 70s, with all ages in between. There are senior pastors, missionaries, Christian counselors, chaplains, various ministry leaders, and Christian university administrators and faculty. I even had a doula once. All with MDivs or the equivalent, of course. They come from a variety of social, economic, and ecclesial contexts, from the most conservative to the most progressive, from the poorest, a man who traveled by bus across the United States in order to study with us wearing shoes bought at Goodwill, to the wealthiest, a woman who could easily fund our entire seminary operation.

Each year I have this group of often battle weary and always nervous and excited students who want to take this 3-4-year journey to earn their DMin degree. They have been on the battlefield, and they want to learn, explore, figure out thorny problems, and hope again in the church and in themselves. I have wonderful students.

I love journeying with these students, and in recent years I recognize too that the culture is changing fast.  Today’s world is more globalized, connected, and disrupted than the one known in the earlier era of DMin programs. Recently, Dr. Frank Yamada, the Executive Director of ATS, reminded us that we are in a season “of profound and accelerated change” which is impacting the nature of the church and theological education. Preparing people to flourish today and serve an ever-changing church landscape is a challenge. It isn’t theological education as usual. We all continue to wrestle with these realities while we educate seasoned ministry leaders.

So, when I begin with my fresh cohort in a shifting ministry landscape, I wonder what is my responsibility to them? We take their money and provide education on top of their already robust MDiv and usually already very busy lives. And they rarely get much financial return on their investment.

ATS says we ‘prepare people more deeply for religious leadership.’ ATS is also clear about the learning outcomes we must achieve, and those we do, no doubt with high standards carefully considered for each institution. So, when any of us meet our new groups of students, we’re clear about what we’re going to do – the books, articles, assignments, learning experiences – and how we’re going to do it – it’s all carefully laid out in a syllabus and course site, but truly why are we doing it?

I think I could more easily answer this question when I created the very first DMin program. We understood the craft of educating ministry leaders. We had classrooms, online discussions, assignments, some experiences together, papers and projects and research, all to develop a more mature, critical thinker and a better Christian minister who could tackle thorny problems in his or her setting.

However, because of today’s reality and our evolving responsibility to our students, I believe the current models require fresh consideration. There is a plethora of information, books, conferences, seminars, and podcasts all contributing to the learning and skill building of the Christian leader. So, I wonder if in our work as DMin educators we might consider a shift? A shift from knowledge to wisdom, from spiritual practices to spiritual depth, from skills to new ways of seeing.

To do that, I believe we need to think anew about the ‘why’ of our programs. This is both a practical and philosophical question. In the early 2000s Simon Sinek did a 17-minute TedxPuget Sound talk which now has more than 61 million views. He published the book Start with Why in 2009 that came from that talk. Essentially Simon says that those who inspire and create real change understand why they do what they do. Everyone in an organization knows what they do and most know how they do it, but not everyone thinks about ‘Why we do what we do?”

Though this is now a highly circulated idea, I don’t know that we as doctor of ministry educators have considered fully what it means for us. Why do we prepare doctors of the church? Sometimes in the beginning it was often a funding strategy for the school – that is certainly one reason why I was asked to develop that first DMin. However, we are now living in a completely different age with many DMin programs and opportunities. Our students, their needs, their communities, the world is all different. Because of that we get an opportunity to rethink our why.

Simon demonstrates with story after story that when we know the why, we are more innovative and inspirational. Therefore, for our DMin programs if we consider the why, I believe more change is likely to happen in this graduate education process. When we know why, we think about the what and the how differently.

As I have thought about it, I have come to the possibility that for me – for my gifts, experiences, and training – the why of graduate education for ministers is less about educating and more about forming. What the church and communities need in this age are hopeful Christ-centered leaders who can create cultures that lead to transformation. My why is to help Christian leaders become more like Christ and love more like Christ, which are active and physical expressions. If I can do that, then I believe I’ve best served the local church and their communities.

What helps with this is the unique nature of graduate theological education. It has rigor and accountability. Of course, the mind must be engaged and developed into competent critical thinkers. However, with the same rigor and accountability I can also engage the heart, the will and passions, and the behaviors of my students to be more Christlike. There are few places where the rigor of education and its requirements can create catalytic environments for the growth of Christian leaders, and graduate seminary education is one of those places.

After answering the why, I can think in creative ways about the what do I do. In 2015-16 I updated the DMin degree in Leadership & Spiritual Formation (LSF) in partnership with the Doctor of Ministry team. I brought together all that I had learned from 30 years of educating adults in ministry and from planting two churches. I’ve studied and taught spiritual formation and leadership development, particularly the integration of the two. I’m a spiritual director who has been in regular coaching and direction conversations with executive ministry leaders all over the world. I’m continually updating materials in the context of meeting the needs and dreams of adults fulfilling their call in the changing landscape of the church. Since the early 2000s the seminary has experimented with hybrid education and has kept up with best practices, so I had that to consider also. I brought all these experiences together to form a better, more life-impacting DMin degree program for my students. I also know that I am still adapting and learning. All of these things shaped my what and how.

In the LSF program what I do is create a formational learning culture in which leaders become more like Christ in character and capacity. It is a culture in which leaders become a more faithful, transforming presence in their contexts. Formational refers to the on-going importance of spiritual formation for maturing adult leaders. I use the definition from Life in the Spirit, “Spiritual formation is our continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world” (Greenman & Kalantzis, eds., Life in the Spirit, 24).

A learning culture is the basic purpose of all education. Learning is a process of gaining new knowledge or skills often through study. I experimented with creating a formational learning culture that had high standards for learning and equally high standards for formation.

For me, books, spiritual habits, and interesting assignments matter, but creating a formational learning culture, took priority. I have observed that a group’s culture has more shaping power than trying to change individuals who happen to be in a group.  If I want every person to be more like Christ in character and capacity, then I need to create a culture whose shaping forces get us there. I plan for learning and for formation, but creating a culture for it is more powerful.

Culture is most simply the way of life for a group of people as defined by Hofstede, et al, in the book Cultures & Organizations: Software of the Mind (2010). Culture is formed by a group’s core values. Symbols, heroes and rituals are the visual aspects of a culture’s values. Language is the spoken expression of a culture. Practices or norms – how things are done – reveal the underlying values which can only be interpreted by insiders. A culture then has core values which are expressed in 1. rituals/practices, 2. stories, 3. Symbols, and 4. the language used to tell stories and practice rituals.

I was the principal architect of our first DMin degree in 1996. In 2015 when I came back into the doctoral program as a lead mentor, I reshaped the what of the degree as I described earlier. I knew my why and the what, but I needed to experiment to discover the how of creating a formational learning culture. My research and experience have shown me that formation and deep learning happens best in community. My research and experience have also shown me that physical space, the use of time, the importance of beauty and music, living together in a local culture, hospitality, the variety of learning experiences, the value of regular feedback loops, the posture of experts while engaging adult learners all matter. In retrospect I realized that I was creating a culture observable with the four elements above. I changed the traditional way in which DMin education occurred.

Hybrid education was the perfect mode for setting culture boundaries and expectations for the weekly synchronous and asynchronous learning work and for the intensive in-person instructional and formational time. We do not meet in a classroom on a campus. We have few lectures and presentations. Instead we met off campus in an Oregon beach community. We have core values expressed in spiritual practices, symbols, language and stories. There is much to share for the particularities of how all of the above works in my program, but I will save it for our time together at the ADME conference.

I’m looking forward to our conversation about your why, what and the how for creating culture to accomplish your learning competencies. I am looking forward to being your speaker at the 2023 ADME conference with the theme “Flourishing in Ministry: Self-Care for Ministry Leaders.” I believe that to address the theme of Flourishing in Ministry we need to focus on the why and then the what and how which is most effective when creating a culture to support the why. I hope to share more of my own experience with creating a formational learning culture which results in doctors of the church who are more like Christ in character and capacity in their ministry contexts.

Hope to see you there.