08 Mar 2023: Missional Leadership Formation: Reframing the Doctor of Ministry Degree
Missional Leadership Formation:
Reframing the Doctor of Ministry Degree
Steve Cloer, DMin
Assistant Professor of Ministry/Director of DMin Program
Harding School of Theology
Since the 1970s, seminaries in North America have been offering a professional doctorate degree called the Doctor of Ministry, or DMin. The degree was created as a terminal degree for ministers. The degree focused on practical education, rather than academic. The final capstone project, or dissertation, did not require original research from primary sources, but ministry application in one’s context. The popularity grew and today over 150 different ATS-accredited seminaries offer this degree program. In this brief essay, I respond to two particular critiques of the DMin degree (one that was given recently) and then I offer a reframing for the DMin degree around missional leadership formation.
One of the most notable critics of DMin degrees has been David Wells. Wells, a former professor of theology at Gordon Conwell, spoke against the rise of the D.Min in the early 1990s, claiming this degree emphasized professionalization. Wells described the degree as “not much of a doctorate.” The standards were too low and encouraged “professional elevation not by accomplishment but by linguistic inflation.” Wells’ critique centered on the growth of “professional ministry.” Ministers have become “managers of small enterprises called churches rather than truth brokers.”Ministerial identity has moved from being a pastoral calling to a profession, where marketable skills and social standing are desired – items that the DMin degree supposedly offers, according to Wells. This desire for professionalization was a reaction to a loss of social reputation that ministers felt because of a shifting culture and a growing ambiguity around their importance and role. This role ambiguity and loss created discouragement and anxiety among ministers. At the same time, seminaries needed a new product to sell. So the DMin degree was born, or as Wells put it, “a shotgun marriage was consummated.”
Wells’ point, while overstated, is well-taken. Ministers are not called to be “shopkeepers” who with administrative skill, business acumen, and a tinge of pastoral care manage a church community well. Ministers are proclaimers of the gospel who carry forward the apostolic witness by speaking the story of Jesus and leading churches to participate in that story within the communities they live and the vocations they inhabit. If DMin degrees are purely about puffing up a minister’s ego to make them feel like they belong in the public square or helping them gain proper skills to be a “professional,” then Wells is right that DMin degrees need to go away. Ministers of the gospel will always feel marginalized and suffer as a part of their calling to follow Jesus. The foundation of one’s ministry should always be a theological calling, rather than anthropological concerns. If a DMin is purely about image and curating a better, more marketable self, rather than deepening one’s ministry in the nature of God, then DMin degrees are to be avoided.
Where Wells’ critique ends, however, Timothy Gombis’ recent critique begins. Gombis, a New Testament professor at Grand Rapids Seminary, recently wrote an award-winning book on ministry called Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry. Gombis’ thesis is that when Paul became a Christian, he did not simply change his beliefs about Jesus, he also changed his beliefs about ministry. Before Christ, Paul used the social weapons of manipulation, arrogance, and pride to sway people in his direction, as evident in the stoning of Stephen in Acts 8:1-3. Paul approves of coercion through violence to promote, in his opinion, faithfulness to God. After Christ, however, Paul offers a different vision: a way of humility, service, and weakness to call people to faithfulness to God through Christ. Paul gains a new imagination of resurrection power, realizing that it comes not through power and force, but cruciform weakness, in the same pattern of Jesus. Gombis offers Paul’s transformation as a vision for ministers today. Rather than ministers seeking influence, making an “impact” in their communities, or maintaining a certain image for the purpose of persuasion, Gombis argues for ministers to follow the way of weakness, vulnerability, and cruciformity. Gombis’ work offers a compelling argument that today’s ministers need to hear. In the process, Gombis takes a swipe at DMin degrees.
Gombis offers his critique in light of Philippians 3:4-6 where Paul explains that before Christ, he fervently pursued credentials to prove his authority. Paul had many credentials to boast about: circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee. These inherited and developed credentials offered a social standing of authority and influence. But after Christ, Paul realized that his identity was not based on his credentials, but in the truth that he is a sinner justified by Christ Jesus. The pursuit of credentials for social reputation was now of no value; the only value was pursuing Christ (Phil. 3:10). Yet, Gombis argues that often ministers fall right in line with pursuing human credentials in obtaining a DMin The hunger for prestige and the “image of competence” often drives ministers to seek this terminal degree. Evidence of this, according to Gombis, is in the expectation that many ministers have of being called “doctor” after obtaining the degree. Even seminaries can be at fault by marketing the DMin degree as a way to develop further skills as a minister. Gombis argues that the message is subtle: earn this degree and you will have more value as a minister. And many ministers buy that message seeking to build their image.
Like Wells, Gombis may overstate his case, but his criticism may be accurate. If a minister pursues the DMin to inflate their self-esteem, prove their authority, or enlarge their identity, a pause should ensue to check one’s motivation. There are occasions where a DMin opens academic doors that are locked before achieving the degree, similar to the Ph.D. Yet those opportunities can be few and far between. If a minister pursues this degree for academic stature, they may be left unfulfilled. This response is not to ignore the academic rigor associated with the DMin, but admittedly, the degree’s purpose is not intended for an academic career. While Gombis is right to point out the concerns about demanding a certain title, in light of Jesus’ comments (Mt. 23:7-12), I believe that caution applies to any leader with any degree.
Nevertheless, these criticisms raises the question: why should a minister pursue a DMin degree? Why should theological schools offer a degree program that provides further training for ministers beyond the basic master’s? Does the mere fact of offering such a degree (and encouraging ministers to pursue it) produce the temptation of a secular professionalization of ministry, self-elevation, and a desire for personal credentials? I believe there are valid reasons for offering and promoting the D.Min degree. One of those is missional leadership formation. Missional leadership formation is the intersection of leadership development and missional theology. It is the growth as a leader both in character and skills for the purpose of leading others to participate in the mission of God. The DMin degree is uniquely suited for this goal.
- Robert Clinton did significantly helpful work when he applied leadership emergence theory to spiritual leadership.Clinton argued that God works throughout our lifetime to develop us as leaders. This development happens in phases: sovereign foundations, inner-life growth, ministry maturing, life maturity, convergence, and afterglow. Each phase involves certain process items, or key events that God can use to continue our development. As a leader responds faithfully to the process items in their life through obedience, God continues to develop them. Clinton emphasizes that within the first three phases of leadership development, it is more about what God is doing in the leader. While in the final three phases, it is more about what God is doing through the leader. In other words, there is a trajectory in leadership development. Responding faithfully to God provides new and greater responsibilities down the road. While a leader’s path may be a winding one, through faithful engagement with the Lord in the various stages of life, God enlarges the ministry of the leader for His purposes, with the goal of the leader finishing well.
Clinton applied this leadership development template to various leaders within Scripture and noticed a disturbing trend. Most leaders in Scripture do not finish well. Whether it was being disqualified from leadership, limping toward the finish, or walking at the end, very few finish the race sprinting to the finish. Clinton gives several reasons based on his analysis why most leaders do not finish well: sexual misconduct, family dissension, abuse of power or money, but also, particularly, complacency. Leaders can begin to rest on their laurels, rely on the skills that they have already obtained, and stop growing. When this happens, they plateau and do not finish well. Clinton’s response to this problem is renewal: leaders need renewal if leaders are going to finish well. Clinton writes,
Apparently in western society the mid-thirties and early fortiess and mid-fiftiess are crucial times in which renewal is frequently needed in a leader’s life. Frequently during these critical periods discipline slacks, there is a tendency to plateau and rely on one’s past experience and skills, and a sense of confusion concerning achievement and new direction prevails. Unusual renewal experiences with God can overcome these tendencies and redirect a leader.
The DMin degree can be such a program that provides a renewal experience for a leader. Sometimes DMin students fit in the profile Clinton describes. When they arrive at the program, they can be tired, confused, and slacking in their discipline. The DMin can be a vehicle where a student can reconnect with God, reflect on one’s formation, sharpen one’s skills, re-build and expand one’s relational network, and deepen one’s theological framework. The DMin can be a season of encouragement for the purpose of helping a leader finish well. Still, if all the DMin does is grow and develop an individual as a leader – as noble and vital as this is – it remains incomplete. The DMin is still mere self-advancement, just maybe with a spiritual veneer. This is where missional theology comes in.
At its core, missional theology is an attempt to bring together a divide between missiology and ecclesiology. Spurred on by the thought of Lesslie Newbigin, missional theology seeks to view mission as an attribute of God rather than an activity of the church. God within His triune nature is a missionary God – a God who sends. The Father sends the Son. The Father and the Son sends the Spirit. Likewise, the Father, Son, and Spirit sends the church. The identity of the church is bound up within the very mission of the triune God. The church is a sent people, invited to participate in the redemption of a broken world. The church does not do this alone, rather the Spirit is active in the world doing the “prevenient” work of the Kingdom, going before the church, like it did in the book of Acts.
This missiological perspective elevates two key theological frameworks: the importance of the local church and the process of spiritual discernment. The church is the sign, foretaste, and instrument of the reign of God breaking into the world. It is through the local church that a broken world sees a sign pointing to the hope found in Jesus and receives a glimpse of the new heaven and new earth. It is also through the local church that God primarily works, as an instrument, to enact his reign in this world. But, the church requires spiritual discernment to live into this missional identity. The church is a community of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit is active in the world convicting people of sin and guiding the church into mission. As the church discerns the work of the Spirit, it is invited to participate in God’s redeeming work and purposes. Given these two perspectives, the primary context of theological education in learning, exploring, and experimenting shifts to the local church.
This emphasis on the local church is part of the argument that Robert Banks offers for a missional “model” to theological education. This model is more field-based, rather than classroom-based. It is not so much reflection on ministry, as reflection in ministry. The model involves hands-on partnership in ministry, where action and reflection are immediately connected. Students are not extracted from their context but encouraged, supported, and guided within their context. This model not only fits the biblical examples of ministry training (e.g., Lk. 10:1-20), but it provides an avenue for discerning participation in the mission of God. Students situated within their context are able to reflect on what God is doing and wants to do in their context. As they reflect, they act, then reflect and act again, receiving training, guidance, and mentoring all along the way. Students in this model are able to experiment in real-time. They do not simply read case-studies; they are the case-studies as they seek to discern the mission of God within their ministries. What kind of educational vehicle could allow students to participate in such a model? What kind of program would allow students to stay in their context, continue to work in ministry, but with a partnership? What kind of program could offer a missional theological framework, without allowing this framework simply to be a theory, but a reflective practice that is being worked out? The DMin degree is uniquely suited for such a process.
Students in DMin programs are full-time leaders in ministry contexts. But they step outside their contexts for guidance and missional formation for a brief moment and then they jump right back in to practice what they are learning. A DMin student’s primary field of research is not the seminary and the library, rather it becomes the local church. The student is formed through the local church as the student discerns participation in the mission of God through the program. George R. Hunsberger noticed this connection in a recent essay. He suggested that educating ministers only around ministry practices and pastoral identity is incomplete. Attention must be given to their context – their congregation, or better yet, their ecclesiology. DMin students are engaging in practical theology. They are taking pause to reflect on the current theology in practice occurring in their congregation. From a missional ecclesiological perspective, they are also taking pause to notice what God is up to within their context. DMin students are living case studies of contextual theology. They reflect on the “engagement between context and Scripture, past stories, and present challenges, currently practiced theologies and newly discerned commitments.” As students attend to these dynamics, they and their churches are changed in the process. As Hunsberger reminds, “The context of ministry has something to do with the meaning of ministry.” As the minister is developed as a missional leader who participates in communal discernment of how their congregation can join God in His mission, the leader is formed and the church lives into its sent identity.
Therefore, why should a seasoned leader in ministry pursue a DMin degree? Why should a seminary offer such a degree? Is this degree purely a way to “professionalize” ministry? Does this program tempt ministers to focus on self-advancement, garner social reputation, and curate a certain image – attitudes contrary to the way of the cross? It is possible that a DMin degree can contribute to these things. But a DMin degree also can be a significant moment of renewal for a minister who is stuck and for a church that has lost its way. The DMin can provide an avenue for ministers to reclaim their calling, deepen their leadership formation, and help their church recover God’s missional desire for the world. The DMin can offer a sort of “missional scaffolding” that prods and encourages the leader to partner with their church to discern God’s leading. In the process, the leader and their church experience transformation, or put another way, they experience missional leadership formation. When leaders have this kind of experience in a DMin program, the degree becomes not about self-advancement or building credentials, it becomes about finishing well by participating in God’s work of redemption, all for the sake of a broken world. That’s a degree worth pursuing.
 David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 113.
 Ibid., 13.
 David F. Wells, “The D-Min-ization of the Ministry,” in No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age (Chicago: Moody, 1992): 176-178.
 Ibid., 180.
 Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 2. Peterson decries this similar professionalization of ministry and argues for centering one’s ministry around three practices: prayer, reading Scripture, and offering spiritual direction.
 Timothy Gombis, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021). The book was chosen as Outreach Resources of the Year in Leadership (2021) and a finalist for Christianity Today Book Awards in the area of The Church and Pastoral Leadership (2022).
 Ibid., 19. Luke describes Paul as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” (Acts 9:1) and Paul describes himself as a “violent aggressor.” (1 Tim. 1:13)
 Ibid., 57. Thus, Paul would write, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:28).
 Ibid., 87-102.
 Ibid., 53.
 Gombis, 23.
 Gombis, 106-107.
 J. Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1988).
 Ibid., 43-47.
 Ibid., 46.
 Clinton, “Listen Up, Leaders!” Barnabas Publishers Reprint (1990): 2-3. Clinton claimed that fewer than 30% of leaders in Scripture finished well, based on the data that we have.
 Ibid., 6.
 For a recent description of Newbigin’s thought and development, see Michael W. Goheen and Timothy Sheridan, Becoming a Missionary Congregation: Lesslie Newbigin and Contemporary Church Movements (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2022).
 Lesslie Newbign, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 27.
 Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 19.
 Ibid., 59-60.
 Robert Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education: Exploring a Missional Alternative to Current Models (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 142-144. Banks described his model against four other models: classical (cognitive wisdom), vocational (cognitive discernment), dialectical (cognitive insight), and confessional (cognitive knowledge). The missional model is about cognitive obedience.
 George Hunsberger, “Missional Church and the Doctor of Ministry Degree,” Journal of Christian Ministry 5 (2013): 2-3.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 17.