Journal of Christian Ministry | 2024: Research as Discipleship: Spiritual Formation as the Reason for Professional Doctoral Studies

2024: Research as Discipleship: Spiritual Formation as the Reason for Professional Doctoral Studies

2024: Research as Discipleship: Spiritual Formation as the Reason for Professional Doctoral Studies

Research as Discipleship:
Spiritual Formation as the Reason for Professional Doctoral Studies

Lee Beach, PhD
Associate Professor of Christian Ministry
and Director of Ministry Formation
McMaster Divinity College


In my supervisory work with doctoral students I always ask them the first time we meet, “why are you doing a doctoral degree?” The answers I get are varied, although they are usually connected to things like, a desire to grow and develop as a leader, a sense of calling to the academy, a love for learning, a long held ambition to achieve a certain status or a response to the encouragement of a person (or persons) who have admonished them to pursue this particular educational path. Often it is a combination of these that new doctoral students offer as an answer to my enquiry about their motivation.

I probably ask this question of my doctoral students because it is the same question that was posed to me by my own doctoral supervisor very early in my relationship with him. I clearly remember sitting in Dr. Michael Knowles’s office on one of my first days as a PhD student. I was nervous and trying my best to present myself as someone who actually belonged there. After some pleasant small talk Dr. Knowles asked me the question, “why do you want to do a doctoral degree?” I had a sense that there was a right answer to the question that he was looking for me to provide, but I did not know for sure what it was.

I fumbled out some of the same answers as I listed earlier and after talking for longer than I should have I stopped and looked across the desk at Dr. Knowles. He nodded graciously then he said, “do you know why you should do a doctorate?” Now I knew for sure that he had a specific answer in mind and I had not hit on it with my previous ramblings. Rather than take a second futile attempt at answering the question I simply shook my head, stared back at him blankly and said, “no.” After a slight pause he said gently, “discipleship.” From there he went on to explain his vision of doctoral studies as being a part of our response to God and his working in our lives. He encouraged me to see my academic journey as a way to allow God’s work to go deep in my life, and to shape me more fully into the image of Christ. While there were certainly days in the process of earning my doctorate that I may have forgotten to put those words into practice, in the overall process they never left me, and they continue to inform my own philosophy of doctoral studies.

For some doctoral students the idea that research is an act of discipleship may be a surprise. For others it may be seen as part of the overall endeavor but not the reason for engaging in an advanced research project toward a professional doctorate. Usually there are other concerns driving the agenda. These concerns are generally perfectly legitimate and noble, but ultimately, I want to offer that the best way to view one’s work as a researcher within the scope of a professional doctorate in Christian ministry is that of discipleship. When we view our doctoral work primarily as an act of obedience to God’s prompting and thus a part of our co-operation with him in what he is doing in our lives to draw us closer to himself, it transforms our work and takes it in a different direction in terms of its importance to our lives. While it does not lose its intellectual and professional significance it gains a place in the deepest part of our lives as people who are seeking to faithfully follow Christ and know God because at its core we see our research, and all that it entails, as a way to respond to God’s relational intention toward us.

This has to come from a sense that God gives us tasks to do first and foremost not because he desperately needs us to do them for him but because he wants to draw us to himself. Whether it be ministry, parenting, volunteer projects or doctoral studies God’s primary purpose for us in all of them is to create opportunities for us to discover him more fully. Of course, the tasks matter too, but they are not the ultimate point. What he gives us to do is ultimately about who he is making us to be.

This requires that we embrace such a view and then pay attention to what God is saying to us in the midst of our engagement with the activities he invites us to participate in. Paying attention is the key, even in the midst of the regular day to day work of doing a doctorate. Ruth Haley Barton, in reflecting on Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in Exodus chapter three writes, “The practice of paying attention awakens us to what is extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. As we live our lives in humble response to the One who is calling to us out of the burning bush in our own lives, we discover that we are standing on holy ground more often than we think.”[i]

If we are going to take the spiritually formative aspect of doctoral work as the core of how we respond to the question, “why do a doctorate?” then there are at least three perspectives that are essential to that mindset. These are areas that are naturally built into doctoral work, the “ordinary” stuff of the calling, but also where we need to pay close attention to where God is in the midst of it all.

Christian Spirituality as a Responsive Spirituality

Christian spirituality is a response to what God has done and is doing in our lives and in the world around us. At its core Christian spirituality flows from the belief that God is inviting us to himself, inviting us to respond to his creational intention that we are made for intimacy with him, the one who created us.

This idea is founded on the creation accounts in Genesis chapters one and two. There we read that humankind are unique from the rest of creation because they are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). This implies a special relationship that is expressed as the original couple is given the task of working with God in taking care of and cultivating the good world into which they have been born (Gen. 1:28 – 30).

Further, Genesis chapter two offers the dramatic vision of God breathing his breath into the nostrils of the first man in order to give him life (Gen 2:7). This portrait of God literally sharing his life with the original human as the way that God brings him to life is not a small detail in the Biblical text. It is a vision of God’s intention for the relationship between human beings and himself. It is a vision of intimacy where God acts to bring life to the ones he has created in his own image with a view toward a reciprocal, intimate relationship.[ii] Of course as the text unfolds it is clear that the humans must respond to this arrangement in order to make it work. Genesis chapter three and what is often called the fall of humanity makes clear that the original couple have agency and can choose not to cooperate with the way creation is supposed to work. However, in these seminal chapters the foundation for Christian spirituality is laid as it becomes clear that God has acted in life giving ways toward humanity and is inviting them (us) to respond.

This vision is augmented throughout scripture; God acts toward his creation and invites a response. Perhaps this is no more clear than in the incarnation, where God comes to his people in human form. Again, this is a paradigm for thinking about Christian spirituality. God acts, moving toward us as his created beings and ours is to respond to that activity. This seems to be a core proposition in Biblical faith.

If this is the case, then what we choose to do in our lives in one way or another is a response to God. For the Christian doctoral student, and for those who supervise such students, this perspective should define their academic pursuits. It offers to us the idea that first and foremost our work as researchers is one of the ways that we are engaging with God relationally and as a result, our academic work is a way for us to grow in our knowledge and experience of him. This not only invites us to look at the tasks of research and writing as discrete spiritual disciplines in and of themselves, but it can also liberate us from the fear of failure or under achievement. This is because it calls us to understand that all of our experiences as a researcher in the church is usable by God in our ongoing formation and relational growth with him.

This may not mean that it doesn’t sting when our work is critiqued and seen as needing some major revisions, but it does keep us grounded in the idea that even our setbacks are fertile ground for ongoing spiritual formation. The work has a higher purpose than personal achievement, professional development or even making a new contribution to an ongoing discussion. It is a part of our ongoing response to God and this is more significant than anything else we may achieve. When we are called to invest ourselves in higher education it is just a continuation of our own spiritual journey, our ongoing desire to respond to God’s work in our lives, just in a particular way that involves the academic system as our discipler.

Christian Spirituality as an Earthy Spirituality

A genuine Christian spirituality is inextricably tied to life in this world. The goal of Christian spirituality is not to lead us to some kind of ethereal experience that enables us to transcend the realities of life in this world (although certainly some specific spiritual experiences may lead to that for a period of time). Rather, it is a spirituality designed to help us engage more fully and wholly with the world and participate in God’s work in it. Christian spirituality is ultimately not about removal from the world but rather a deeper connection to it. As Bradley Holt notes in his book Thirsty for God, one of the essential features of biblical spirituality is “integrating one’s life in the world with one’s relationship to God.” [iii] This means that all aspects of our lives are part of our response to the possibilities that God has for us in terms of our growth in our relationship with him and our participation in the outworking of his purposes for us.

Biblically, relationship with God is almost always depicted as being deeply connected to life in this world. The story of ancient Israel is a story about a group of people journeying over the real terrain of a dessert before embarking on establishing themselves in a piece of land and building a community that was designed to function together as a sign and witness to the reality of Yahweh as the true, living God. The incarnation is a story of God becoming “earthed” and living among us (Jn. 1:14). Jesus’ teachings are directed toward the realities of life in this world and how life can be best lived in all of its various circumstances. Paul’s teachings always move toward the practice of the faith, addressing the particular issues that his churches, and the people who populated them are facing as they seek to live out their Christian faith appropriately.

In each of these paradigms, being in relationship with God is deeply rooted in life in this world. Thus, it is safe to say that the work that we engage in, the work that God gives us to do in this world, is always connected to his work in this world. What we do in this world is the stuff of discipleship. It is what God uses to cultivate a deeper intimacy with us. This means that the joys and disappointments, the victories and challenges of doing doctoral research is part of what God is using to disciple us in Christ and bring us to a deeper awareness of him and his presence in our lives.

This can be a very encouraging perspective when we are slogging through a particularly challenging patch in our doctoral journey, but it is also central to our very being as people who are serious about their Christian discipleship. Doctoral studies are part of it. They are not something apart from our very being but something that is important to our spiritual growth as we see our studies as part of our connection to the world and thus, part of what God is using to form us.

In some Christian traditions there can be a form of dualism that rears its head on a consistent basis. That is, a belief that some activities are more spiritual than others, some things we do are overtly “spiritual” while others are more “secular.” While there is room for discussion on this point, and it may well be the case that some things we do are more overtly designed to help us engage with God than other things, it is a false dichotomy when we become too narrow in trying to categorize what is spiritual and what is secular. We may agree wholeheartedly that prayer is a spiritual activity but wonder if reading a book on an obscure topic that we need to understand more clearly in order to write our dissertation can qualify as a spiritual activity in the same way.

Without entering into the finer details of that question, the larger picture for us to consider is that if our doctoral work is a response to God’s work in our lives, then perhaps both activities are deeply spiritual because they are a faithful response to God’s prompting. This is why encountering God in our studies is just as plausible as encountering him in our prayer closet. Christian spirituality is earthed, it works itself out in the relationships and activities of daily life, and this includes the academic work that we feel called to engage in.

Doctoral Studies as Discipleship: Practices

Spiritual formation does not just happen, it takes intentionality on our part. It generally takes some practices that we decide to engage in as ways for us to open ourselves up to God and receive his grace in our lives. As we know, we cannot produce spiritual transformation ourselves, it is God’s work but as Haley-Barton notes, “what I can do is create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place, by developing and maintaining a rhythm of spiritual practices that keep me open and available to God.”[iv] Of course there is much that can be said about the need to practice a variety of traditional spiritual disciplines on a regular basis in order to grow in our faith but for the doctoral student some of the main disciplines of academic life also provide vehicles for spiritual growth. Engaging in the rigors of advanced degree studies provides us with a range of activities that God can use to shape us if we are willing to adopt some mindsets that enable us to see how some of these built in activities can function as spiritual disciplines if we choose to embrace them as such.

1. The Disciplines of Research, Reflection and Writing

Eugene Peterson in his classic book on pastoral ministry, Working the Angles uses a metaphor from trigonometry as a way to help ministers understand how their inner lives are what shape their ministry and determine its trajectory. He uses a triangle as a specific example. When we look at a triangle we see three lines. That is what is visible. But the shape of the triangle is determined by the angles, or axis points. Setting the angles is what gives the triangle its shape. The lines are what is seen, but the angles determine the dimensions.

Using this analogy Peterson says that in pastoral ministry what is seen, the lines of the triangle if you will, are the public functions of ministry, preaching, teaching and administration. This is what is visible to people when they observe the pastor at work. However, Peterson offers that the angles of ministry, those things that set the trajectory are less visibly obvious, but they determine the quality of ministry practice. These are the disciplines of scripture, prayer and spiritual direction. These disciplines form the minister and influence how the more outward work of ministry will be directed. It is the angles that set the shape of the triangle and make it what it is.[v]

This metaphor can also be applied to doctoral work as it pertains to spiritual formation. There are outward signs that depict tangible progress in a doctoral program, these include things like taking classes, finishing chapter drafts of your dissertation, graduation. These all signify that we are hard at work and moving toward completion of our program. But, as any doctoral student knows these are hardly the real work of doctoral studies. The majority of our time is spent in research, reflection on that research and writing up our findings. These are the disciplines of doctoral work, they are the angles that set the trajectory for the outward signs of progress and accomplishment, and each one of them provides a built-in opportunity for discipleship.

The academic disciplines of research, reflection and writing are the basic work that we undertake when we engage in doctoral work. They are the necessary activities for the endeavor and each one, in the context of a theologically oriented doctorate, naturally has a deeply spiritual component to it. Research causes us to learn more about any number of things; the church, the gospel, God, Jesus, the human condition, the Bible, prayer and so on depending on our topic. This knowledge can be a foundation to new spiritual growth especially for those of us who have a bent toward intellectual stimulation and a desire to acquire new knowledge on a regular basis. For people like this, and it is probably safe to say that most doctoral students fit this category in one way or another, gaining new knowledge is part of how we grow spiritually. Thus, the discipline of study is crucial to our ongoing spiritual formation and doctoral work provides us with an opportunity to research and gain new knowledge that can lead to personal transformation as well as an original dissertation.

Reflection on our research likewise offers the possibility for new insights that can be of benefit not only to others but first to ourselves as we digest the possibilities for new ways of thinking about God and his purposes in this world that emerge from our research. It is in the discipline of theological reflection that our new knowledge actually can be transformed into fresh insight that excites our own soul before we offer it to the world in the hope that it sxcites others as well. Writing provides the opportunity for even deeper reflection and clarification of our thinking. Writing hones our thinking and helps to provide clarity that can lead to soul enriching experience. As we write we capture our thinking and express it in a way that makes sense to us and as a result it can be an act of deep spiritual reflection as it makes its way into a form that is deemed adequate for a doctoral degree.

The very work of research, reflection and writing contain the potential for spiritual formation every bit as much as do other spiritual disciplines if we are willing to see and treat them that way. As we do our doctoral work acts as a mode of discipleship that God will use as part of our ongoing formation as disciples of Christ.

2. The Discipline of Servanthood

The concept of servanthood, or that of being a servant leader, has become foundational to Christian identity. It is hard to imagine that any serious Christian would say something like, “I’m not interested in being a servant,” or “I’m not a servant leader.” Any statement like those would demand some kind of explanation to clarify what is meant by it. This commitment to servanthood is of course conditioned by biblical teaching and the words of Jesus who makes it plain that servanthood is a central mark of discipleship (Mark 10, John 13). The clarity of this teaching affects every area of a Christ followers life, including any academic pursuits they may undertake.

The call to doctoral studies is a call to servanthood. It calls us to give ourselves over to others, using our efforts and gifts as a researcher to serve the greater good of the church and society. This kind of orientation to our academic work takes our work and transforms it into an act of spiritual expression that can be just as profound as any other act of service that we may engage in for the sake of others. Further, a conscious commitment to servanthood demands that we submit ourselves to others and the greater good of our community. This is intrinsic to Christian discipleship, and engaging in the work of a doctoral program, as well as taking the opportunities that are offered to us to put our research to use, invites us to see ourselves as someone who is working on behalf of others for the benefit of their lives. This kind of orientation to our doctoral work will produce humility and dependence on God which will produce its fruit in our lives as we seek to cultivate a life of discipleship in concert with our academic pursuits.

Dallas Willard points out that it is entirely possible to serve others as a matter of course, as an act of love and righteousness that is an outflow of our lives without conscious regard as to how it may enhance one’s ability to follow Christ. This is certainly appropriate and is reflective of how a Christian life should be lived on a day-to-day basis. However service can also be an intentional discipline that we adopt into our lives at specific times that can “train us away from arrogance, possessiveness, envy, resentment, or covetousness.”[vi] Doctoral work will definitely provide the possibility of temptation to all of these things, but seeing our academic pursuits as an act of service helps us to lay aside these potentially corrosive attitudes and see our work as an attempt to sincerely enhance the lives of others as opposed to it being a way to fulfill our own personal ambitions or need for affirmation. Ambition and affirmation are not bad things in and of themselves, but pursuing them, consciously or unconsciously as the driving force behind our desire to get a doctorate will most likely not be in keeping with God’s best intentions for us, nor will it bring about the kind of meaningful spiritual development that God desires to cultivate in our lives as a result of our academic studies.

This discipline of service, as it is expressed by cultivating an attitude toward our research and engagement with the church and society by offering our academic work as an act of service consistently calls us to surrender ourselves and follow the patterns of Christ, which then forms us more fully into his image.

3. The Discipline of Endurance

The truth is that doctorates don’t necessarily go to the smartest people, they go to the people who persevere. That does not mean that you don’t need to have some reasonable amount of intellectual ability to earn a doctoral degree but in the end if a doctoral student lacks the ability to endure the inevitable struggles and setbacks that are part of doing a doctoral program it doesn’t matter how smart they are they won’t make it. Doctorates go to people who refuse to give up as much, if not more than they go to people who are exceptionally smart.

In my own doctoral program one of the requirements was learning a modern research language. For various reasons I chose French. Learning French was a struggle for me, I studied and memorized for hours on end but found it hard to master the language in even a very basic way. The first time I took the exam to fulfill the requirement of the doctoral program I was in, I failed miserably. That was tough. I just wanted to get it done and move on. Instead, I had to keep studying in order for me to retake the exam and hopefully pass it this time. I put in a number more months of painstaking study and took the exam again. I passed, but I think it was largely because the adjudicator had mercy on me and let a subpar attempt qualify as a semi-successful example of French translation. Then, in the proposal stage of my program, where I was writing the proposal for my dissertation, it took me six attempts to get it to the place where my supervisors were willing to present it to faculty for approval.

This was almost a full academic year’s work, filled with frustrations and discouragement. But… I made it. I persevered, I endured. And, as a result, the eternal truth that struggle has formative power in our lives proved to indeed, be true. As I struggled, I had to look deep into my motivations for doing doctoral studies, my own propensity for allowing myself to get so busy that I could not do justice to all the things I had said “yes” to and my own insecurities around personal failure. My doctoral studies were unearthing things in my life that I needed to pay attention to and this was only because I persevered in them and as a result the academic journey turned into a profoundly formative journey whether that was what I signed up for or not.

This is the real possibility of doctoral studies: they will bring you face to face with your own dark side, neurosis, past hurts, family dysfunction, failures, doubts and lack of faith. In those times we choose to either explore the struggle that we find ourselves in or try and ignore it. In many ways this is crux of discipleship and God’s transformative work in our lives. We face challenges and we have to decide whether we will deny what they may teach us about ourselves, whether we will just bury them and ignore any potential pain they may force us to deal with in the hope that they will go away, or we decide to face them honestly and allow them to help us grow in faith and overall spiritual and personal health.

It is almost inevitable that a doctoral program will provide us with times of struggle. These struggles will often point to things in our lives that need transformation. As we adopt a mindset that this is in fact a central purpose that God has for us in our doctoral studies, we are able to work our way through them in a spiritually formative way that makes all the difference in our academic experience and in our lives as disciples of Christ. This may require us to walk though a season of spiritual darkness. It may mean that we have to engage with a good counselor or spiritual director. At the least it will cause us to wrestle with God and ourselves as we deal with the things that are being unearthed as a result of our academic challenges. Through all of it, if we persevere, endurance will pay dividends and not only will it lead us to doing better doctoral work but it will also lead to a more mature relationship with.


While doctoral studies may seem heady, detached from day-to-day realities and even somewhat elitist, because they are part of God’s calling on our lives and intrinsically connected to our participation with his work in this world they are inevitably connected to our own spirituality. The academic work that we do, if we are willing to see it this way, is key to our lives and formation as disciples of Christ. As we are willing to embrace such a perspective and give ourselves to our research pursuits and the dissemination of our research as an act of spiritual formation, then through these activities Christ will be formed in us, and he will also be formed in the people that our work is designed to serve.

[1] Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Intervarsity, 2008), 70.

[2] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997), 76. Also, Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 122-23.

[3] Bradley Holt, Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 3.

[4] Ruth Haley-Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Intervarsity, 2006), 12.

[5] Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 4-5.

[6] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1988), 182.