Journal of Christian Ministry | 2024: The Professional Doctorate: A Call to Rigor

2024: The Professional Doctorate: A Call to Rigor

2024: The Professional Doctorate: A Call to Rigor

The Professional Doctorate
A Call to Rigor

Tim Sensing, PhD
Associate Dean and Professor of Homiletics
Abilene Christian University


Consider this scenario: a lecture hall filled with PhDs in biology, physiology, toxicology, epidemiology, and a host of other related healthcare sciences. They have come to hear the lecture by the practitioner, the person with a professional doctorate in the field, the MD. No one in the room will discount, dismiss, or disrespect the medical doctor’s credentials to speak. You do not even have to ask the question “Why?” We know why. We know that the pathway to earning a professional doctorate in the medical field is a long and rigorous journey. And rightly so, because everyone reading this paper entrusts themselves to the medical professional’s care.

The professional doctorate, depending on the field, has varying degrees of respect. The range across the board resembles the value of chess pieces. No one doubts the value of a pawn, but no one confuses the pawn with the queen. Likewise, at any given dinner party, the Doctor of Pharmacy, the Doctor of Occupational Health, the Doctor of Education, and so forth, are all in the room with, let’s say, a Doctor of Ministry. All attend the dinner party with professional doctorates. There is a recognized general standing associated with the title “Dr.” that applies, indicating a certain level of prestige or esteem. Where does the DMin degree stand?

It is important to note that the professional doctorate (e.g., Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Psychology, Doctor of Education, etc.) differs from the traditional PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in terms of objectives and career paths. Professional doctorates are designed to prepare students for advanced practice and expertise in specific professional fields, evidenced by the rigorous requirements across various disciplines.

For example, the Doctor of Nursing Practice at John Hopkins University School of Nursing requires extensive advanced coursework and 1,000 clinical hours. The Doctor of Nursing Practice must demonstrate their competency by upholding the stringent published standards of The National League for Nursing. The Doctor of Psychology program at the University of Denver involves completing empirical dissertations advancing the field. The Doctor of Pharmacy at the University of Michigan expects graduates to produce peer-reviewed journal articles. The Doctor of Ministry at Fuller Seminary has qualifying exams assessing biblical knowledge on par with a PhD in theology.

When examining the DMin degree, it can be likened to the Doctorate in Education (EdD) in terms of its rigor. Specific examples of rigorous EdD programs include the following:

  1. Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership – Vanderbilt University:
  • Requires GRE scores in at least the 60th percentile, 3.5 GPA, education research experience, leadership essays.
  • Rigorous coursework in quantitative methods, organizational theory, finance, evidence-based leadership.
  • Qualifying portfolio and oral exam assessing leadership competencies.
  • Original quantitative dissertation advancing educational practice.
  1. Doctor of Education (EdD) in Curriculum and Instruction – Boston University:
  • Highly competitive admissions with only 15% acceptance rate.
  • Immersive curriculum including qualitative/quantitative methods, curriculum theory, assessment, and social justice.
  • Comprehensive written qualifying exam.
  • Dissertation involving large-scale research study with robust data collection and analysis.
  1. Doctor of Education (EdD) in Higher Education – University of Pennsylvania:
  • Rigorous oral qualifying exam testing expert-level knowledge.
  • Publishable dissertation advancing original knowledge in the field.

Just as EdD programs exhibit diversity, so too do DMin programs. The assortment of options enriches the broader church and its ministries by accommodating different needs and situations. However, with diversity comes the risk of diluted quality. The overarching unity found in the academic standards must bind these diverse expressions together in a shared vision of furthering Christ’s mission through ministerial scholarship and practice at the highest levels of academic rigor.

The Doctor of Ministry Standards

Many years ago at an ADME annual meeting, a representative from ATS came to listen to participants’ concerns. I remember well a conversation that went along these lines:

 “The standards say that a student must be three years post MDiv before being accepted into the DMin program.,” one attendee stated. “Many long-serving pastors with decades of experience are returning for their MDiv and now we say they must wait three more years? Their experience is significantly more than a twenty-something student who has a more privileged path.”

The ATS representative responded with a well-reasoned position, “If the MDiv means anything, then the three-year post MDiv experience is different than the previous decades of service.”

“Okay!” The DMin director from responded. “Then why does not ATS hold [unnamed seminary] DMin’s program accountable. [That school] violates the standard with every cohort. Students are allowed in without the three-year waiting period.”

And the ATS representative responded with the reality many are familiar with: “[That school] is big enough that it can do whatever it wants.”

But then the ATS representative went on to speak the gospel of accreditation. “You are the member schools of ATS. It is the membership that writes and controls the standards. If you discern to change the rules for this noble purpose, like for the population of ministers your school so wonderfully serves, then do it.”

And in 2020, we did it. The membership of ATS changed the standards.

When writing the second edition of Qualitative Research: A Multi-Methods Approach to Doctor of Ministry Dissertations, I was also an academic dean and member of the Academic Officer’s Advisory Committee for the Chief Academic Officers Society (CAOS). I closely monitored the development of the accreditation Standards as they related to the DMin degree. The new Standards focused on “principles of quality” rather than strict rules for measuring compliance. The Standards provide program guidelines for location, parameters, credit hours, and the need for a culminating capstone project but allowed for flexibility in the implementation. Various programs will apply the “principles of quality” in diverse ways depending on their tradition, context, and mission.

The new standards for the DMin degree require that projects are public and useable by making a professional contribution to the church. Standard 5.1 states, “The Doctor of Ministry is an advanced, professionally oriented degree that prepares people more deeply for religious leadership in congregations and other settings, including appropriate teaching roles.” Standard 5.3 defines the outcomes for the DMin degree.

The Doctor of Ministry degree has clearly articulated student learning outcomes that are consistent with the school’s mission and resources and address the following four areas: (a) advanced theological integration that helps graduates effectively engage their cultural context with theological acumen and critical thinking; (b) in-depth contextual competency that gives graduates the ability to identify, frame, and respond to crucial ministry issues; (c) leadership capacity that equips graduates to enhance their effectiveness as ministry leaders in their chosen settings; and (d) personal and spiritual maturity that enables graduates to reinvigorate and deepen their vocational calling.

The four ATS Student Learning Outcomes enhance professional expertise. 5.5 continues by again emphasizing the rigor needed using the words “advanced” and “significant.” “The Doctor of Ministry degree is an advanced professional doctorate that builds upon an accredited master’s degree in a ministry-related area and upon significant ministry experience.”

The research seminar is designed to integrate the competencies developed in the DMin curriculum and to fashion a project appropriate for the student’s particular ministry setting. All four student learning outcomes (or similar wording) listed in 5.3 are essential for shaping the competencies of the project and dissertation. The primary assignment in the seminar is for students to write the prospectus for their dissertation. Again, Standards 5.4 states, “The degree culminates with a written project that explores an area of ministry related to the student’s vocational calling, utilizes appropriate research methodologies and resources, and generates new knowledge regarding the practice of ministry.”

I appreciated 99 percent of what was adopted. However, my one percent of dissatisfaction pertained to the culminating DMin project. In the early pages of Qualitative Research, I addressed the adoption of the new standards in the summer of 2020 and how these changes affect the DMin degree. Let me illustrate with what is for many a trivial semantic detail. In the first edition, I chose not to use the word “dissertation” but continued to embrace the word “thesis.” The change in the Standards has prompted my conversion. In the first edition I stated, “The term dissertation will not be used because it has a connotation of expanding the fund of knowledge. The project thesis is for the solving of a problem in ministry, theological reflection, and personal growth.” However, I now see the situation differently. If practical theology is a constructive theological action, then DMin projects will also “expand the fund of knowledge” and, therefore, meet the definition of “dissertation.”[1] My conversion on this semantic detail opened the door to how I evaluated the nature of the professional doctorate within the Standards.

While the DMin Standards describes the DMin degree as a professional doctorate (Standard 5.5), compared to the PhD that is categorized as a research doctorate (Standard 5.14), Standard 5.7 softens the requirements for the DMin degree by distinguishing it from other professional doctorates. 5.7 reads, “Other professionally oriented doctoral degrees (besides the Doctor of Ministry) prepare people more deeply for religious leadership or other kinds of service in a variety of settings, such as education and intercultural studies. These doctoral degrees require a minimum of 36 semester credits or equivalent units.”

Did you read that? 5.7 introduces a subtle yet critical distinction. “Other professionally oriented doctoral degrees” with a parenthetical qualifier “(besides the Doctor of Ministry)” sends a clear signal. Additionally, Standard 5.4 does not use the word “thesis” or “dissertation” for the DMin degree but instead says “written project.” “Written project” is a common term used by some ATS member schools to describe their DMin “capstone,” whereas “thesis” is used for a master’s project and “dissertation” is used for all other research doctoral degrees. In referencing other professional doctorates in contrast to the DMin (5.7 noted above), the standards read:

5.9 These professional doctoral degrees have clearly articulated student learning outcomes that are consistent with the school’s mission and resources. The outcomes focus on the degree discipline in areas related to advanced understandings of, and competencies in, appropriate theological disciplines, behavioral sciences, social sciences, research methodologies, and the integration of those areas in a well-designed doctoral dissertation, written project, culminating report on field-based research, or other summative exercises. If any courses in this degree are shared with other degrees, doctoral-level outcomes and assignments specific to students in this professional degree are made clear.

Master’s degrees have theses. Other professional doctorates have the possibility of a dissertation (although even then less rigorous options are available), but the DMin has only a “written project.” Yes, a particular program can name the written project “thesis” or “dissertation,” but the chance of a “lowest common denominator” is now more possible than before. In a world of competition between DMin programs and the dwindling number of students, I know of one program that recruits based on the ease of achieving a doctorate at their school compared to others. Upon investigation, the school bases the claim on lessening the requirements for MDiv equivalency and their culminating “written project.” The absence in the Standards to describe the final written project as a “dissertation” or even a “thesis”, opens the door for less rigorous academic practices.

At ACU, we have considered changing the name of the degree to a Doctorate in Practical Theology.[2] If you look under our hood, we esteem what we are doing at ACU as already having that equivalence. We have considered the name change mainly because of the marketplace. When students consider our degree and the various DMin degrees across the country, we do not compete for various reasons. And we do not want to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but in the marketplace, the factor that causes us to lose some students that troubles me (and also you as a member of the guild) is when the student says, “Such and So Seminary doesn’t require all that in order to get their degree.” And I want to ask, “Why would you want a watered-down degree? Why would you settle for less?”

The Standards provide the minimum requirements for our schools. But, as the Apostle Paul says, there is no law against the Spirit. So, I issue a call to higher standards. We are all free to have something more noble, rigorous, and meaningful than what the standards say are the minimum requirements. No one is keeping us from crafting the finest and highest quality DMin program in the country. Only our own policies, procedures, and marketing plans delimit us. Because of the students entrusted to our care, and the ones who will be entrusted to their care, we have a sacred obligation to uphold the highest and most rigorous pathway to the professional doctorate in ministry.

[1] I recognize that other international institutions use the terminology of “dissertation” and “thesis” differently.

[2] Consider the British model. Zoē Bennett, and Elaine Graham, “The Professional Doctorate in Practical Theology: Developing the Researching Professional in Practical Theology in Higher Education.” Journal of Adult Theological Education 5.1 (2008) 33–51. Elaine Graham, “The Professional Doctorate in Practical Theology: An Ideal Whose Time Has Come?” International Journal of Practical Theology 10 (2006) 298–311. Elaine Graham and David Llewellyn, “Promoting the Good: Ethical and Methodological Considerations in Practical Theological Research.”In Qualitative Research in Theological Education: Pedagogy in Practice, edited by Mary Clark Moschella and Susan Willhauck, 39–59. London: SCM, 2018.