6 Reasons I am Pursuing a Ph.D... "even though" I am a missionary

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

New College, University of Edinburgh (Photo: Kim Traynor)
As some readers of this blog may already be aware, our family is planning to move to Scotland for a few years so I can work on a Ph.D at the University of Edinburgh.  As we’ve been visiting churches and mission partners in the States, a number of people have asked me why I'm going to do a Ph.D. That's an excellent question.
For most missionaries, a doctorate really isn't necessary. They plant churches.  They do direct evangelism.  They work with street kids.  This is all important work and it is really helpful to have some kind of bible college or seminary degree for greatest effectiveness (why?), but probably not a doctorate.  So why am I going for a Ph.D?
In this post, I want to answer that question by briefly laying out six reasons that are motivating my pursuit of doctoral studies.  It is my hope that readers in general will understand why Ph.D studies might be right for some missionaries, and that our mission partners in particular will understand why I personally am pursing a Ph.D.  At the end of the post, you’ll find a curated list of some helpful articles by myself and others about the relationship between theological education and mission work.

1. Improve My Teaching

Over the past four years or so, I’ve been teaching church history at Bangkok Bible Seminary and have been encouraged at the changes I’ve seen in students’ thinking.  They have been encouraged, challenged, and inspired by what they’ve been learning as they get equipped to serve God and His Church.  But as I’ve been teaching, I’ve noticed gaps in my knowledge.  There are things that I’d like to teach my students, and connections I’d like to find, but I have not yet found those things in the books that I have available to me.  I want to study for a Ph.D in order to fill in some of those gaps and to improve my teaching.  I want to be more able to answer student questions and guide their own learning and discovery.  In short, I want to be able to benefit my students as much as possible, and the research involved in a Ph.D will help me to do that.

2. Enhance My Writing

I started blogging somewhat regularly in 2009 when I was in a difficult church planting situation and saw various troublesome issues, but had few people to talk to.  Over the years, I have seen the readership and breadth of content on my blog expand, and have started a Thai blog as well.  I have additionally self-published a few short books on Amazon and have had some articles formally published in Christian magazines and websites (list of publications).  I’ve received much positive feedback from missionaries, Thai Christians, and mission partners on the homeside, saying that my writing has been helpful to them.  The study involved in dissertation research will expand the scope of knowledge which I can draw from in writing, and thus hopefully be a benefit to the missionary community, Thai Christians, and those interested in global missions.

3. Contribute to Our Understanding of Thai Church History

The goal of a Ph.D dissertation is to present to the world something that has never been done before, to contribute something new to the scope of human knowledge.  After all, if someone has already researched and written something on a particular topic, why spend two to three years reinventing the wheel?

As I have taught Thai church history over the past four years or so, I’ve never found a good answer to how theological modernism impacted missions in Thailand during the first part of the twentieth century.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy was ripping apart the church in the U.S. and elsewhere, splitting entire denominations into liberal and evangelical camps.  Numerous people have written on the impact of theological liberalism upon missionaries in China during this period, but I have yet to see anything about how it affected the missionaries in Thailand.   The American Presbyterian church was neck-deep in conflict over theological modernism and the vast majority of missionaries in Thailand until after World War 2 were American Presbyterians.  There had to be some effect.  But what was it?  How did this conflict on the homeside affect the missionaries in Thailand?   How did theological change of a modernist variety affect the missionaries’ ministry priorities? relationships with each other? relationship with Thai believers?  missionary attrition? What is the long-term impact upon an evangelical mission when unorthodox theological ideas are given room to flourish?  These are some of the the questions I want to find out by digging into old books, letters, journals, reports, and articles from the late 19th century up through the start of World War 2.   I hope that what I discover will help both Thai Christians and missionaries to Thailand to better understand some of the influences that have shaped the modern mission and church landscape in Thailand.   Beyond Thailand, I hope that my research will contribute to what we know about the global impact of modernist and fundamentalist movements in the first half of the twentieth century.

The official title of my proposed dissertation topic is “Modernism in the American Presbyterian Mission in Siam, 1893-1941."

4. Maximal Opportunities for Ministry

Although it is obviously more important what you know than what letters you have in front of your name, it is also true that having a Ph.D from a recognized university lends a certain amount of credibility and legitimacy to teaching, writing, and public speaking.   Having a doctorate can open doors, create opportunities, and gain an audience in certain situations.  And since I want to make an impact in the areas of teaching, writing, and preaching/public speaking, it certainly can’t hurt to have have a Ph.D as part of my profile.

I know that for more egalitarian Western societies, some people could care less whether someone has a degree or any formal credentials.  However, I expect to spend most of my time in Asia where it most certainly does matter.

5. More Options in Training Leaders

I currently have a Master of Divinity (M.Div) and a Master of Theology (Th.M), which qualifies me to teach both bachelor and masters level students.  I could keep doing what I am currently doing in Thailand without a Ph.D.   But if I have a Ph.D, I would additionally be able to teach Th.M or doctoral level courses, and supervise Ph.D students.  The seminary where I currently teach tops out at the Masters level, but is part of a consortium of seminaries in Asia which offers Th.M and doctoral programs.  If the opportunity arises to teach, mentor, or supervise church leaders from Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries through this consortium or in some other forum, having a Ph.D would give me that option.  One of my goals in teaching seminary students in Thailand is to look for keen, godly students who have the potential to be future seminary and bible college teachers, and to encourage and mentor them in that direction.  In the long term, the Thai church needs Thai seminary instructors more than it needs missionary seminary instructors, so I want help that happen.  Having a Ph.D would enable me to be involved in this aspect of developing leaders for the church in Thailand and elsewhere. 

6. The Seminary Where I Teach Wants Me to Get a Ph.D

The seminary in Bangkok where I’ve been teaching would love to have me teach there of the long-term, which I would love to do.  To that end, the director has strongly encouraged me to get a Ph.D.  As an academic institution and a ministerial training school, the seminary has a vested interest in improving the credentials and quality of their faculty.  As such, they’d like me to get further training so that I can improve my on-going contribution to the school and its students.

Our family’s plan is to move to Scotland in September 2017 for me to begin a three year Ph.D program in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh.  During the second year of study, we expect to be back in Thailand for about 3 to 6 months for me to do research.  After that, we’ll be back in Scotland to do the write-up and complete the dissertation by June 2020, Lord willing.  Then we’ll return to Thailand to continue with seminary teaching and church planting, as we’ve been doing for the past four years or so.  That’s the plan at least, put together with much thought, prayer, and consultation with others.  Time will tell whether our plan matches the path that God has for us.  As Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
I intend to keep blogging more or less regularly while doing the Ph.D, sharing some of the nuggets of inspiration and challenge that I learn along the way. Watch this space. 

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