Why I Want to Pursue a PhD as a Woman Pastor

Becky Castle Miller

Ten-years-ago me didn’t even want to get a master’s degree. Undergrad was enough. I was still trying to forget the sleep deprivation and homework load. Five-years-ago me started to realize she needed a master’s. A seminary degree would be necessary to pursue a calling to become a pastor and to gain the biblical studies skills to write books for the church. Two-years-ago me was nearing the end of that master’s—putting up with plenty of all-nighters for paper writing—and was starting to get an inkling that a PhD was an inevitability for both scholarship and ministry goals.

So here I am, still catching up on sleep lost to my thesis, studying Greek and German and GRE-prep books and looking at doctoral programs.

I don’t want to be a professor or write academic monographs. I want to pastor people and serve the most vulnerable in the church. So why am I looking to sign up for six more years of school?

Gaining research skills

Before I started my master’s at Northern Seminary, I was trying to write a book about Jesus’s emotions. I devoured the Gospels, examining all of Jesus’s emotional expressions and trying to figure out how the church today had taken such an anti-emotional turn. I realized I did not know how to study the Bible at an academic level. I didn’t know how to evalutate sources or understand how one author fit into the broader swaths of interpretation history. I couldn’t understand the contexts the various books of the Bible were written into, much less understand how to apply them to my context today.

Studying at Northern taught me some of those skills. I learned which sources to use and how to use them. I wrote my thesis on Jesus’s emotions contrasted with teaching on emotion in the American church over the past 70 years. Now I’m finally able to write the book I set out to research five years ago.

Gaining further knowledge

Most importantly, my time at Northern taught me how much I don’t know. In some ways, I feel like I know less now than I did before seminary. Exposure to the sheer volume of knowledge out there has shown me how little knowledge I have attained. A master’s was just a sniff of the complexity of aromas in the Scotch glass of biblical scholarship. Rather than slaking my thirst for understanding, my degree left me craving more. I want to know more and deeper and learn in ways that I can’t accomplish by reading books on my own. I want an advisor to guide me.

Gaining language skills

The MANT at Northern isn’t specifically a PhD prep degree, so it doesn’t have a strong biblical languages component. I took a few small group seminars with Scot to learn Greek basics. I progressed to the point of receiving this evaluation: “Well, Becky…at least you no longer read Greek like a Barbarian.” I have wanted to read the Bible in its original languages since I was a kid, so I am studying Greek now (and will do Hebrew next) so I am qualified to apply to programs. I want the academic rigor of doing original language study that a PhD offers, so that I can remove the middle-man of translation currently standing between me and the text.

Gaining credibility

Two woman scholars I respect, Dr. Cherith Fee Nordling and Dr. Alice Mathews, told me plainly that, as a woman, to be respected as a scholar, I need a doctorate. This applies to male academics as well, of course, but it applies to women in a different way. I’ve seen over and over that in the Christian world, more qualified women get passed over in favor of less qualified men. Women have to be excellent beyond question to get opportunities and respect. I don’t want the lack of a degree to keep me from doing what God has gifted me to do.

Bringing original research to the academy

The niche I’ve delved into for myself is the intersection of neuroscience/psychology/sociology with biblical studies and theology to produce better pastoral care in the church. I touched on some cross-disciplinary work in my master’s thesis by applying a neuroscientific theory about emotions (Lisa Feldman Barrett’s constructed emotion theory) to Gospel studies, and I love the discipleship understand that came out of this crossover. I want to contribute fresh insights and new research to our body of knowledge.

Bringing wider knowledge into the church

The church does not have a good understanding of emotional and mental health. I want to earn the further credentials to speak into that gap with validity. We can’t know everything necessary about the human condition from theology and biblical studies alone. Other disciplines that study humanity have valuable insight for church practice, and I want to help build those bridges of understanding.

Bring seminary to church

In the Netherlands, I co-taught a class for university students in various fields who wanted to study the Bible at a deeper level. Those were some of my most treasured teaching experiences. People like my DRx students who study biochemistry or public health or international law will probably not ever go to seminary, but they want to study the Bible at a seminary level of depth. I want to develop programs that bring deeper biblical studies to the church.

Bringing church to seminary

I’ve seen that in seminary, there can be a lack of pastoral care for the pastor-students. Some learn new ways of viewing the Bible that throw doubt on their previous beliefs, and they need people to process with. Others are going through traumatic experiences in their home churches—especially women—and they need people outside their church contexts to care for them. Others are hurt in the classroom by professors or fellow students who haven’t learned to speak pastorally about issues like racial justice and sexual abuse. I want to help seminaries care for the mental and emotional well being of their students. Producing healthier church leaders out of seminaries will produce healthier church bodies in the future.

The financial question is a big one. If you want to see more women and people of color broaden the knowledge of the academy and you have the means to do so, consider funding schools’ endowments and scholarship funds.

Though I don’t see myself becoming a full-time professor (which seems to be the assumed career path for most people with PhDs in theology or New Testament), I would love to do some part time lecturing and direct programs to better care for current leaders and better train future church leaders for pastoral care.

How can I make money doing what I love?

Full time tenure track jobs in academia are rare and getting rarer. Pastors make small salaries in most regions of the US (and women make less than their male counterparts, if they can even get a job at a church in their denomination). Writers often have to have day jobs because books don’t usually pay the bills. So for the pastor-scholar, what is the point of getting an expensive degree that probably won’t pay for itself?

I don’t know the full answer to that question. Especially for women with children, higher education can seem financially unattainable. I paid more for childcare during my master’s than I did for tuition, and I’ve spoken to other women, and some men, who face the same challenge.

I am looking primarily at funded programs. I can’t take on more student loan debt while I am still paying off my last degree. I have a financially privileged position because my husband has a good job, so our family can afford for me to not work for a few years.

I am working on developing multiple avenues to earn money with my education: freelance writing and editing for business clients and publishers, working in churches, speaking and consulting at churches and ministries, and writing books.

The financial question is a big one. If you want to see more women and people of color broaden the knowledge of the academy and you have the means to do so, consider funding schools’ endowments and scholarship funds.

I am pursuing a PhD because it is an important part of my calling. I want a deep knowledge of the Bible and better grasp of theology so that I can be taken seriously as a scholar and have the creditials to improve the health of the church. Ultimately, I’m realizing I simply want to do it. I feel like I can’t NOT do it. I’ve been told that I will need that sense of drive to sustain me through the next set of sleepless nights.

Becky Castle Miller is a writer and speaker on emotional, mental, and spiritual health in the church. She recently graduated from Northern Seminary with a master's in New Testament, studying with Scot McKnight. Her discipleship workbook with Dr. McKnight is called Following King Jesus. She is working on a new book about Jesus's emotions. She and her husband and their five kids and two cats just returned to the U.S. after living in the Netherlands for the past eight years, where she worked at an international church. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @bcastlemiller.