January 25, 2021

Big Money For A Little Piece of Paper: My Stupid Regrets and Inexplicable Ambition to Be “Dr. Spencer”

doc.jpgOnce upon a time, I decided I wanted to be Dr. Michael Spencer. Michael Spencer, Doctor of Ministry (D. Min), actually.

In Southern Baptist culture, the “D.Min” is the everyparson’s doctorate. Two to three years of off campus work under the supervision of a previous D. Min graduate and a seminary faculty member. Occasional stays on campus for short “seminars.” Eventually, you do a research project, write a hundred page paper, and you’re a doctor.

No residential requirements. No languages. No moving away from your church and taking up a full-time student’s life. No oral exams. No required study at another school. No 5-7 years. No, just a lot of muckity-muck, paperwork, reading, hoop-jumping, check-writing, some decent short classes and you get to be “Dr. Spencer.”

What does this mean? Well, in Southern Baptist circles, it would have certainly gotten me out of youth ministry and into the pastorate. It often is the door to the “First Baptist” churches. Southern Baptist laity are naive enough about education that a D.Min impresses most people in most churches that aren’t near a college or university campus. And let’s face it: it makes you feel good. Particularly if school has been a predictably good way to feel good in your life, and I fall deeply into that category.

In other words, this was for me. Thousands and thousands of other ministers apparently agree, because D.Mins, which aren’t cheap, are big business at every seminary I know of. Despite the fact that the Ph.Ds look at them as almost a joke, they build a stong constituency of support for a school, and that is, institutionally speaking, a good thing.

This all worked for me, and when I had been out of seminary two years, I found myself at a church that would pay for the degree and give me the time and opportunity to complete it. So, in 1986, as the associate minister for youth at a large, county seat Baptist church, I decided to enroll in the Doctor of Ministry program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

[Insert here a very long story of bad choices, more bad choices, leaving my associate’s job and taking a pastorate close to Louisville, bad luck, poor decisions and outrageous shoddy treatment from people who said they would support me. You don’t want to read it, and I don’t want to write it.]

The bottom line: I did very well. I finished everything in the program….except for doing a final research project and writing my paper. Why? My faculty supervisor went on an unannounced sabbatical. My field supervisor was 3 hours away. My church leaders were tired of their pastors being students and they didn’t care about me being “Dr. Spencer.” Suddenly, finishing the degree was going to be a fight- a fight I wasn’t ready for.

I faltered. My deadlines passed and I dropped the program without my degree.

I am not a quitter. I’ve never failed or dropped a class in my entire 19+ year educational journey. Actually, my life would be considerably better in many ways if I were an occasional quitter, but I’m not that sort of person. I stay and work until I’m done. I show up when no one else cares to be there. But I dropped out of Southern’s D. Min program, with 37 hours of classwork finished, just a few weeks from completion, and with no degree.

I hated myself for quitting, and by 1991, I had asked Southern if I could reenroll in the D. Min program. Technically, they should have asked me to redo all the requirements. Insstead, they were gracious, and said I could simply retake the research class, do the project and graduate.

I took the class, but by now my pastorate had driven me into a mental and emotional state that was paralyzing. My marriage was a disaster, and I was in no shape to complete the degree. I finished the research class and just went home, the entire dream of my doctoral program defeated ever since.

I just typed that this “was” devastating for me, but I corrected it. This failure to earn the degree is devastating for me today. As I get older, I feel the pain of that failure more and more. I feel the losses of opportunity. I look at my peers who earned the D.Min degree, most of whom do not read or write seriously, or love academics of any kind, and I am profoundly disappointed in myself. It hurts and it burns, and though sometimes I don’t think much about it, at other times it is a haunting daily regret.

Why did I want that degree? For a dozen reasons ranging from the good to the terrible. Was it “God’s Will?” I’ve comforted myself on many occasions with logic something like this: At the time I was pursuing the degree, I was a personal and emotional mess. Our marriage was terrible and headed for worse things. If I had finished the degree and made it to a larger church, I would have never come to to my current ministry and found the blessings of the last 14 years. What I would have found, most likely, would have been further emotional crisis, marital problems, and quite likely divorce. In the end, getting the D. Min would have cost me marriage and ministry.

That’s what I tell myself. I’m not sure I believe it.

I look at myself in the mirror and- trust me- I am not the picture of the pastor of anyone’s First Baptist Church. Denise does not want to be the typical wife presiding over a large church and their unrealistic expectations. My kids would not have done well in that spotlight. I’m was so ambiguous about my Baptist identity for many years that it would have been a disaster for me to be in Baptist pulpit somewhere.

Words. Words. Words. I still want it. I want it BAD.

All in all, I tell myself, that God checkmated this plan and put me exactly where I am, doing what I should be doing. Living with the “shame” of a failed doctoral program is a small, personal disappointment, and in my current ministry it doesn’t matter a bit. Doctorates aren’t very helpful in Eastern Kentucky churches 🙂 No one at OBI cares. If anything, guys who want to be “Dr. Spencer” at a little school in southeast Kentucky look like pretentious egotists.

And then I get a phone call like I did last evening. A co-worker- a Bible college graduate- has finished an M.Div from a distance school, and is looking into the doctoral program at another distance school. He wants to know what I think.

I want to encourage him in every way possible, because he doesn’t have the opportunity that I had to go to Southern, and I do encourage him, as best I can.

What do I really think? I think I screwed up, and now I have to deal with the fact that people with doctorates from schools like this (with this attractive campus) are presenting themselves as world class scholars.

I think I am embarrassed to say how many hours I have spent turning over the option of enrolling in a “distance doctorate” and finally getting that degree. I wouldn’t want you to know some of the tanning salon, laundromat and seminary operations I’ve requested catalogs from.

Yes, I’ve given the diploma mill route a lot of thought. Not because I think that a First Baptist is waiting for me somewhere and my phone will ring…but because I quit. I quit, and I’m ashamed of myself. I quit, and all my seminary classmates finished that doctoral degree, and I know in my heart that I could have and should have finished that degree.

Jesus is not very helpful to this jealous and greedy ambition of mine. He has little good to say about titles, places of honor, or recognition beyond being a faithful servant and elder. I don’t think that Jesus would have much sympathy for my contention that I deserve to have that Doctorate on the wall, because he would show me that, in my heart, I want something entirely selfish, and I prefer such puny recognitions over his forgiveness and his commendation.

Jesus forgives this failure. And he forgives this ambition. He forgives this petty questing after a piece of paper and a title. He offers me something far better: the commendation of God. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” “Come home, my son. Receive my embrace. My ring. My robe. Your place at my table.”

He offers me a place to serve. A church to love. A school where I can teach, preach and minister to all kinds of people. Students. Co-workers. Family. He honors me more than any degree…with another day of life and service to the King. With this master and this calling, why do I want to be “Dr.Spencer?”

Pray for me. These are troubled waters. As life’s day grows shorter, my regrets about this failure grow more painful, and my refusal to take and savor God’s offer of something far better and more satisfying is stupidly stubborn.

Now, excuse me. I need to go read the Bahnsen Seminary catalog.


  1. Oh, and J, you are welcome for the Links!


  2. Tommy, I know your pain! I often try to comprehend the Briticisms I read on another blog.

    Let’s see, a “gimme” would be a “given,” that is something assumed. “Good to go” just means “ready.” The GRE is the Graduate Record Exam, the generic graduate school prep test (kind of like the SAT/Scholastic Aptitude Test for undergraduate degrees). “Blue’s Clues” is a children’s TV show, and I’m guessing Steve Burns is the host (don’t know, never seen it, just the commercials).

  3. Tommy, I can help only a little. “Gimmee” means ‘give to me’; “good to go” means everything is set and ready to go; Steve Burns is a host to a children’s TV program, and “Blue’s Clue’s” is the program….and a great one for pre-kindergarten, I might add.

    Some people are “at home” in an academic environment. They thrive on classes, intellectual bantering, or accumulating information/knowledge. When I hear of that kind of person, I think of C.S. Lewis or Luther. But frankly, (and I know I’ll get blasted for this) they didn’t really impact my life that much…other than I’m not Catholic!!! But if it hadn’t been him, it would have been someone else, meaning Luther.

    I am very grateful for the ‘learned’ men whom the Lord has brought into my life as teachers. The most recent is a Professor of OT Studies from Dallas, a graduate from Oxford, and currently teaching at Beeson. What a fount of cultural, linguistic, historical information this man is!!! You just sit there and it oozes into your brain and Scripture passages just pop! He, on many occasions has said, “My name is Allen, not Dr.—-. If my Lord was addressed by His ‘first name’, then so should I.”

  4. If you’re seriously interested in doing rigorous doctoral research studying under some reputable professors — in accredited schools — for almost no money (the exchange rate is very favorable) — take a look at the South African Universities. Since they are all research rather than seminar based you can do them from a distance.

    For example:

    The creative folks at South African Theological Seminary have applied to offer a doctor of theology degree. They’ll know in a few months whether they are approved — http://www.sats.edu.za/index2.html

    University of South Africa (North American Office) — http://www.iaci-canada.com/

    University of Zululand is not as well known outside SA but they have some solid programs —

    There are some good Australian options, too. But the strength of the Australian dollar doesn’t make this as appealing for Americans.

  5. hey thanks franksta and joanne! Your translations are much appreciated!! 😉

    Franksta, if u need any quick brit-isms translated, jus ask!

    but back to old blighty for me old chap, what what . . . cheerio!

    see ya’s

  6. I know exactly what you mean. I dropped out of the Ph.D. program in grad school because I felt like it was a waste of my time … but now I’m thinking about going back, paying $$$ so I can waste my time a bit more. I think part of it is definitely because I want to have that “Ph.D.” behind my name. But another reason is so I’ll have an excuse to study and learn more stuff than I already know.

  7. David Monroe says

    Thanks again for an outstanding article. However, I would like to point out that Luther Rice Seminary (where your friend got his distance M.Div) is not a diploma mill and looks nothing like the pictures of Columbia Seminary that you linked to. LRS has a campus and professors and classes and issues actual degrees. It’s not the best, most advanced institution on the planet, but it’s not Pikes Peak University either.

    Please excuse this comment if you weren’t trying to imply an equivalence between LRS and Columbia. It’s parenthetical to the essential point of your fine commentary.

  8. Waterfall, why do you need an “excuse” to study? Scripture tells us to “study to show ourselves approved unto God…” and you don’t need a professor or seminary or divinity school to give you that “excuse”. Study away!! 🙂

    After dropping out of my ThM program at Dallas Theological for some of the same reasons iMonk talked about (marriage falling apart, etc.), I have found that I much prefer studying for my own edification and in order to generate the “overflow” from which we can best teach and encourage others, rather than studying for a grade or a series of letters behind my name.

    And frankly, my best relationship with Christ has been since getting out of the academic environment. I fear that, at least for some of us, the academic environment in theology promotes a great deal of pride, elitism, and all of the traits that Jesus told us to avoid!!

    And I have learned a LOT more studying outside of the institution than I ever did sitting there worshiping my profs because they were so “great” and so “learned”. And frankly, many of the profs (at least unwittingly) in both my undergrad program at PBU and my grad program at DTS did nothing to prevent that worship.

    Personally, iMonk, I think you’ll be much better off just working out the feelings you have and moving forward without the letters! But I would definitely encourage you not to stay at the point of “I want it, but I think my motives are wrong”. Get that settled in your heart (if you haven’t already) and keep moving forward in the work you’re doing for God.

    steve 🙂

  9. Jeremiah Lawson says

    One of the reasons I haven’t rushed to a seminary option was a comment by the late William Lane (he did a commentary on Hebrews I feel I should eventually read) who used to teach at Seattle Pacific University. He warned me that there is a “guild mentality” where people at seminary assume they are engaged in an active relationship with Christ just because they do academic work. He said it’s not true and that it’s the biggest problem he’s seen with seminarians. He said if I go to seminary I have to remember all that work is in ADDITION to my walk with Christ not a substitute for it as many people he met thought it could be. This guild mentality was worst in the Ivy League and he said that while I could go there if I wanted to he felt the spiritual environment was dangerous for all but the hardiest seminarian.

    He also said if I wanted to do doctoral work in NT studies I would need to know at least the following langauges: biblical Greek and Hebrew, ecclesiastical Latin, Aramaic, German, and French. At this I freaked and he said I only need to be able to READ them, not speak them to do doctoral work. His suggestion was that for French all I’d need to do is read Good News for Modern Man in English and French for 30 minutes a day for a summer and I’d probably be just fine. One of his former students said I should take that advice with a grain of salt because Lane was able to reference Pauline passages in Greek from memory without prompting.

    As to Blues Clues, I rent space from my sister and brother-in-law who have a four-year old girl so this almost 32-year-old bachelor has watched far more than the usual share of children’s programs for a guy in his demographic. When Steve Burns hosted the show it was kinda cool. After that not so much.

  10. Hi there, i just want to let you know that i have posted a highly relevant post in my new blogspot!




  11. http://righteousranter.blogspot.com/2005/08/trust-me-im-doctor.html

    (this is the exact location)


  12. While I completely sympathize with your wanting a sense of completion, I think you really have the best of both worlds in this situation. You were able to receive the education that the degree would offer yet you don’t have to spend your life worrying that someone might call you “Dr. Spencer” and then be embarressed — as I think you might be — by that title. (Not that there is anything wrong with earning that degree.)

    People admire you for your abilities, not for your degrees (until this post it never dawned on me to wonder what your formal education might be). I personaly admire what you’ve accomplished in spite of not having a “D” degree. Besides, you don’t need a D.Min., Ph.D., or J.D. when you have the BHT. ; )

  13. Concerning Tommy’s post on Midlands Bible College, I would strongly recommend this school. I have been a student there for the past year (my original training was in History)and I really enjoy it.
    It is accredited (that counts in France where I live), non-resindential (that was crucial for me), cheap(especially considering the obscene prices of american seminaries)and the programm of studies and the teachers are great. But you’re pursuing a Ph. D., go elsewhere: they’re only in the process of having their B.A. accepted by the University of Wales.
    For the others, you should at least check it out.

  14. I’m 54, and am just beginning doctoral studies mostly online at Regent University. The expense is a significant barrier to entry, but I finally concluded that what I want matter more than what it’s going to cost.

    What I want is — to finish a serious chunk of scholarship that’s been on my heart since my Jesus Freak days in the early 70s — how can something so important (the gospel) look so culturally irrelevent?

    By paying the price, I place myself under discipline, under mentors, who can engage my brain and keep me focused on this task.

    In my case — my mother, who is ONLY 23 years older than me, has Alzheimer’s Disease. I pray that never happens to me, but this is a fallen universe, and while I have my faculties, I think I’d better use ’em. I have an unusally good memory for book work, and will need to answer to God for the use I make of it when all is said and done.

    I am motivated by the task, hope I can turn a PhD into some serious money, but most of all want to help people re-think the paradigms they live by.

  15. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Brad, the South African possibilities are looking interesting, partly because I’ve become friends with a family at my church that is from South Africa. I’ve got a friend who has visited there and is interested. I’ll be passing the links along to him. Thanks again.

  16. Jeremiah Lawson says

    In case you’re still looking at this, Brad, I’m starting to consider the University of South Africa on a friend’s recommendation. It looks like they have master’s options for both musicology and New Testament studies, and since I’m hoping to get into both fields I’m thinking of checking out schools that have both programs.

  17. Michael,

    I really don’t think God cares one way or the other if you pursue a DMin. I don’t think it has anything to do with blind ambition or failure. It’s just something you want to do, and that’s the way God created you.

    I sense your love of learning. It’s the way God created me too. I’m currently in a PhD program and loving every single minute of it. I went round and round on this before I finally jumped in with both feet.

    Move forward on this. Have fun! God bless

  18. Leif Erickson says

    I too struggle with the Dr. thing, albeit not in anything religious. I have a BA, an MA, and an MFA, but the PhD occasionally tempts me, although I think I am at peace with not having it, finally (now if a PhD in creative writing opens up in these parts, all bets are off).
    Anyway, I know the fantasy well: casually referring to the Dr. in your name, administering sage advice to non-Drs., etc. Maybe occasionally glancing at the degree on the wall and feeling satisfied. It’s a pride thing, let’s face it (which it seems like you have). A very personal sort of pride, but pride nonetheless. I can have a long, fruitful career in higher ed with my degrees as they stand, but there’s something about the Dr…
    Anyway, sorry you feel like you failed. You’re not a failure, so who cares if you didn’t finish ONE thing? You shouldn’t.

  19. I came here from your June 2008 comment about Dr. Johnny Hunt, the newest president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    Dr. Torrey Johnson (founder of Youth for Christ, launcher of Dr. Billy Graham into worldwide evangelism, and pastor of the church we attended in Boca Raton, Florida, in the late 60’s/early 70’s) once told me (a high-school valedictorian who dropped out of college after three years and never even received a Bachelor’s degree) the following: “I know people with lots of degrees but no temperature.”

    I have never forgotten that statement. I recommend you memorize it. Say it to yourself frequently, and then thank Almighty God regularly that He has put you where you are and has made you into what you are becoming.

    Everything else is probably self-pity and pride.

    I am 67 now and old enough to say whatever I think.

  20. I know how hard it is to cling to things that God wants us to let go of things that deeply belong to our sense of self. One of the things that go unnoticed in today’s evangelicalism are the Lord’s insistence that we leave everything for Him when He asks that of us. I am guilty of overlooking these passages myself: leave family, possessions etc to follow Him. I think part of our quest to be with the Lord is the letting go of things that hinder His kingdom – as I am learning in my own life now – acclaim and standing in the world’s eyes and the good life we are so programmed to seek are often a barrier to God’s kingdom. So, I think the many blessings you have helped bring about (especially to me) through this website and the Boars Head Tavern and your own ministry, far outweigh this degree in the sight of God. And we should only be concerned with His approval.

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