Sorting by

Skip to main content

“What Are You Even Doing?”

So, I’m a Doctor now, I guess.

My kids don’t understand this. Sitting around our dinner table a few days before I was to leave for my dissertation defense and graduation, one of them asked: “Does this mean you’ll be able to prescribe drugs now?”

“No — sorry, guys.”

After a disappointed silence, another asked: “Well, will you get paid more money now?”

Their disillusionment deepened further in finding out that no, Dad’s compensation will remain the same. One of them wondered, “Well Dad, what are you even doing then?”

I’ve wondered the same thing.

The prospect of having “Dr.” added to my official title gives me mixed feelings. For one thing, I’ve always tended to eschew formality in how I’ve been addressed in my pastoral posts. I’ve always gravitated more to “Pastor Jared,” or just “Jared,” than I have to “Reverend Ayers.” My instinct is to see myself as simply one among the company of sinner-saints among whom I serve- I just happen to be the one who’s been tasked with saying God’s Name, proclaiming God’s mighty deeds in Christ, welcoming the hungry and thirsty to the Table. I’m not some different, elite-level Christian who exists on another level from the ordinary lives of those I’m called to live among.

Additionally, for nearly two decades, I’ve been a pastor in academic contexts. So the pews of the churches I’ve served have often been populated by a preponderance of MD’s and PhD’s. And I don’t feel like I should be numbered among them: I can’t perform open heart surgery, and I didn’t learn research German.

Doctor of the Church

Nevertheless, a few Saturdays ago, having completed my dissertation defense and been approved by my faculty advisors, I put on the cap and gown, received the hood, and was pronounced “Doctor of Ministry.” In his last lecture to us before graduation, Winn Collier, my faculty advisor, reframed for our cohort how we might wear that title “Doctor of Ministry.”

“You’re going to become a ‘doctor of the church,’” he told us. “You’re called to be a healer; to be a healing presence in the Church and in the world.”

That image actually has deep roots in our particular Church tradition. John Calvin, in his magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion, envisioned the Reformed churches being led by four “offices,” or types, of leaders: elders, deacons, pastors- and doctors. He drew the idea of the Church being served by doctors from the inclusion of “teacher” in the list of leadership offices in Ephesians 4, writing that it was the task of teachers/doctors “to keep doctrine whole and pure among believers.” (Institutes. 4.3.4) In the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of Geneva, where Calvin served, doctors of the church were responsible to “instruct the faithful in sound doctrine so that the purity of the gospel is not corrupted by ignorance or wrong opinion.”

That language of “whole,” or “sound” teaching is itself rooted in the pastoral epistles of the New Testament. Paul charges his young protege Timothy with proclaiming “the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1.10-11). Paul writes that he’s to “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 1.13) The Greek word for “sound” in these passages is hygiein, from which we draw our term “hygiene.” The sense of this medical word isn’t just “correct,” but “healthy.” Those called to Christian teaching are called to work that issues in whole, healthy lives and communities. As the late Eugene Peterson put it, “The main thing that Timothy is to do in Ephesus. . .is to teach sound words, sound truth, healthy thinking and believing. Healthy gospel.”

Being a “doctor,” then, isn’t a title — it’s a calling. It’s not a degree, but a vocation. And like the other offices, those set apart to them aren’t called to perform them on behalf of a spectator audience, but to equip the whole Church in using all her gifts for the sake of the entire world. We need women and men who minister the medicine of the Gospel and healing of Christ Jesus to a diseased, fractured Church and a bleeding world.

Ours is a time full of deception and moral disease, vitriol and resentment. It’s urgent, I think, that we recover our calling to be healers: to cultivate language and song, teaching and preaching, poetry and writing that repairs, cleanses, mends. That brings the wholeness and health of the Gospel to sick souls, fractured congregations, a wounded world.

If that’s what being a doctor means, count me in.

Jared Ayers

Jared Ayers serves as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach, Florida. Prior to this, he founded and served as the senior pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary & the Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 16 years, and have been graced with two sons and a daughter.


  • David Hoekema says:

    Wisdom from the mouth of a 5 year old daughter of a fellow “Doctor of Philosophy” (in the discipline of Philosophy, in our cases), to an inquiring young friend: “My daddy is a doctor. But not the kind of doctor who helps people.” May it not be so for Dr. Ayers.

  • John Hubers says:

    This may not be the time or place to raise this question, but not sure what or when is.

    I’m curious why the doctor of ministry degree is seen as an equivalent to a PhD. And if it isn’t why, then, is it it labeled a doctorate? A PhD requires three years of in residence classroom study and a book length dissertation written in some cases over a period of 7 years (if at all – only 15%of those who start theology PhD programs in America finish).

    I appreciate the effort and dedication it takes to obtain a DMin, especially given the fact that it is usually done while engaged in pastoral ministry. But is there an equivalency here?

    Just curious what others think.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      John, I could be wrong but in terms of academia, PhD and DMin are not treated as equivalent. At my institution, for instance, you need a PhD terminal degree to be considered for tenure but anyone with a DMin would not be tenured. To teach at the PhD level, you need a PhD but a DMin does not qualify one to teach doctoral academic courses to students who are pursuing their own PhD degrees.

    • Paul Janssen says:

      John, I once encouraged a fellow on whom an *honorary* doctorate had been conferred not to call himself, or allow himself to be called Dr. It wasn’t a matter of lack of respect. I was trying to save him some embarrassment if he were to be thought capable of deep discussion with PhD’s who held parallel positions. (Non academic) The advice was not happily received. And he ended up embarrassed more than once.

    • Jeff Brower says:


      My own DMin was through Gordon Conwell in 2010. I’ve found it helped in becoming a more reflective practitioner of ministry, and helped in terms of “problematizing” various ministry situations. Very valuable for that reason. But definitely should not be regarded as equivalent to a PhD. Still, some pastors try to pull that off, and milk it for all the Dr. they can get. Having worked in both suburban and rural settings, I think that this works better in suburban settings. In rural settings they don’t much care what you have before or after your name, and laugh at you if you try to make too big a deal out of it. They just care if you’re doing the job with a great deal of love and a modicum of skill. All told, that’s the healthier approach.


  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Congrats, Jared. I agree with you about titles. But I remember that just as I was about to be ordained in 1990 one of my neighbors in Fremont who was a member of the congregation I would serve–a dear woman the same age as my Grandma Hoezee at the time–asked me what to call me. I said “Scott.” Nope, my options were Reverend or Pastor! I chose Pastor but it felt odd at the age of 26 all of the sudden to be seen differently.

  • Jeff Japinga says:

    I spent seven years as associate dean at McCormick Seminary, where I carried responsibility for the doctor of ministry program there. I have a DMin myself. (That did mean I was not, and could never have been, tenured faculty at McCormick, understood by all, including me.) I don’t know where the title of the degree came from–why doctor?–and it wasn’t mine to change that. What I could do is try to dissuade our DMin students of equivalency language, and persuade them of opportunity. Jared, I love your image of “equip(ping) the whole Church in using all her gifts for the sake of the entire world.” I encouraged my students to be teachers of the church (not the academy)–which is why DMin theses are grounded in research and practice; to use the work they were doing to deepen the ministry they were called to do. And when it came time to present their thesis findings to the faculty, I always, always tried to steer them away from the language of “defense.” They were defending nothing–they were teaching us what they had learned, for the sake of the church and the world, and would then hopefully extend that knowledge to the wider church. I sure impressed and grateful for the work those students did. It was pretty incredible. They weren’t there for the title; they were there for the ministry they cared about so deeply. Jared, thanks for offering this.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    In a time when requirements for the MDiv are being reduced, the study, research and discipline need to obtain a DMin are a good thing. We need more education for our clergy, not less. The DMin instills that. I hope we all take seriously Calvin’s exhortation to bring to our people purity and clarity of doctrine. Of that we also need more. To earn a DMin a minister spends ten years after high school in study and training. It’s a start.

  • John Hubers says:

    I think this is all dependent on motivation. I got my PhD late (59!), so the doctor lable has never taken. But the status it confirmed was not a motivating factor. It was the recognition of a calling to pass on to the next generation my years of experience in missions and the only wat academia would allow that is with a PhD.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent digging in depth, so that was another benefit. But the Dr. label was a tool, not an end.

    I suspect the same is true with the DMin. If is sought as a ministry enhancement tool the Dr. Label is fine and to be applauded. If for staus it becomes problematical, as I don’t believe there is an equivalent doctoral degree in any other discipline – one that requires less effort for the same title.

  • John Hubers says:

    And looking at my typos one would wonder if I have any advanced degree! Put that down to typing with my thumb – a trick this old dog has never learned well!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    For Reformed Christians, the word “doctor” is not about academia or research, but about office and mission. Right, don’t we all agree on that? Cf. John Calvin.

Leave a Reply