To be honest, while I'm relieved to have received my masters degree in theology and thankful that my thesis was well received, graduating has all felt a bit anti-climactic. It's been eight years, thousands of dollars and hours, and a fair few tears along the way. I've found myself asking whether it was all worth it. My family have paid a massive price having me tucked away in my office for so many late nights. My youngest son Levi has only ever known me as a Dad who works long days and studies most nights. I don't think the words cum laude on the certificate that will hang on my wall can make up for the many hours that he could have been playing soccer in the yard with me. I think my church has benefited broadly from the study because it's sharpened me as a preacher and leader, but my 180 page thesis which took 4 years to research and write, may never be read by anyone except my Dad. (Thanks Dad.)
So what makes this all worth it? Why would one study theology for that long and what does one really learn that applies to real life and work?
Well, for me, there were at least 5 valuable lessons.
1. I learned to love God with my mind.
I don't aspire to be the stuffy academic type - tweed jacket with elbow patches and pipe. I'm a heart guy. I feel deeply. I'm a strength guy. I like to get things done. But there's another part of the Great Commandment, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind,' that I've learned to obey better these last eight years. I've learned that clear, wise, Biblical thinking is part of the way we are called to love God. God is not glorified by falsehood or foolishness, no matter how passionate or energetic we are. God is wise and he wants His people to be wise about His Word and His world. Leaders in the Church should be able to guard sound doctrine, refute heresy and give reason for the hope of the gospel. That requires a clear head. God forbid that I have a swollen head and a hollow heart. But neither do I want a swollen heart and a hollow head.
2. I learned I was an expert on Model and a novice on Message
I spent my formative ministry years as a leader in a movement that taught me a lot about a model of doing church. We were big on building healthy cultures of leadership, prayer, worship and community. We taught on how to raise up leaders, work as a team, practice spiritual gifts and plant churches. So much of what I learned I still carry with me today. But what I began to realize was that I was an expert on church model and a novice on the message of Christ. I remember an amazing man called Michael Eaton saying to our leaders in 2008, "Your tribe has an over-realized ecclesiology (model) and an under-realized Christology." (Christ and His message) I was stopped dead in my tracks. Perhaps I'd become a model pharisee? I am still passionate about church model, but I hope I am now more passionate about Jesus and His gospel. All church models are not equal, but no model is a silver bullet. It cannot save. It is only the power of the gospel that saves. And God also seems quite happy to work powerfully through church models that seem less Biblical than mine. How inconsiderate of Him!
3. I learned that God is in the details
I've never been all that great at details. I'm more of a big picture guy. So the pedantic nature of academic writing, referencing and citing was infuriating to me. The endless corrections on dates and bibliographies and quotations, and grades taken off for incorrect line spacing felt completely divorced from reality! Here I was leading a growing multi-site church as well as traveling the world helping other churches, and I had to make sure my margin indents were properly justified! But I began to realize that having an eye for details was actually very connected to reality and that my lack of attention to detail sometimes hurt my credibility in reality. Get a quote or fact or verse wrong in the pulpit, even if it is minor, and people can begin to question the bigger things you say. I still think academia is pedantic, but I'm glad it forced me to realize that God is in the details.
4. I learned to Reason with differing ideas instead of simply Denouncing them
One of the things that theological study forces you to do is to take seriously ideas that challenge yours. I know that some seminaries are so critical that students end up losing any prior faith they had and that seems tragic. Pay thousand of dollars to become a cynic? My seminary was not like that, but it did force me to consider other angles and to reason with other ideas instead of simply denouncing them. By the time I presented my thesis I realized I had become more sure of what I believed because I had had to defend it critically against other schools of thought. I believe this skill of engaging reasonably with different ideas instead of denouncing them is greatly needed in our pluralistic world. We need less heat and more light in our civil discourse with each other.
5. I learned Resilience
I hope I'm not being overly dramatic but with the relentless pressure of deadlines and balancing work/family/study over eight years, I felt at times like I was doing violence to my soul. It didn't help that I was doing distance education and never once had a conversation with another student in eight years. All of my correspondence with professors was via email, with the exception of two Skype calls that whole time. I would never recommend that to anyone. I missed the comeraderie of fellow students and there were many times that I wanted to give up. If it wasn't for my wife's constant encouragement, as well as that of my parents and supervisor, Vernon Light (I still think he may be a guardian angel), I think I would have quit. But above all, the sustaining grace of Jesus was so real on this epic marathon. He enabled me to persevere through exhaustion and discouragement, and in doing so built resilience into my soul. I hope that resilience will spill over into every facet of my life.
Of course, I also hope that my specific area of research will benefit our church and many churches beyond us. I also hope to write a book to make my research more accessible. But if for some reasonI none of this happens, I feel that these lessons I've learned have made the process all worthwhile. But you'll have to ask my wife if she agrees.