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Why a Doctorate, Why Durham?

WARNING: This is a post for nerds like me. 🙂

In all seriousness, this won’t be of interest to everyone, but several of you have asked why I’m doing a doctorate and why I’ve chosen Durham University, England. I’ve answered these questions before, but I realize that my answers have been inadequate. For one, I am still learning to understand my own heart and motivattions. And, what’s more, I had some incorrect information about this particular program at Durham.

So, in order to understand myself and to communicate more clearly for those interested in post-graduate studies, I thought I’d write about it. (Actually, this is always why I write: to help me understand my own thoughts, and to be of some help to others.)


Why a Doctorate? As best as I can know my own heart– and this is tricky business– this is what I would say:

To make the most of the gifts which have been entrusted to me for the glory of God and the good of the Church. This is not Christianese to me. When I was a little boy, my mum used to say to me, “Glenn, if you can achieve (x), then don’t settle for (y).” This wasn’t said in a performance-ish, pressured sort of way. This was said with utmost love. It came out of her deep belief in who God had made me to be. And it wasn’t unrealistic stuff. (She never said this about my dreams of being the next Michael Jordan, for example.) She– and my dad– saw things in my sister and me as they prayed over us and talked with us. And they wouldn’t let us stop short because of laziness or apathy.

I’m reminded of this quote from the late John Stott about ambition:

Ambitions for God, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that he should acquire just a little more honour in the world?

Christians should be eager to develop their gifts, widen their opportunities, extend their influence and be given promotion in their work — not now to boost their own ego or build their own empire, but rather through everything they do to bring glory to God.

That is not to say that this sort of godly ambition should be pursued at the expense of the other greater gifts in my life: my wife and children. Holly and I made this decision together, and I talked with Pastor Brady, my parents, and others before proceding. Both Pastor Brady and Holly helped me eliminate other things during the heaviest travel part of the program (Year 1).

All of us have been entrusted with gifts. As Christians, we don’t hone these gifts as ‘personal development’ or ‘enrichment’; it is stewardship. We multiply these gifts that God may be glorified and that the Church may be edified.

Which leads to the second reason…

To make sense of my own vocation to live between two worlds. I am beginning to understand that my life is about trying to hold two often disconnected things together in some small way. Worship and the Word, Spirit and Truth, charismatic power and liturgical shape, contextualized expressions and ancient practices, and so on. When I was young, I was very uneasy with having grown up in two worlds– Malaysia and America– and had some angst in my 20’s (who didn’t?) about where I truly belonged. But I have come to peace with my story. I am learning to embrace standing between two worlds. What could be more Christian than that?

For too long, pastors have been suspicious of anyone in academic theology. I cringe everytime I hear a pastor say, “I only want to listen to practitioners!” And for too long, academics have been critical of pastors. It troubles me to hear the thin critiques and carricatures of ‘mega-churches’ or ‘Evangelicals’ or ‘modern worship’. Too many academics are too far removed from things to truly know what’s going on. And yet, it is this distance that allows academics to have a critical (I mean this now in the right and good sense of the word) perspective. Pastors cannot give the proper theological reflection to their work while they are immersed in it. Pastors and theologians need each other. 

Many, many theologians and pastors have bridged this gap. John Stott and Tim Keller come to mind from the pastoral side; NT Wright and Scot McKnight come to mind from the theologian side. Of course, there are more (Brueggemann, Hauerwas, Willmon, and on and on). It is in this rich tradition that I want to stand, by the grace of God. Not as a bridge in and of myself, but perhaps as a plank– or even a sliver in a plank!– in that bridge.


Why Durham University, England? “Aren’t there any schools in America, Glenn?” I hear that one a lot. 🙂 Believe me, I looked into programs from may places in the States. The travel would have been cheaper!

In short, all the US doctoral programs I looked into were either PhD programs– which meant, research-driven, full-time, and had residency requirements– or, they were DMin programs– which meant that some had research components (depending on the school) and some did not. I don’t want to quit my job (I love being a pastor and I love New Life Church!); I don’t want to move (I love Colorado Springs!); and I do want to do research. BUT…I wanted to do research in something that had practical implications for ministry. I’m not the sort who fancies being buried reading footnotes of footnotes of footnotes.

About 7 years ago, Durham University created this program– the DThM– as a collaboration between the Department of Theology and Religion and Cranmer Hall (the part of St. John’s College at Durham where ordinands in the Church of England are trained). Here are some of its features:

  1. It is dissertation-based (70,000 words– gulp.)

  2. It is research-driven

  3. It is practical theology (You can’t research, for example, “Paul’s use of Abrahamic imagery in his articulation of the New Covenant”. It must have ministerial outcomes.)

  4. It is inter-disciplinary (In order to have ministerial outcomes, students must engage the social sciences like anthropology or psychology, and fields like philosophy or the natural sciences, depending on the research focus.)

Like a PhD, a DThM dissertation must:

  1. Make an original contribution to the field (I just found this out this week– and I’m glad to know it now!)

  2. Be written in a ‘ready-to-publish’ academic style and format

So, why is it not called a ‘PhD’? Not because of the learning outcomes (which, as I learned today, are the same as a PhD) or because of the design but because of the delivery of the program. In order to make this accessible to people who are in vocational ministry, this program can be done part-time (over the course of 6 years–double gulp!) and…this is key…long-distance. To ‘deliver’ the program in this way, it needed to be classified as a ‘professional doctorate’. Here’s how the ‘delivery’ of the program works:

  1. Four trips (each from 2-5 days) over a ten-month period during Year 1. This functions as a sort induction into the program, where you learn what practical theology is, how social scientific methods work, etc.

  2. One trip a year for the next five years (for a ‘summer school’ week in early September to give progress papers and hear visiting theologians)

  3. Connect with your supervisor (determined in Year 2) via Skype, email, and additional trips over if you’d like.

  4. Postgraduates can check out library books for four months at a time, and can renew them online for much longer than that.

No other program I explored– in the US or UK–was research-driven, dissertation-based, and could be done part-time and long-distance. 

Not to mention, Durham’s Department of Theology and Religion was ranked #1 in a recent study of research quality in all UK universities. (Take that, Oxford and Cambridge. I kid, I kid.) And there is this: my older sister– my only sibling–Tracy Packiam Alloway, was lecturer in cognitive psychology at Durham about 10 years ago. Finally, did you see the picture of Durham Cathedral, built in the 11th century?


There you have it. You can always read more about it here. I’d love it if you joined me. 🙂

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