There is no work quite like PhD work. Those who’ve completed the degree know exactly what I’m talking about. You must set aside five or so years of your life to research and write, ending your labors with a dissertation that makes a unique contribution to your field of study. The PhD is known as a “terminal degree” because it is the highest anyone can earn, but all who’ve completed one know it can feel terminal in other ways.
Shockingly, the three letters most associated with the Doctor of Philosophy degree are not PhD. They are ABD— “all but dissertation.” Half of those who undertake the PhD degree never complete it, with most stalling out during the dissertation phase.
A good friend who’d completed his PhD a few years before me gave me advice that was, in hindsight, absolutely essential. He told me, “Whatever you do, pick a dissertation topic that absolutely captivates you; that will animate you day in and day out until you finish it.”
That was excellent advice. It took me six years to complete my PhD. I was serving full-time at Southern Seminary, had served local churches as a pastor and interim pastor, and was a husband and the father of five young children. For several years, most nights of the week I said goodnight to my wife and children around eight o’clock and worked late into the night on my dissertation.
My friend’s advice is good for those entering doctoral work, but it is even better for those contemplating ministry. Unless you have a singular, overarching passion that will pull you forward in ministry, it may be best not to pursue it. As Spurgeon said:
Brethren, if the Lord gives you no zeal for souls, keep to the lapstone or the trowel, but avoid the pulpit . . . We must feel that woe is unto us if we preach not the gospel; the word of God must be unto us as a fire in our bones, otherwise, if we undertake the ministry, we shall be unhappy in it, shall be unable to bear the self-denials incident to it, and shall be of little service to those among whom we minister.
Is Spurgeon justified in such bold claims? Let’s look to the Scriptures to find out.
CHRIST’S COMMISSION, PAUL’S PASSION
Church mission statements are important, but every church’s mission statement ought to reflect the Church’s mission statement: the Great Commission. On five occasions Jesus gave this abiding command, binding on all churches regardless of location, era, or size. In Matthew 28:18–20 He says:
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
Christ’s command to make disciples is not reserved for pastors. It is a standing order for every believer and church. But as a minister, you will be tasked week in and out to lead the effort. As Paul exhorted Timothy, so he exhorts us: “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).
It’s no wonder Paul exhorted Timothy in this way, since evangelism was his driving passion. Set apart from his mother’s womb, Paul was “made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on [him]” (Col. 1:25). On this calling he reflects, “If I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). Paul preached with urgency and gravity, knowing that eternal life and death hung in the balance for his hearers. God’s call and his own desire for his hearers to be saved compelled Paul to minister with all his might.
This is key. Fundamentally, if the ministry is viewed through a humanistic lens, then it is easy to sign up and withdraw whenever, depending on the relative whims of the pastor. This is not consistent with the New Testament calling; the preacher preaches not only because he wants to preach, but because he must preach. “Woe is me if I do not preach.”
Is Paul just waxing eloquent, or did the fire really burn within his bones? A cursory survey of his letters proves the latter. His heart bled for the lost, and it propelled him forward in gospel ministry, in spite of terror and tumult. For example, consider his words to the church at Rome:
I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Rom. 1:13–16)
In this same letter he also discloses his burden for his own countrymen, the Jewish people, most of whom had rejected Christ:
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. . . Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation . . . (Rom. 9:1–3; 10:1)
What man would wish for his own separation from Christ for the sake of others? A man with unwavering passion for the Great Commission and love for the lost.
 Laura Morrison, “Why Do People Drop Out of Ph.D. Programs?”, GradSchools.com, April 2014, http://www.gradschools.com/get-informed/ surviving-graduate-school/life-during-graduate school/whydo-people-drop-out-phd.
 C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 26–29.
*This article is an excerpt from Discerning Your Call to Ministry: How to Know For Sure and What to Do About It, by Jason K. Allen. If you are considering the ministry, there are two mistakes you must avoid. The first is taking up a calling that isn’t yours. The second is neglecting one that is.*
Available to purchase online at Amazon.com, Moody Publishers, and in LifeWay Christian Stores. Learn more at jasonkallen.com/calltoministrybook.Discerning Your Call to the Ministry, Pastoral Ministry