What I learnt from completing my PhD


It’s done! 6 years of hard slog and graft are complete. I finished writing my PhD.

Here are my reflective musings...

Life will now be different - I am not sure exactly how - but I know I will be consuming less coffee and hopefully exercising more.

A bit of context: At 53, I am an older than average student.


My masters and PhD topics are areas of investigation that I deem hugely significant and critical for faithful gospel ministry in South Africa.[1] I have found the exercise worthwhile and am overjoyed to see some early fruits of the research.

Things in my favour:

As a post-grad student, there are certain things that I count in my favour – I read and assimilate information fairly easily, and even though stopping formal study 25 years ago, I have kept up with my reading programme and dabbled in writing every now and then.

I also like to be ‘in my own head’ and think about ‘things’ and ideas and how they relate to other ‘things’ and the consequences of those ‘things.’

I have a very supportive wife (who humoured me when I was pre-occupied, discouraged, side-tracked or manically excited) and I also had the support of an excellent, wise promoter, the co-leaders in our church and an incredibly helpful editor throughout the process.

But there were big obstacles:

  • I am not big on patience and perseverance

Sticking to one topic of research for a couple of years goes against all my instincts. My motto is: ‘The best task is the one that is already complete.’

The Christian life has been aptly termed 'a long obedience in one direction.' I have seen that researching and writing a PhD is something similar.

  • My track record is not great

When I did my initial Theological training, I did not exactly set the world on fire. I remember feeling devastated when I failed my very first theological exam at the Bible Institute of South Africa. It was on the doctrine of the person and work of Christ in the 1st 1987. I felt horrible. Gutted. It seemed to indicate that I did not ‘get’ Jesus Christ and the cross. I was never anywhere near the smartest guy in class.

  • I am a full-time pastor

There is the (not so small) matter of planting a church and shepherding that church. That meant being a part-time student. For the entire duration of my Masters and PhD studies, I was involved in leading a new church plant. That was and is my priority. I remember being cautioned at the outset: True words.

  • I am not a gifted multi-tasker

Furthermore, I have serious tunnel-vision. The concept of multi-tasking is my worst nightmare. It took me a very long time to realise that I was attempting to do two very hard things simultaneously. There were times when I felt I was in way over my head. In mitigation, I must add that the topic of my research helped me in church planting. With hindsight, I realise that leading a church plant and doing long term PhD research may be considered unwise.

  • I am severely technologically challenged

One of my technological weaknesses and limitations is completing and signing forms electronically, designing questionnaires and pie graphs, formatting documents, and getting to grips with editing processes. Though others did help me, these things were undoubtedly the most challenging and frustrating aspects of the project. At times the technological frustration and anger levels hovered in the red zone.

Valuable lessons learned:

Self-awareness:

I realised my own arrogance. Here is a terrible fact. I was introduced to the subject of my research way back in 1987 at the Bible Institute. I still have two old textbooks from then, which proved very valuable in my research project. I remember reacting very negatively to the lecturer, and the course. I (and a number of others) thought that we knew better – and we were convinced that what we were being taught was theologically dodgy. We are talking hard-core arrogance!

Since when is a first-year seminary student the arbiter of truth?

How can a new, inexperienced believer have all his theological ducks in a row?

Good questions but not the ones I was asking at the time. It has taken me nearly three decades to realise the immense value of what we were being taught. I was (and am) a recovering theological nincompoop. My humble lecturer was right. I was wrong, but worse than that, I was arrogant. Part of the value of the exercise of my PhD is that I have clarified that I was wrong about some things and realised that there is plenty more to learn. I don’t know it all.

Integrity

I have learnt the value and importance of presenting views and opinions accurately. This is critical in our world of social media, and a Christian cliché culture. I see sloganeering, grandstanding, unhelpful clichés, the presentation of ‘straw men’ and much stereotyping on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter – and it concerns me.

The importance of representing a view accurately and fairly,

defining terms properly and giving context is critical in research.

Not a day goes by without someone unfairly stereotyping another position or tribe on social media. I am not suggesting any kind of relativism or false tolerance. We must contend for the true gospel. But it is critical to present your opponent’s views in such a way as they would approve – and then critique them.

Plodding

I have learnt the value of plodding. Plodding is decidedly unglamorous but post graduate research involves lots it. Sometimes you find yourself in bypath meadow, sometimes you feel like you are stuck - you are going nowhere slowly and oftentimes you feel uninspired. And you just have to keep on. It’s a metaphor for the life of discipleship.

Plodding is decidedly unglamorous but post graduate research

(and the Christian life) involves lots it.

Most of us are not going to nail 95 theses to a church door and cause a worldwide revolution. We have to get into the biblical text, pray, and serve the same old sheep this Sunday and the next. Plodding is good. Plodding is normal. Plodding reaps rewards. Keep plodding.

God’s grace

I have experienced the wonderful sufficient grace and goodness of God. Given the obstacles I mentioned above, I can say without a shadow of doubt that I have been on the receiving end of God’s generous and sufficient kindness and grace. He has helped, sustained, strengthened, provided, and given me unnatural ability. Experiencing that has been humbling.

God’s generous, faithful and sustaining grace always surprises us.

Knowing myself, I can say that what has happened should never have happened. Furthermore, I am more certain of the complete truthfulness and relevance of the Bible. I have gained more insight into the power and scope of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and am more excited by the mission and calling of the Church – especially the need to plant biblically healthy churches in the burgeoning cities of South Africa.

[1] Biblically faithful gospel contextualization in urban South Africa, particularly the use of Tim Keller’s model and methodology.

John is married to Moekie and they have 2 sons; Nick is married to Sarah and he is involved in full-time Student ministry with REACH in Johannesburg and Michael, who is studying Physics at UCT.

John was converted to Jesus Christ in 1984 while in the army. He then went on to study at the Bible Institute in Cape Town. He currently pastors Grace Bible Church (an Acts 29 Church) in East London.

Moekie is a Dentist and has always seen her vocation as an opportunity to glorify God.

She is John’s greatest supporter in full time ministry and together they love being involved with God’s people and serving them.

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