I recently got this very important questions from a commenter. This is a difficult question to answer in a brief and straightforward way. One ‘right’ answer is NO – please choose another profession, this one is taken. There are way too many Phd folks of higher calibre who will struggle for many, many years to find any job, let alone the one they imagined or hoped for. So, unless you have a direct line from God telling you that this is the only path, save your families some hearthache (and a boatload of money!) and reconsider.
Having said that, I do think that the world needs some better theology/Bible profs. Ones that:
1. Represent better the student body (and the wider people of God): a major area is more female professors and men and women ‘of color’. I don’t think this is just to fill a quota or seem ‘diverse’ – at Gordon-Conwell, where I did my MDIV and ThM, it was a very white student body. The students and faculty would have liked to attract more Latin American and African American students, but at the time I started, there were so few faculty of color that it would be hard to see that happening.
Keep in mind, I got beat out for jobs in some part because I am male - my wife (who went to seminary) reminds me that when a school has chosen a woman over me, that’s one more woman professor to encourage someone like my wife who felt alone and harshly judged sometimes in seminary.
2. Can do theology (as a Bible professor), or vice versa. Many have recognized that we have kept Biblical studies and theological interpretation in different rooms for far too long. Can we find professors who read widely – I have committed myself to read more ‘theologians’ – particularly Miroslav Volf, Hauerwas, and some ancients like Chrysostom. Will theology profs read Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God or Dunn’s Beginning from Jerusalem?
3. Are good communicators – ones who read monograph-level books, but can teach the ideas presented there at a freshman-in-college audience. Or who think with the scholars, but can write for the church (like Christopher Wright, Gordon Fee, John Goldingay, etc…).
4. Are confident and convicted, but are irenic and have a willingness to learn and hear during debates. I fear that too many of my own (=evangelicals) protect ‘truth’ with a sharp sword instead of a shield. How can we be heard and also listen? I go back to NT Wright’s mantra – reformed and always reforming. I have learned much from the Brits about going out for a drink after a heated seminar with the very ones whom you place on the other side of the line.
5. Can live with one foot firmly in the academy (e.g., participate in SBL-like stuff) and the other in the church (regularly teaching or preaching, serving as elders, benevolence committees, missions boards, etc…). I tend to see profs heavily leaning one way or the other. On the one side, the reclusive professor who writes weighty books and hopes that someone will explain them to laypeople, somehow. On the other side, the professor who moonlights as a pastor but is not interested in being sharpened academically and reading those esoteric books, some of which have powerful ideas in them.
6. Actually care for students – this is common sense to some of us, but too many professors I have known don’t bother to learn the students names, talk to them in hallways or the cafeteria (heaven forbid some should actually eat in the cafeteria!), and make them feel welcome when they interrupt the office hours that are posted but just seem like any other hours. I admit that in seminary, I would go to a profs office hours and wait, only for them to never show up! Ouch! At Gordon-Conwell, I felt that most professors kept a barrier to protect their professionalism and not get too chummy with students. I can see some sense in that, but I really desired to be discipled and to have a mentor. Sadly, I didn’t really find one. Part of this lack of involvement is just busyness – professors are overworked and (way) underpaid. What can you do? I have committed myself to having lunchtime reading groups to work through some of the books I have assigned that we will not be able to discuss in class. This is my way of getting personal time with a smaller group who seek that out. Also, I am going to try to have a community service project I coordinate for all of my students who can earn extra credit by putting their biblical knowledge into practice by serving others. I will be serving shoulder-to-shoulder with them (habitat for humanity, or a soup kitchen, or fixing up an old church building, etc…).
SO – these are just some reasons why maybe the dream to become a professor is still alive. When schools get dozens and dozens of job applications, I fear that a number of these applicants are cookie-cutter shapes – ‘I wrote this, I studied with this guy, I went to this school, I want to be a professor’. Today, you need something else to make it to the top of the pile: you need to be a leader. I fear that many bible profs are ‘scholars’ but not leaders. They are ‘thinkers’ but not visionaries. They are one-dimensional. I don’t consider myself to be the cream of the crop or anything. In some ways, I was fortunate enough to be at the right place (like Durham) at the right time. But also I was willing to think outside the box. I was bold enough to go after things because I didn’t want to be another [fill-in-the-blank]. I do see a few people out there who are pushing the envelope, in terms of serving academy and church. Too few, though.
The bottom line – I would trade in 10 cookie-cutter profs for one discerning, humble, church-serving, think-outside-the-box scholar that works for and with students to understand theology and the Bible for the good of the modern world. If you can step up and strive for that, I will back you up all the way.