Diploma Mills vs. Earned Authority

Many years ago I developed a fascination with diploma mills because I worked with pastor who had a degree from one. Diploma mills are often defined as different from degree mills in the sense that you in a degree mills you directly buy a degree, where as in a diploma mill you put in a small to insignificant amount of work in order to “earn” a degree. What does “small amount of work” mean? Well it depends upon the place but it is usually something like watch a sermon series and write a one page paper saying you watched the video. Often you receive most or all of credit necessary for the degree through your life experience.

Every now and then I go through kicks of searching through various diploma mills on the internet. This is usually because I discover someone I know, or more often someone who knows someone I know, who has such a degree. The place I spent a lot of time yesterday looking at was Andersonville Theological Seminary, which in my opinion is a diploma mill. The “seminars” you need to take for their Doctor of Ministry degree (the degree I worked my butt off to complete) usually don’t require books. Out of the 10 seminars only 2 require books. The great news is that at Andersonville you can actually pay for your undergraduate, masters, and doctor degrees all at one time and get a discount. Yep that’s a “tough” degree and quite a bargain right there my friends.

I see diploma mills, and the ones who get “degrees” from them, as examples of positional authority versus earned authority.

  • positional authority – I demand you respect and listen to me because I have a certain position or title
  • earned authority – you decide to respect and listen to me because you have seen evidence that I might have some idea what I am talking about

I’ve seen both of these forms of authority in practice. Both actually have their place. If I own the company you work for, and therefore sign your paycheck, you better pay attention when I say something. That’s just common sense. Still such positional authority augmented with earned authority is much more powerful. People willingly follow others with earned authority. People follow some one who just has positional authority only as long as they must.

I guess the thing that fascinates me about these diploma mills is that while they are a false source of authority, they also seem to be an oft quoted source of authority for the people who have degrees from such institutions. The people I know who have degrees from diploma mills (and thankfully they are few and far between) are also the ones who usually make a big deal of the title associated with their meaningless degree. They are the ones that demand to be called “Dr.” This is pretty odd to me because ministry is an amazingly merit based profession.

Ministry is one of the most merit based professions I have ever been around. If you are a good minister you will succeed no matter what your qualifications are. If you aren’t a good minister your qualifications and degrees will only get you so far. I have known several highly respected ministers with very little formal education. The first pastor I ministered with was when I was a Summer Missionary as a college student at the Temple of Faith Baptist Church in Detroit. Rochelle Davis was and is one of the most respected ministers that I have ever been around. The guy had limited formal education but had learned Greek so well on his own that he was invited to lecture at Michigan State University. Davis had an amazing amount of earned authority and still does in my life even though I haven’t seen him since 1987. I would have forgotten about Rochelle long ago if his only authority had been positional authority.

The following saying is often attributed to Francis of Assisi:

Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.

While Francis didn’t say those words (go ahead, try to find an original source) he did live them out. He practiced what he preached in such a manner that people followed him as he followed Jesus. His life earned respect and therefore people attributed authority to him.

I hope I live in such a manner that people want to respect and listen to me. I hope I live in such a manner that I earn people’s trust. Positional authority is a very weak authority for a pastor to function out of. Earned authority, on the other hand, is a powerful way to lead people into living out the promise of the kingdom of God.

SIDE NOTE – Diploma mills and fake degrees aren’t just a problem in the religious world. They happen in all sorts of places where people want an easy route to a claim, no matter how false, to positional authority. Here’s an interesting article from CNN talking about the glut of fake degrees now made easier by the internet. The reason I mention fake religious degrees is because it is the professional world that I have been most involved within and therefore it is easiest for me to see the signs of such fake positional authority in the religious world.