Creative Leadership

Are “Honorary” Doctorates Real Academic Degrees?

When it comes to overblown titles, one thing that’s rampant in the Christian world (besides mail order degrees) are pastors and other leaders using honorary doctorates as if they were actual Ph.D. degrees. In case you were wondering – authoritative sources say they shouldn’t. While there are only a few instances I could find of written policies such as this one from Brandeis University, many, many university presidents, and highly regarded professors agree:  an “honorary” doctorate is more of a “lifetime achievement” award. Certainly it’s a great honor, and should be celebrated, but it’s in no way comparable to a degree that someone works years to complete.

From one major Christian university president:
“I don’t usually refer to honorary docs as Dr. It’s a principle thing, but there are no rules on this. What irks me most is when those with honorary docs call themselves Dr. It’s one thing for others to use that title, but another thing for the recipient to use it.”

From a department head of a leading seminary:
“There is nothing against the use of Dr. explicitly, but it normally is abbreviated h. c. (for cause out of honor) in a CV to distinguish it from an earned versus honorary degree.”

Another major Christian university president:
“The practice is long standing in university life, but NO, no one who gets an honorary doctorate ever takes upon themselves the name, “Doctor.” That is an earned title.”

Enjoy your honorary doctorate. Frame it and put it on the wall. List it as an honorary award on your resume or CV. But pastors and ministry leaders – let’s save the “Dr.” title for those who have actually earned it.

Anyone care to disagree? Do you think the title of “honorary” doctor is overused?


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  1. Totally agree Phil. In fact, i get upset with this whole “title” thing anyway. Why even be known as Dr Pastor? Why not just “Bill” or if some insist “Pastor Bill?” We have an overblown estimate of ourselves-earned or unearned.

    1. Hello Bill,

      I have been reading all the posts on & I love what you said. I desired to to achieve degrees as I have attended about 6 years of schools, Bible Training schools. However I myself can’t understand why I desired such degrees. I wrote out my goals to begin to achieve a bachelors, Masters and PhD rather earned or honorary. Unbeknownst to me that I would be awarded an honorary PhD for the 20 years of ministry work that I have been privileged to participate, join, start or lead. I’ve had much difficulty in receiving it as Father GOD doesn’t need for us to have any recognition from man. I am unable to call myself “Dr.” & I don’t allow others to call me that. I simply go by Lanette. When I do use the gift “Pastor” its usually in the form of “Lead-servant, Pastor Lanette”. In terms of the gift of pastor that I’m privileged to walk in, I asked Father God was it necessary to be called “pastor” because I don’t feel the need to be call “pastor” as the gift/Anointing that Christ has given me has always been honored & received. The response that came to my heart was it was NEVER necessitated anywhere in the Bible. Men did that & In spite of my personal desires to achieve degrees, my family & friends question as to why I won’t list it on my emails or on Facebook. Its because I am honored that the LORD allowed me the privilege to receive one. Now I’ve recently received a Bachelors’ degree in Biblical Studies & am on to the Master’s Program, then the doctorates after that. I enjoy doing the work & I love to learn, even greater I’m tremendously honored to be a lead-servant for the Kingdom of God. When questioned as to why I don’t require people to call me “pastor” or let them know about the received awards, my response I will ONLY if it will encourage others & lead to praising the LORD who allowed me such a privilege & honor. Once I receive my earned doctorates, I desire to be kept by the same humility because I believe it is a greater inspiration than to go by those titles that puff us up. I thank you for your responses, my heart desires that all men would be thankful to our LORD & remember that the words “well-done thy good and faithful servant” won’t come from any achievement we were able to accomplish on our own, but by the love we show one to another and lifting GOD up that HE may draw all men.
      Blessings & Peace

      1. I don’t think it’s bad if someone wants to appreciate your ministerial service by calling you pastor or even reverend. It’s a tribute to the one who calls more than anything!

  2. As with most multi-faceted communities, the Academy (academic world) also has a perceived hierarchy of doctoral degrees. For example, the degrees are bifurcated between “professional” and “academic” programs. The D.Min (Doctorate of Ministry) is a professional degree while the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) is THE academic degree – research based. Then of course, there is the rub between the traditional M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) and the D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) There has also been a proliferation of other professional doctoral degrees: DBA (Business), DSL (Leadership), etc. So, while only 1% of Americans hold a doctoral degree, those that are EARNED are held by very dedicated and hard working academics and professionals. As a consequence, we all wince, make faces, or openly scorn those who wear three chevrons on their regalia and call themselves “Dr.” but never earned a true degree.

  3. Phil Cooke needs a lesson in History. Period! Increase Mather had an Honorary Doctorate and was Harvard President 16 years. Liberal Arts degrees were signed by HIM. Nice shots from cowards castle. I’ll take you on the issue LIVE anytime. -Dr. Steve Anderson, Transworld Accrediting Commission Int

    1. Mr. Mathers also had “legitimate” degrees as well, did he not?
      to say that his honorary degree played a part in his acquiring the office of Harvard President is a bit of a stretch.

    2. Dr. Anderson – that was 304 years ago. Can you give us any examples of a major university like Harvard allowing “honorary” doctorates to be used the same as an earned one?

    3. Dr. Anderson, I see your organization accredits schools like the “Carol Elaine School of the Prophetic” and the “Deliverance School of Ministry.” I think Phil’s talking here about real colleges and universities, not local Bible schools. Also – the heated nature of your response makes me wonder if your doctorate is honorary or earned, and where did it come from?

    4. Anyone who demands to be called DR. such as Mr. Anderson above implies, doesn’t deserve to be recognized by such an honorific. Egos and arrogance precedes the character of such individuals, and as such, those individuals (Mr. Anderson included) should simply referred to as “fool” for their folly.

  4. It seems to me that since the word honorary is generally understood to
    mean “conferred as an honor, without the usual requirements or
    functions.” ( and the
    synonyms are “symbolic, ceremonial, unofficial, token, nominal, and in
    name only” the implication is that it would be improper to use what is “in name only” as an official title. Further, there is a hierarchical understanding that only universities are able to grant doctorates. Since more colleges have now entered the fray of granting “honorary doctorates” there is an understanding that since a college itself cannot grant or confer a doctorate, the understanding is that an honorary conferral is just that – an honor. Not a license to refer to oneself as a doctor. In most cases, honorary degrees are conferred in appreciation of a person’s accomplishments rather than a recognition of scholarly work. You gotta do the time! 🙂

  5. I can’t imagine ever personally referring to an “honorary” by the title, but I intentionally omit it in other circumstances, as well; chief among those circumstances would be arrogance in the titleholder. For me, it’s simple — if a person obviously gets too much of his or her identity from the title, I withhold it and deny him or her of it every time….from outside of one’s profession, there is zero reason to expect to hear it.

  6. I am a dropout from a phd program but i have an invention to my credit. Those who receive the honorary doctorate are too busy doing real world work that is often times of more significance than theoretical stuff.

  7. I once worked for a guy who owed a publishing company…and a mail order degree company. He gave HIMSELF a doctorate. Then insisted everyone in the company address him as Dr.______ What a joke!

  8. If a institution of higher earning bestows a degree upon a person, no matter how, the person is free to claim the title.

    If someone wishes to “judge” the degree’s value, ask the name of the institution, for it is their reputation.

    Which reminds me, we still call a freshly graduated physician who barely passed his classes, “Doctor.”

    (BTW … My title above is fake … until I check the mailbox later today)

  9. The recently retired dean of a major seminary sent me this email in response to this blog:

    “Bestowing honorary doctorate degrees upon persons for outstanding achievement is a normative tradition in American higher education. The title of such degrees, however, denotes they are honorary. In theological circles, the most common of these are the Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) and the Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.). Maybe with the growing abuse of these degrees for self-promotion, we need to write a “Users’ Guide” and require it to be issued with the diploma. It is normally acceptable protocol for a recipient of an honorary degree to place the degree notation behind his/her name, (John Smith, D.D.). The abuse and offense arises when the recipient uses the honor for self-enhancement or validation. This seems to be a growing practice in religious circles. Recipients sign their name, label their stationary, promote themselves or have others promote them as “Dr. Smith.” I increasingly receive letters from religious leaders who sign their names as “Dr. _______” with no mention of the kind of degree or where it is from! Is there an intentional effort to promote oneself as having comparable credentials as those with earned degrees? As religious leaders, we must avoid the appearance of deception or self-promotion.”

  10. I just received this Twitter message from John Wilson, editor of “Books and Culture” and editor at large for Christianity Today magazine:
    “There is no legitimate debate. It’s not kosher to “use” an honorary degree in that way. Period.”

  11. I understand that the honorary doctorate puffery is likely part of the reason Pope Francis has put the kibosh on the title “monsignor” for parish priests.

  12. I just saw a fantastic Twitter post from A.J. Swoboda (@mrajswoboda) that brings a different perspective to this issue:
    “After reflection, I’ve concluded that the less I’m living by God’s love, the more important it is for me to remind people about my PhD.”

  13. A former boss once said to me, ‘some people need to have a nice office to know they’re important’. The same has to be true of honorary titles. If you want to use a title, go and put in the work and earn one.

  14. The practice should be stopped. There is enough practice of verbal gymnastics, slight of mouth trickery, obfuscation, “lawyering”, mental gaslighting in our society to render this idiotic practice of bestowing on someone an honorary anything. Ex. obama accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Where did he create peace? Not even a year in office and he accepts a Nobel Peace Prize and $1.4 million dollars. Ironically, the honorable thing would have been for him to NOT accept.

  15. You think it is easy to earn an honorary doctorate? As mentioned it is like a lifetime achievement award. How do you compare a few years of slaving away at studies (with no guarantee of what your future contributions to fellow humans) to a lifetime of making a positive impact on people? “Dr.” is indeed earned and I think more so than by way of the typical avenue through studies.

    1. Great. Then my suggestion would be to call it a “Lifetime Achievement Award” and not a Ph.D. since the doctorate is very different. And if a legit Ph.D. was so easy, we wouldn’t need an “honorary” version, since more people would actually do the course work, research, and dissertation for the real thing.

      1. I agree. I have seen and heard preachers with honorary doctorate degrees preach sermons with simply crappy exegesis, in which a first years student in greek would have done better. When I obtain earned degrees, I earned the right to be considered competent in a subject. a man with an honorary degree just has not earned that right.

  16. The self-referencing use of the title “Doctor” (in publications, business cards, speaking engagements, professional websites, etc.) by those who possess only honorary degrees is especially disturbing when it occurs among confessional Lutheran clergy, who should be more than satisfied and honored with the title they were given when accepting their Divine Call as a servant of the Word.

  17. There is a similar issue with self-promotion that goes on in the software development world: today, software guys user the term “Software Engineer” for self-promotion, when they used to use terms like “Software Developer” or “Web Developer”. Nowadays, the title is “Application Architect”, etc. Self-promotion, pure and simple.

  18. Anyone who goes around calling themselves “doctor” outside of their specific professional context is pretentious, even if they’ve earned a doctorate. Insisting on being called “doctor,” particularly in non-professional contexts, is like being the high schooler who felt no value unless they were the center of attention. It’s craving validation, whether the person has an earned or an honorary doctorate.

    Now, on the other hand, the people with earned PhDs and complain that the honorary doctorate system is intrinsically bad are equally guilty. While it’s true that many times universities hand out honorary doctorates for absurd reasons, it’s also equally true that sometimes they are given to people who have contributed hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of times more to their field than someone with an earned PhD ever will. Almost every person with a PhD in music will be forgotten, but people will remember Paul McCartney. Most PhDs in literature will be forgotten, but people will remember Leo Tolstoy.

    If an honorary doctorate is given out just for fluff and show, then I agree, that should be scrapped. But when it is given to someone who is truly an exceptional leader in their field, then it’s entirely valid, and those traditionally-earned PhDs who complain about it probably have sour grapes because spent years of tedious work and racked up debt whereas someone else did it better, cheaper, and became more famous. And there’s no virtue in being resentful.

    1. I agree with the foregoing. Physicians have successfully and universally cowed society into accepting the use of “doctor” well outside their professional context. This is absurd in light of what physicians in Britain were three centuries ago: barbers. Clergy are the worst abusers of the honorary degree. In my church body, Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, those with honorary degrees are called “Doctor” while those who earned doctorates outside theology are not acknowledged as such.

  19. If I remember, the problem wasn’t a veteran parish priest with the title, but rather the younger “monsignori” in the Roman Curia or other prominent places with “career” expectations. In an lot of languages (at least Romantic ones), it’s actually the same title of address shared by bishops. Francis actually maintained the possibility of retired priests being named Monsignor.

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