Waggener’s help for doctoral students in synchronous program hits close to home

Timothy McKeown
| Nov 8, 2022

When Joshua Waggener, professor of church music and worship in the School of Church Music and Worship (SCMW) at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 2014, it took him five years and numerous trips “across the pond,” he said, to graduate from Durham University in England. 

Now, as the coordinator of the SCMW Ph.D. program since August, he is helping students achieve their terminal degrees online, without disrupting their jobs and displacing their families. “I couldn’t have written a job description that fits my gifts better,” Waggener said of serving at Southwestern Seminary. “I have a fairly rare position. The reason I was brought here was because Southwestern has a Ph.D. program in church music, one of the very few in the country and of course the only school of music at a seminary in North America,” said Waggener.

In 2009, as a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, he wanted to earn his terminal degree, but did not want to leave his position and uproot his family. “There was a professor who allowed me to do a doctorate in England, studying music and theology together,” he explained.

Waggener’s research emphases were music, theology, and aesthetics. Over the next five years, Waggener journeyed back and forth to England and often says he and his wife Jessica jointly earned his doctoral degree in 2014. “I say we, because my wife held the fort, raising and homeschooling our three kids, they were young,” Waggener recalled. “It was difficult, a sacrifice for all of us, but it was just a season.” 

This experience causes him to have great empathy for the students he now mentors, Waggener said. He feels it is “a real honor” to come to serve “in Cowden Hall and the school of music, a hundred years in operation” with “an incredible background,” he said. Because of his own experience he had in traveling away from home as a doctoral student, he especially appreciates providing students the opportunity to earn a doctorate through the synchronous program, which allows a live interactive classroom experience. 

Southwestern has an “incredible history of training church musicians and worship leaders,” Waggener said. Being part of the “broader seminary here at Southwestern is absolutely amazing,” he said, noting the SCMW provides a “rare program where students can stay within their ministry context and then get a terminal degree to enrich them where they are” and prepare them for future work, including writing, publishing, or teaching in higher education, “which some of them are already [are as] adjunct or full-time professors around the country.” 

Waggener is teaching a study of the Psalms this semester to graduate students, “which is such a delight, as we appreciate the psalter as a primary resource for worship that guides us in prayers, which we teach as doctrine as inspired Scripture. So, all these things that I absolutely love--music and history and Scriptures--all coming together.” 

Thinking about “how exponentially influencing” it can be as a professor, Waggener said he hopes “to invest in students by helping them develop a vision for biblical worship and especially for the doctoral students to develop and share that vision through research, writing, and teaching.” 

“We get so involved in our lives, our ministries, our jobs. There are a lot of nuts and bolts, a lot of ministry details, but what will sustain us for the long term is that vision for God for who He is. A vision for biblical worship,” Waggener explained further about what he seeks to impart to his students. “That [perspective] can sustain us; that can be a model for ministry. The details are important but so is remembering the why and where we are going, and what is our focus.” 

Being available to talk and discuss questions in and outside of class is important, Waggener said. “My philosophy of education is mentoring and discipleship, so asking questions to my students is a big part of who I am and engaging students with questions.”

“My doctoral students, I am very much mentoring them academically, but most of these are already full-time in ministry or teaching at Christian colleges. So, having the opportunity to mentor them, we have a lot of talks about ministry and how they can serve where they are at, about pedagogy, developing skills for the classroom,” he said. 

One of the students Waggener has impacted in the short time he has been at Southwestern Seminary is James Cheesman, associate pastor and worship leader at First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, and adjunct professor at Southwestern Seminary and Texas Baptist College. Cheesman will be the music director during the 2023 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

“Dr. Waggener starts class with prayer and prays for each student in our class individually,” said Cheesman, who has Waggener for Research and Writing for Church Music, a doctoral introduction course. “He takes an interest in our lives and frequently asks how things are going, both during this opening prayer time, during class, and after class. He encourages us each with specific comments about our callings and interests.”

“I am very grateful to be online and still serve my church,” noted Cheesman, who said that he has submitted the research of the modern hymns for his dissertation, for which Waggener is very supportive and helpful because of Waggener’s connection with many of the modern hymn writers.

Waggener has been the president of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music since February 2021 and has helped students in submitting research papers for academic proposals to the organization. Waggener, who has been a member of the society since 2009, “has the knowledge of what they are looking for,” Cheesman said. 

Southwestern is providing a unique ministry in its music program for the seminary and Texas Baptist College, but especially in its doctoral program, Waggener said. “It’s a tight job market in higher education but there are many Christian colleges in recent years that have developed worship programs of various sorts and we are seeking to equip those who will be influential in the next generations of worship leaders.”

Waggener’s own experience serving congregations aids him in teaching his students. “I’ve been involved in ministry of the local church for most of my past 24 years of my teaching career, in paid, volunteer, and interim positions. 

Waggener served as an elder for many years at Grace Baptist Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina, which “brought a pastoral perspective to my work as well, helping students to develop a pastoral heart for the church.” Before coming to Fort Worth, Waggoner preached a sermon on Psalm 100 on worship at the church.

In addition to his doctorate, Waggener earned a Master of Church Music degree from Southeastern Seminary, a Master of Music from the University of Georgia in Athens, and a Bachelor of Music degree from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He also has had numerous academic publications and research presentations regarding worship and theology.