By Kate Riney
Part of my job in admissions is recruiting new students, so I go to grad school fairs regularly and when students approach my booth and read my banner they say, “Theology… that's like preaching, right?” I can't help but smile and jump at the chance to share with them what studying theology can do for them. Yes, theology and divinity schools are the new names for seminaries and yes, what we typically associate with ministry or seminary is the art of preaching, but it is so much more.
A Master of Divinity degree (M.Div.) is comprised of several disciplines. At the core it includes biblical studies, biblical languages, hermeneutics/preaching (interpretation and presenta such as bioethics, faith and atheism, restorative justice, church planting, world religions, feminist hermeneutics, ministry of writing, change and conflict, community development, nonprofit leadership, etc. (A full list of courses offered at McAfee can be found here.)
For those seeking a Ph.D. in a theological discipline with hopes to join the Academy and teach at the undergraduate or graduate level, a Master in Theological Studies may be your best option. This degree is typically shorter than an M.Div. to complete and focuses on language, biblical, or historical studies. It does not include classes with contextual education or practical ministry components such as pastoral care or missions.
Many seminaries will also offer Master of Arts degrees that focus on specific disciplines such as worship or missions. McAfee takes a different approach, offering our Master of Arts degree to those seeking a generalist education and providing multiple ways to specialize the Master of Divinity through track options and dual degrees. Another way seminaries enable you to narrow your focus is by offering certificate programs, which tends to be a group of 4 to 5 courses from the same discipline, much like an undergraduate minor.
For some students, trying to choose a track or specialization feels constraining. As you are “getting your feet wet” and developing a ministerial identity, you want to learn a lot of new things and experiment. After all, no one has a singular interest. But choosing a specialization doesn't have to eliminate your chances to discover and take other classes that are interesting to you. Let's use Alexis as an example. Alexis came to seminary with a passion for foreign missions. She spent time after college studying and ministering abroad in Cambodia and would like to go back one day to help girls who are recovering from physical and sexual abuse. She chooses her seminary based on the location, ethos, and faculty reputation. When it comes time to declare a track, she chooses the community development track because she thinks she will need an understanding of how to build sustainable partnerships in Cambodia when she returns, but she also takes most of her free electives in the area of Pastoral Care so that she will know how to provide appropriate care and pastoral counseling to her future clients there. She also goes on a mission immersion trip to Southeast Asia to continue improving her cross-cultural skills and open her mind-set. Alexis was able to choose one track, but tailored her education with 3 disciplines in addition to all her foundational classes. This is one example of what can be done through a mixture of contextualized education. You can also use internships/fellowships, independent study, dual degrees, and postgraduate certificates to gain the knowledge and skills you need as you define the field you would like to minister in.
One myth of graduate education is that degrees are better than certificates so the more degrees you get the better it looks on a resume. That's not at all true, actually. Graduate certificates offer a level of specificity that undergraduate certificates do not and a postgraduate certificate is an even more esteemed credential, so you should consider what kind of certificate program is being offered. Certificate programs often give you more concentrated specialization without having to take as many classes. They are particularly helpful in science or human services fields like marriage and family therapy. Adding more credentials or letters after your name is not the point of going back to school. The aim is to find the education that will offer you the knowledge, and skills required by the profession you seek.
Always check with the ordaining, accrediting, or certifying bodies that regulate your profession before choosing an option. For instance, some denominations require a degree from a member seminary to qualify for ordination, which will limit your choices and help you narrow down your prospective schools. Professions that require licensure like counseling will require a very specific type of degree; ask your admissions representative whether the degree you are considering prepares you for licensure. Biblical counseling degrees typically do not, and this will limit your employment options and prohibit you from accepting insurance for billing. Chaplaincy will prioritize hours of clinical pastoral education (CPE) worked over degrees and certifications. Each field has it's own standard and measure, so seek out advisors who work in the field you have in mind before choosing a degree.
For those making a career change after 5+ years, don't be feel forced to get a degree. Employers look for a clear dedication and goal in someone's educational and vocational experiences. If it appears that you've flitted from one field to another with no apparent goal in mind, it might raise red flags to an employer who is looking for someone dedicated and passionate that will stay in the job for several years with commitment and conviction. On the other hand, if all your experience and education is in one field, you might be perceived as an expert without transferrable skills or marketability. There is a middle of the road option wherein students can focus their studies with one or two goals in mind, but add skill sets that compliment their desired profession and make them a well-rounded candidate. Sometimes you do not need to get yet another degree to change careers. Oftentimes you just need to audit a few courses, get a certificate, or participate in a contextual education opportunity that allows you to show your interest and transferable skills on paper. You'll save yourself lots of time and money and impress potential employers, whether in the ministry, nonprofit, or for profit sector.
By building on your knowledge base and taking courses in subjects that you have not already mastered you will stay interested in school and get the most out of your education. It's not about the degree, it's about the content and character of the education you receive. Choose a seminary that offers options and narrow your focus as you go.