More seminary students leave the Master of Divinity behind

Sean Robinson, left, stands next to professor Stephen Eccher at the commencement ceremony at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in May 2017. Robinson graduated May 11, 2018, with another master's degree. Photo courtesy Sean Robinson

(RNS) — Like many seminary students walking across the stage to accept their diplomas at commencement ceremonies this month, Sean Robinson already has a job lined up.

Beginning in June, he will be the new minister to students and their families at Open Door Church in Raleigh, N.C.

But Robinson’s diploma isn’t the traditional Master of Divinity, awarded to seminary students who have completed a three-year course of study.

He’s graduating with a master’s degree in ministry and leadership. And increasingly many other seminary students are, too.

The gold standard for church leaders — the Master of Divinity — is losing some of its luster to its humbler cousin, the two-year Master of Arts.

“People are trying to get the training they need and get out,” said Robinson, 28, who graduated Friday (May 11) from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “It all boils down to time and convenience and the culture and lifestyle we see today.”

A new projection from the Association of Theological Schools, the main accrediting body for seminaries in the U.S. and Canada, finds that the number of seminary students enrolled in various Master of Arts degrees will likely exceed the number of Master of Divinity students by 2021.

Head count enrollment in master’s degrees, at ATS accredited seminaries. Graphic courtesy of Chris Meinzer




There were 28,400 students enrolled in the Master of Divinity degree last year, a gradual decline from a high of 35,000 in 2006. By comparison, there were 23,300 students enrolled in seminary Master of Arts programs last year, up from 20,800 in 2006.

The reasons for the decline in the Cadillac degree, required by most mainline denominations as well as the Catholic Church for anyone wanting to serve as pastor or associate pastor, are many and multifaceted.

One is the growth of seminaries affiliated with evangelical and Pentecostal denominations. These religious groups don’t typically require the Master of Divinity for men and women who want to be ordained.

Over the past 50 years, the share of Americans who identify with mainline Protestants, on the other hand, has been shrinking significantly as younger millennials leave the church and the ranks of the unaffiliated grows.

Some seminaries have responded by trimming the Master of Divinity credit hours from 90 to as low as 72 to be more competitive with the shorter M.A. degrees, while still keeping it a three-year degree.

It hasn’t worked.

“There’s no indication that reducing Master of Divinity credit hours leads to increased enrollment,” said Chris Meinzer, senior director of administration and chief financial officer at ATS.

Instead, the economics of church decline and practicalities of today’s students may play bigger roles.

Attending school full-time for three years and incurring loan obligations may contribute to some students’ calculations.

“The crisis we have is that if you’re graduating with a Master of Divinity you’re likely graduating with some significant debt and then you’ll struggle to find jobs and jobs that pay really low wages,” said Cameron Trimble, CEO of the Center for Progressive Renewal, which trains Christian leaders and helps older churches grow.

Of course, attending seminary is far cheaper than law or medical school. Half of seminary students incur no debt when they graduate, and the average debt is $36,000, according to the ATS, which accredits 270 theological schools.

But unlike previous generations in which students graduated from college and went straight to seminary, many of today’s students have already worked in some church capacity, meaning that congregations have already cracked open the door to their future employment. Completing a degree may be more a matter of earning ongoing professional training.

Robinson, for example, started out as a Master of Divinity student but he switched to the M.A. track because he thought he might have an opportunity to plant a church in San Diego and wanted to complete his studies early. When that didn’t pan out, he found a full-time job at his seminary as an admissions counselor while taking classes for his master’s degrees as a part-time student.

“I felt like, with what I was receiving in the M.A., it was no different from what was being offered in the M.Div,” he said.

Increasingly, some denominations feel that way, too.

The United Church of Christ, a liberal denomination, has traditionally required a Master of Divinity degree for anyone seeking to be ordained as a pastor. But in 2005, it adopted a “multiple pathways resolution” that allowed exceptions to the rule. The idea was to better respond to the needs of African-American, Native American and other minority congregations.

More recently, exceptions have been granted to men and women serving largely white communities, said John Dorhauer, president of the denomination.

Dorhauer said the denomination has developed a tool for assessing who has the right mix of skills to be a minister in lieu of a Master of Divinity called the “Marks for Faithful and Effective Authorized Minsters.

“Getting a Master of Divinity is no longer assurance, that, given how much is changing in the nature of church, that those who graduate with an M.Div are fully equipped to lead the churches that are emerging on the horizon,” he said.

Angie Arendt is a United Church of Christ minister in Ontario. Photo courtesy Angie Arendt

Angie Arendt, a UCC minister in Almonte, Ontario, started out as a lay minister in a small church in Gilman, Iowa. She later took a job as a youth minister and small groups minister at a much larger UCC church in Des Moines, Iowa.

Though she took classes part-time at United Theological Seminary near Minneapolis, she never graduated but was ordained  a minister.

“I’m really grateful for the time I had there, but I still had this amazing job in ministry that I loved,” she said. “For me to go to seminary made absolutely no sense. Why would I stop doing what they were training me to do?”

Other mainline denominations are also reassessing their pathways to ordination.

And many seminaries are realizing their curricula may rely too heavily on the traditional academic subjects such as biblical studies, theology, Christian ethics, Hebrew and Greek, and that they lack a more intentional emphasis on leadership formation.

Some are beginning to address that. As a first move, they are also allowing working students the opportunity to take classes online.

A few years ago, the ATS began allowing seminaries to offer online master’s degrees. It now allows seminaries — such as Southeastern Baptist — to offer an online Master of Divinity with no on-campus requirements. Nearly 30 seminaries — or about 10 percent of the total — offer those online degrees.

It’s not clear if that option will lead more students to take up the Master of Divinity degree. Many of those online degrees are not necessarily cheaper.

At Southeastern’s commencement Friday, 97 graduates received their Master of Divinity degree and 87 were awarded M.A.s. While applications to the Master of Divinity program grew a modest 6 percent over the past decade, the numbers of M.A. applications at Southeastern have exploded.

From 2008 to 2017, Southeastern more than doubled the number of M.A. students, said Bruce Ashford, the provost and dean of the faculty. Southeastern offers 16 different M.A. tracks — nine professional degrees and seven academic.

“We still believe the M.Div is an important degree,” Ashford said. “We recommend it as our primary track for students going into pastoral ministry or missions.” But he acknowledged, “The M.A. is an attractive option for many.”

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.


Click here to post a comment

  • I just have one question “for men and women who … [in] seeking to be ordained as a pastor … [are] reassessing their pathways to ordination.”

    Were THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation, and His 1st apostles and disciples, EVER “seeking to be ordained as a pastor … [and] reassessing their pathways to ordination”?

    Back that up, please, with chapters & verses from you-know-where.

  • I’ve always felt the Masters of Divinity was an ephemeral misnomer and largely superfluous in any case.

  • When the American Christian Church is leaning into all the forms and effects of Trumpism, it’s hard for me to guess whether we had too few with the Master of Divinity degree or too many. If doesn’t really take three years of study to know whether “every word of the Bible is true” or whether much of it is accumulated myth and lore which we are to overcome with “love your neighbor as you love yourself”.

    With degrees or without, we are lacking the pastors with the panache to convince people that Jesus is the savior—-not church, not vague “God”, not Genesis, not the ten commandments, not Paul, not the prophets, not Revelation, not end times speculation.

  • Some churches now view the 2 year Masters of Theological Studies as acceptable for ordination. Some accept a Certificate in various fields of theological study. Some churches which have local church ordinations, such as many Baptist denominations, including the Southern Baptists, don’t require any particular educational standard.

    Acual scholars, which I think that the church needs, have multi-year masters and doctrinal degrees.

  • Get with it, Goatherd. We’re talking theology industry here. Not some cottage industry where “the Master of Divinity degree [is relied upon] to convince people that Jesus is the savior”. Here are the jobs you can land with an MDiv – which is what this article’s talking to you about since, it says, “20 hours ago”:

    Adult Ministry
    Church Manager
    Church Planter
    Disaster Ministries
    Institutional/Military Chaplain
    Internet Ministry
    Leisure Ministries
    Metropolitan Ministries
    Missionary Outreach
    Youth Ministry

    Camp Administrator
    Community Development
    Crisis Services
    Family Life Center Management
    Financial Counseling
    Program Director
    Public Relations
    Vocational Training

    Oh speaking of “Trumpism”, you know, right? Donald got his MDiv from … hmm let me Yahoo Search that info for you. Be back in a decade.

  • I’m aware that there is a “theology industry”, just as there are such things as a “military industrial complex”, Hollywood, K-Street lobbying, payday lending, unregulated financial trading and anything/everything on the dark web. Call me old-fashioned, but anyone near “Divinity” is supposed to help us see through the various pitfalls—-not just get dressed to go swimming in them.

  • Master of the Universe sounds much more impressive. Or, for more humble folks, the Master of Humanity.

  • Sorry, but when I think of Divinity, a light airy confection with nuts comes to mind. But I don’t link Divinity with the Divine.

  • In 1986, after I got a Masters in Theological Studies, I couldn’t get a position in any religious organization to save my soul. The MTS was not seen as viable in the field.

    I returned to seminary and got a M.Div, and 20 years later specialized Interim training leaving, at present, a retired minister with three Masters.

    Youdo the math

  • Seminaries seem to be reacting to the market and are losing a sense of mission. With all the short cuts to ordination, congregations get watered down leadership with high expectations. A high percentage of second career candidates is also part of the short-cutting. I often wonder if the glut of second career candidates has more to due with people trying to avoid embracing technology in their first chosen fields than a sense of call. Dedicated laity, with no ordination but lifetimes of church service and training, pick up the slack for no pay, little recognition or respect from church leaders. Our congregation experienced pastors who had no knowledge of church procedure. They count on laity being equally unknowledgeable. This kind of ineptitude creates congregational conflict when lay leaders point to the constitutions. It seems like “taking the interim training” is a favorite short-track, which means candidates see this as valuable to finding employment—which means most congregations will be dealing with interims by design if not by need—which leaves congregations rudderless for an undetermined amount of time—unless lay people step up. Perhaps it is time to reevaluate the entire purpose of ordination, church structure, and the role of pastors and seminaries.

  • I think it actually had a very practical purpose – at least in some instances. Appropriate way of responding to adults who feel a calling to minister at some later point in their adult life – rather than being on a post-secondary career trajectory – so in many instances you are looking a folks who already have post-secondary degrees..

  • The UCC policy comes across as saying “you don’t have to be as educated to serve minority congregations.” Maybe they’ll talk about that during their Sacred Conversations to End Racism.

  • As a member of the laity, I would like new pastors to be greeted with help with their student loans.

  • John 4: “Yes And he must needs go through Samaria. Then come he to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour….”

    He has come to this appointment with the scarlet woman of sixth men who come to draw water in the hot day sun when other women already got their water in the cool morning. He fulfilled the appointment made 1900 years before by their forefathers Jacob to Joseph in Genesis 49:22 “Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a WELL; whose branches run over the WALL:” Here is the place where the fruit branch is located at the well of Jacob to cross over the Judaic wall of religion to the outside wall, the first crop of the gentiles.

    Now He became the seventh Man of her life and she became the evangelist (the gentile church) to her village (gentile world) converting many. They invited Jesus to abode for two days (two thousand years). Then they said to the woman (the church) “Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”

    Many many more now hear Jesus every day themselves not because of the organ recitals. They have bible study, small groups, home churches, anointed preachers on TV with foolishness of preaching to confound the high churches. And with signs following.

  • No but Paul did or at least was one of the religious elite if you want to equate someone with an MDiv as being one of the religious elite.