October 1, 2013
Does the M.Div. Have a Future?
What do changes in seminary education mean for the classic pastoral degree?
Long the gold standard of seminary education, the Masters of Divinity degree is a requirement for ordination in many denominations. It requires students to make a serious commitment—usually three years, long study hours, and thousands of tuition dollars. They immerse themselves in biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek—some eagerly, some begrudgingly. The result has been a trusted and standardized course of theological study.
But things are changing.
Four significant influences have shifted students, and consequently schools, away from the M.Div. and into alternative learning tracks. The rise of non-denominational churches that no longer require seminary education, significant financial debt incurred by students who are headed into a profession that will not necessarily empower them to pay it off, the rising possibility and acceptability of online education, and the decline of mainline Protestant denominations have all raised questions about the viability of the M.Div.
“We’re in a huge paradigm shift in terms of theological education, both in the way it’s delivered and the content,” said Fuller Seminary’s Kurt Fredrickson. He’s a reverend, and Associate Dean for Doctor of Ministry and Continuing Education and Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry.
“It’s causing conniptions all over the place.
Back in the day, I got a three year degree and then went out into the church. Today the number of people willing to move to a campus is getting smaller and smaller.” Fuller recently launched the MAGL degree, a 72 unit Masters of the Arts in Global Leadership. This month they launch two new Masters degrees: the Masters of the Arts in Theology and Ministry (MATS) and the Masters of the Arts in Intercultural Studies (MAICS). “We’re reconfiguring our M.Div. It’s going to be completely different a year from now,” he said.
This will include dropping the required number of units from 144 to 120.
Rev. Dr. Scott Daniels, Dean of the School of Theology and Professor of Theology at Azusa Pacific University, agrees that seminary education is changing. “The M.Div. is no longer the ‘ticket’ into ordination for most pastors,” Daniels observes. “The future of the M.Div. and other theology degrees seems to hinge solely upon the perceived ‘value added’ for people in ministry.”
In his 2012 address to the Lausanne Consultation on Global Theological Education in the Twenty First Century, Dr. Don Sweeting, President of Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, observed that “students have more options than ever. Not only are there multiplying locations and formats, there is a multiplying variety of degrees. The M.Div. remains the most popular choice, but MAs with all kinds of concentrations are growing.” He cited declining seminary enrollment figures and declining M.Div. numbers.
Even the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the accrediting agency made up of 268 schools, is adapting. Tisa Lewis, Senior Director of Accreditation and Institutional Evaluation at the ATS noted that in 2012 the ATS made its first significant revisions to it Educational and Degree Program Standards in 16 years. “Education is changing way too quickly for it to keep the same shelf life,” she said. The ATS has never set a strict number of units required for the M.Div., though the standards require “a minimum of three academic years of full-time work or its equivalent,” and “at least one year of full-time academic study or its equivalent shall be completed at the main campus….” However, for the first time in 2012, the Board approved exceptions to its residency requirement, and in August of 2013 began approving specific requests for exceptions. Fredrickson says the new MA degrees at Fuller can be done with as few as three weeks on campus and the rest is online.
There are problems with the revisions seminaries are making in the M.Div. curriculum, however. “They find that in lowering the number of units, they are selling fewer units and have to find another way to get tuition,” Lewis said. “They have to recruit more students.”
One new denominational movement is experimenting in alternative educational requirements. ECO: The Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, is an offshoot of the PC(USA) which formed in 2012. Their polity states that they require “ordinarily a master’s degree from an accredited theological seminary.” Rev. Dr. Dana Allin, Synod Executive of ECO, said that part of his denomination’s more flexible educational requirement was encouraged by Dr. Richard Mouw, retiring President of Fuller Seminary. “Rich Mouw was one of the ones, believe it or not, that indicated that the languages were some of the biggest hindrances in moving some entrepreneurial leadership forward,” Allin said. However, he said that the M.Div. may still be the preference for some seminary students, first because in may enable them to pursue future degrees like the D.Min. or a Ph.D., and second because “congregations will use this as a way to weed candidates.” However, he noted, “The best place for practical training is side by side practitioners in the church setting.”
That said, the M.Div. has not lost its central role in theological education. Richard Lints, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary believes the M.Div. will remain at the core of seminary education. “There are more churches that were anti-intellectual or anti-education and have now changed their views to value a rigorous theological education than have gone in the other direction,” he said. “We’ll see if the trend is long term or not.”
Fredrickson agrees, saying, “As long as denominations require the M.Div., there will be an M.Div.” However, he describes Fuller’s current revisions to its M.Div. as “the most dramatic curricular change that’s happened at Fuller in its history.”
The M.Div. shows no signs of passing from existence, but clearly there are movements afoot to broaden the range of seminary options available for students. Growing churches do not necessarily require the M.Div. of their pastors, and a now long track record brings into question the overall necessity of the degree. As Dr. Tony Campolo observed of one megachurch in his book Adventures in Missing the Point, “It was a marketing degree, not an M.Div., that Bill Hybels had when he launched the tiny fellowship that would one day be Willow Creek Community Church.”