This fall more than 90,000 students across the United States and Canada are pursuing graduate theological or ministry training. Twenty years ago such students had one big decision: which school to choose. Then you typically had to relocate and enroll in a residential program for two to four years of full-time study.
Fast-forward two decades and the options have increased dramatically. Seminaries have been joined by Christian colleges and universities in offering graduate theological degrees. The Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree is now one of dozens of master's-level options, including specializations in counseling, cross-cultural ministry, youth ministry, children's ministry, worship leadership, and executive leadership, to name a few.
Meanwhile, the internet has radically changed the way education can be delivered. Distance education options include online programs, satellite campuses and extension programs, and hybrid programs that combine online interaction with on-campus instruction. These allow students to remain involved with their current ministries while earning an advanced degree or certificate. The growth of options has made further education more accessible but also more confusing. There is no longer one standard path for continuing education. The myriad choices can make it difficult to compare and decide.
So how should a ministry leader choose?
No one answer will apply to everyone. But let's take a look at the stories of three leaders who faced this dilemma. Each chose a different path. Perhaps their experiences will equip you to make better decisions about educational options.
Going "ALL IN"
When Chris Shinnick began considering additional education, a distance program might have been the logical first choice. After all, Shinnick was entering his seventh year of full-time youth ministry in Hawaii, where there were no accredited seminaries nearby.
But Shinnick knew he did not study well on his own. He also knew he was ready for a short break from the pace of full-time ministry. Therefore, the best route for Shinnick and his wife was the traditional one: resignation from his job and relocation to Denver Seminary for a full-time M.Div. program. It was a move that Shinnick calls going "all in."
"I wanted an immersive experience," explained Shinnick, who now serves as connections pastor at Manna Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina. "I lived on campus, I worked on campus as a janitor. I once went 10 days without leaving the campus. I soaked it all up."
While some leaders want to continue in ministry while pursuing additional education, Shinnick felt the exact opposite. "I felt a borderline conviction to not do anything ministry-wise at least the first two years; we just attended church," Shinnick said. "It was a great season. I would sometimes think, There are others out there feeding the poor and I have to work on a paper about James, but I knew that school was part of a bigger picture call on my life."
Shinnick concedes that for some, disengaging from ministry while in seminary isn't the right move. But he viewed his situation differently. "I had done 50-plus hours a week for seven years straight. I felt as if I had completed a healthy season of ministry. I knew that's what I would do the rest of my life. A little time in the library wasn't going to hurt. It was part of my call."
That big-picture perspective that led Shinnick to pursue his M.Div. degree. "It seemed like the most comprehensive approach for the pastor role I felt called to walk in," he said. "In my sixth year of being a youth pastor, I finally realized: If I'm going to do this for the rest of my life, I should be as responsible as possible and learn as much as I can about this stuff."