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.