Does the M.Div. Have a Future?
What do changes in seminary education mean for the classic pastoral degree?

Ur's been talking about the changing nature of theological education for a long time. Today, Jim Miller zooms in on the state of the benchmark M.Div. 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.

October 01, 2013

Displaying 1–10 of 21 comments

Joseph Dear

March 27, 2014  12:33pm

I think one big issue in all this costs have gotten so high that they don't just reduce one's standard of living, but now flat out prevent access to people. Just like you can't flip burgers and mow lawns to pay for your undergrad degree anymore, so too has the cost of seminary education gotten to the point where a typical person has no really good options. Either they go really deep into debt (tuition alone runs about $50,000 at many seminaries), or they work full-time, incurring less debt but taking 7 years to get a 3-year masters degree. And even then, their options are limited to those that cater to working people with night classes or heavily online programs (which are only now starting to really pick up). And it's not like seminaries are rolling in cash and can just cut their prices in half. Seminary professors gotta eat and pay their enormous student loans too. Though the above sounds negative, it also means that changes and increased flexibility are good things :)

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John C

December 15, 2013  4:01pm

I know there is a move away from the MDiv in some circles. And I am not saying it is an ironclad requirement for ministry either. But I recently sat on an ordination council for a young man with an MA from a well known and established fully accredited theological school and I was literally stunned by his ignorance of church history, theological vocabulary and bible content not to mention complete ignorance of the languages. That the MDiv is now the gold standard and not the minimum qualification for pastoral ministry is a profound indictment of the American church.

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Thomas Hypes

October 15, 2013  7:22am

I am thankful that I received my education through an alternative track. I am not down on M. Div.s but when I looked at seminary versus a track through a denomination I used to be part of, the track I took was much more practical to ministry than the option. I am all for education but pray we are getting to a day where the M. Div. is not worshiped the way it has been. We follow a tradition where the early church leaders where the flunkies compared to the spiritually educated in the synagogue and to require that paper to minister is wrong to me. I get that many people will apply for a position and the M.Div. is a quick way to narrow down the choices but that is so much like the world that it bothers me. When looking for the person God is raising into the role, most churches are looking for David's brothers instead of David himself. It has gotten so bad that one large church in my area is challenged in a unique way. The pastor (who never went to seminary) told one of his associates "We are at the point in size where I never will hire someone without a M.Div. again." I am getting a little middle aged in my ministry and I'm blessed to have great mentors and to mentor others that God entrusts to me. I am amazed that those I am working with that have M.Div.s do not know as far as practical, everyday ministry. Just random thoughts....

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October 10, 2013  9:34am

Interesting discussion. In reading the comments, and from my own experience, I do see 3 problems with the MDiv. 1) Financial- is it worth the extra $? 2) The languages- this is a concern in many ways. With the resources available, how needed are they? 3) Time- the recent past has seen an emphasis on certain subjects, but a lack of emphasis on pastoral training. People only have so much time to focus on, and if in-depth teaching is not their passion, why spend that extra time (and $) on certain subjects? However, we don't want to end up with an anti-intellectual clergy either. Where is the balance?

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October 08, 2013  5:25pm

I am involved in a church plant with ACNA and they have been flexible. I do some of my seminary work part time as I already have a career (I have for over 20 years!). There are people who are willing to lead when they are over 40 and have a family. With what is happening in our world maybe there needs to be a shift in attitudes.

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Sebastian Cortez

October 08, 2013  2:32pm

I am currently on an M.Div track at a really great Reformed Seminary. I love the teachers and students that are there. I love the education...I have learned a ton from them! But the discouraging part of the school is the languages, and the fact that when I talk to almost every pastor who has been out of seminary for five years, they tell me that they rarely use it. How am I supposed to be encouraged to study the languages when people who have taken them do not find much value for them? I am currently in my third year of a very successful church plant, and getting ready to plant a second one. I have been married for thirteen years, and I have four kids. How am I supposed to take on an M.Div program that really emphasizes the languages, and face the challenges of a growing church at the same time that I am trying to be a good husband and father? I recently had to scale back massively from the courses I was taking so I could have a sense of sanity. The thought that crossed my mind was "well, maybe the time has passed for you. Should have thought about this sooner". But I refuse to think that I cannot do this. I want to get educated, but I need something that grounds me in doctrine, and gives me the ability to sharpen my skills as a leader. This is why I am taking one M.Div course at a time, but I am enrolled full time at Fuller Seminary in their MAGL program. Great article, great insights, and helpful comments. I thought I was alone in this!

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October 05, 2013  11:45pm

I am really, really thankful I went to seminary. I originally started in the M.Div tract but as I was serving full time in ministry at the time, trying to study the amount of language requirements for the M.Div was causing me so much stress and anguish that I shifted to a MA. The amount of time to memorize so much was too much for me at that time. Something that also helped in the decision to drop out of the M.Div and shift to a MA was asking about 6 or 8 pastors who had M.Div's how much of the language studies they had in seminary do they use today or remember. Every one of them said they can't remember most of it. They still valued in the study process for sermons being able to look up Greek and Hebrew, however they said they do that now with various Bible study programs on the computer. That ended up being the clincher for me in shifting to a MA vs. M.Div as I also wanted to spend time on what would be practically used in ministry. I ended up taking 2 classes for the MA which were introductory classes to biblical languages which I did find helpful, but that was 5 credits vs. 12 or 14 credits I think was required for Hebrew and Greek to graduate with a M.Div. I personally think in today's world with all the available helps out there today for word studies and looking into Greek and Hebrew, that seminaries should train students more in how to use the tools than all the memorization that is generally required. And the MA does sure seem plenty, unless one is going on to teach at a seminary or college and needs to know the languages more. But for the average pastor in today's world and economy I fully agree with James Miller and what he is saying here. I hope seminaries do figure out how to survive as they are needed. But may they also rethink what pastors need today too to lead in our culture and world. Thanks James for this article!

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Wayne L Belcher

October 05, 2013  1:06am

Of course such change may be warranted, even dare I say, needed. As a (very) mature entrant to pastoral ministry, but having come into that role from a para church, yet corporate business background, I wonder and warn about the inadequacy of simple leadership programs that may or may not have theolgically robust and challenging curricular activities that hone the formation, gifting and skills of a pastor. As I have reflected on my own (ministry) career - it was a para church organisation after all - I can only comment that there really was a paucity of leadership development materials that developed me for Chirstian leadership in a business market place. Although my local church did not require me to do a M.Div program, I believe it has assisted my progress and formation in pastoral ministry quite significantly. Don't get me wrong - I was privileged to study at some fine institutions including The Wharton School in Philadelphia, but I can vouch safe that there are some pecularities to leading God's community in a local church that are different to leading a multi (scores of) millions business that has to compete in an open market place. Please don't forsake the unique value of doing diferent things than the world has to offer if we are going to be forming "alternative communities" that the world sees as offering unique hope to broken people, families, and broader communities in which we live. Blessings, and greetings from "down under" here in Perth, Westerm Australia Wayne

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C. S. Cowles

October 04, 2013  11:45pm

I had the privilege of sitting under the ministry of pastor Jim Miller, author of the lead article "Does the M.Div. have a future?" for over five years. And I find myself torn in two. On the one hand, the reason we took a long Sabbatical from our own denomination to sit under Jim's preaching was that he represented the best that the traditional track of college/ seminary/post-seminary degree have to offer. I invested my life in pastoral and teaching ministries shepherding as many pre-ministerial students as I could to seminary and beyond. Some–that 1 out of a 100 mentioned above–made it famously, and are now leading great churches and filling prestigious university and seminary professorial chairs. It's the 99 who have fallen off the wagon that breaks my heart not only saddled with unconscionable debt but failed marriages, alienated children, and a crushing sense of failure that casts a long dark shadow over whatever it is they finally do to keep body and soul together. "Many are called, but few are chosen." Now here's the other side of my `divided mind.' I stumbled onto Joel Osteen's TV broadcast a couple of years ago while recovering from surgery. Though his blinking eyes and perpetual smile put me off at first, I found myself drawn to and warmed by his positive, up-beat, "you are favored by God" message. He is a master-communicator, one that every preacher could profit from studying. Even though I am a product of and have invested my whole life in typical evangelical ‘gospel-heavy' ministry, I found myself–in spite of myself–being carried on wings "into heavenly places in Christ Jesus" by his `gospel-lite' message. I was not totally surprised to learn that he attended Oral Roberts for just a little over a year, and probably took nothing heavier than a freshman Introduction to the Bible course while there. Yet the ministerial training he received under his father's preaching as well as working side-by-side with him as director of the church's TV production for 17 years gave him all the tools he needed to take a church of 6,000 attendees at the time of his father's death to over 45,000 worshippers today. More than that, he preaches to more people via TV than any other minister in the country, with collections of his sermons regularly making Best Seller lists. Clearly he `scratches where people itch.' So here I am in my retirement years caught between Jim and Joel, each representing a radically different and yet enormously effective models of ministry. Can both models find a way of working together in a changing world where the only thing that doesn't change is change itself? I hope so. And for those of you to whom the future "keys of the [ministerial preparation] kingdom" are given, I wish you well.

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Dean Cowles

October 04, 2013  12:24pm

thanks jim, you have presisely nailed it. Last Sunday night we visited the 5th sunday service of one of the fastest growing non-denom churches in Denver, over 5,000 in 5 years and all the staff were "educated" in-house by their parent church where they got saved, trained, served as interns and now planting churches. It may not be the way some like to keep a "lid" on how and what ministers study and are trained in but at the same time these new young ministers are preaching good gospel, very doctrinal and biblical based messages, and seeing the whirlwind of the spirit descent upon them and their new young and youth focused congregations.

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