Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Seminary Advice

Author's Note: I am currently finishing my MA in Religion at Liberty.

Who should go to seminary? Which one should you go to? What degree should you study? We’ll examine the two main types of people who may go to seminary and some suggestions for their study. This is not intended to be exhaustive.

If you’re a student with an undergraduate degree in Bible, Ministry, or Theology…

You’ll have latitude to look for nearly any graduate degree you desire. Of course all of this advice heavily depends on what you ultimately want to do. If you went to a strong, accredited school (or a rigorous unaccredited school) you may find some material in the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program redundant. If your goal is to get into a D.Min. program the MDiv is a must.

Master of Divinity

The MDiv is considered the major professional graduate degree for seminaries. It is typically 87-96 hours and almost always includes at least one year of systematic theology, 12 hours of New Testament and Old Testament, spiritual formation, hermeneutics, book studies, at least 9-12 graduate hours of Greek and 6-9 graduate hours of Hebrew, church ministry classes (including pastoral counseling and homiletics), and possibly some philosophy of church ministry classes (including church growth and missions). It may or may not include a thesis (its length may vary from school to school).

If you are interested in pursuit of any doctorate in theology, most of the time you will need to have an MDiv. Sometimes, an MA is sufficient for a PhD program, but significant requirements must be met first. Some of these degrees are:

Master of Arts in Biblical Studies

Schools with this degree tend to design it as an MDiv for those with an undergraduate degree in Bible or Theology. The program is typically 45-60 total hours and includes much of what is in the MDiv, with notable absences tending to be homiletics and some of the church ministry classes. I know of at least one student who had reduced language requirements because they had already done translation work in their undergraduate degree. The only potential downside of this degree is that other schools may not accept it for entrance into their PhD programs (that is to say, while some schools undoubtedly will, acceptance will vary from school to school and likely depend upon the school you are coming from in the master’s).

Master of Arts in Religion

This is a degree with 45-60 hours required. In many cases there is no language requirement. The feature of this type of degree is that, typically, schools allow one largely to choose his track of study. That is, while there are anywhere from 15-24 hours which are “non-negotiable,” the remainder amount to either free electives from a particular field or electives between two options. It is best for the student already involved in ministry (or in some cases on the way to an MDiv). A student who wishes to take basic courses in comparative religion, apologetics, New Testament and Old Testament will find this useful. NOTE: Secular schools will find an MA in Religion to be sufficient for their theology PhD programs, provided certain requirements are met. However, if one is committed to a Christian school for their PhD, the field (at least in the United States) is seriously limited. This is a great degree for those who wish to have a master’s degree but do not wish to go on to a doctoral program as well.[1]

Master of Arts in Theological Studies

This degree is offered by schools primarily as an introduction degree. It is almost exclusively best for those with little to no formal education in theology or Christian doctrine. It is usually 36-45 hours and almost always involves a New Testament/Old Testament introduction section, hermeneutics, a theology and apologetics section, and the remainder electives (in some cases the degree is nearly fully-defined for you). Again, this degree would not be the best option for those moving to doctoral work, or for one without undergraduate work in Bible/Theology. It is perfect for the layman who wishes to know more about the Word and get a degree in the process. In some cases, it may be ministry-vocationally better for someone to do this degree, just in the case it requires any graduate degree and he does not desire to go the way of the MDiv.

Master of Ministry

Schools offer this as an extended training for those who already possess an undergraduate degree in Bible or Theology. It is typically 32-45 hours and may or may not involve a finishing ministry project (typically 30-50 pages, maybe more). This is almost always a terminal degree; this doesn’t usually even transfer into an MDiv program. This is a good degree for those already involved in church work wishing to broaden their horizons and gain a better feel for ministry and church growth/life.

If you are a student with an undergraduate degree in something other than Bible/Theology…

You will almost certainly want to take the MDiv. This is not only a must for most doctoral programs, but also a must for many denominations if you have not had Bible/Theology as an undergraduate major. However, if church-staff ministry or a doctorate is not your ultimate goal, any of the above degrees would work for you, depending on your time and what exactly you’re looking for. Which brings us to our next point:

What should I look for in a seminary?

This will also vary based on your ultimate goals and situation in life. For instance, suppose you are a 40-year-old man who is married and has four kids, the oldest of whom is 16 and the youngest is eight. For most going to seminary in this situation is out of the question. But now an online degree is possible! This, if properly researched, can be a wonderful tool. In many cases an entire MDiv can be completed online (as well as anything in between). Whatever your situation do not look for an online degree because you think it will be easy. Schools that are doing it correctly actually end up making the course fairly difficult (this can be especially so in shortened modules).

With any degree it is important to check the accreditation status of any school. While some unaccredited schools can be quite rigorous, one should recognize this of necessity limits your choices (though it must be stressed other schools and employers do recognize unaccredited degrees, it cannot be denied that many places disqualify on the basis of accreditation). Further, schools which claim to be accredited sometimes fudge the details. They’ll omit the fact their accrediting body is not recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA at http://www.chea.org/). Or they’ll claim what’s called “theological accreditation” or say they are “fully accredited,” listing an accreditation agency which is affiliated with a similar-sounding name to a legit agency (or even a similar sound to CHEA). Finally, sometimes these unscrupulous schools will say their accreditation is through a specific agency, and it turns out it is one the school formed themselves! My advice: stay away from any school which claims accreditation (using that word) but is not recognized by CHEA.

Any school which is unaccredited may yet be quite acceptable, but a) make sure their reputation with “good schools” is solid, and b) make sure any delimiting factors which come along with this degree are known and acceptable to you.

A couple of notes on online degrees: 1. Language classes, in most cases, are not offered. I attend Liberty and I know that while language tools are offered (which might be considered first-semester level) no actual introductory or exegesis classes are offered in either Greek or Hebrew. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Piedmont Baptist College apparently do, however, and I’ve heard good things for both. 2. It is not easy to develop any relationships. Most students are themselves very busy and do not check their school e-mail much, and the professors are typically adjuncts who have other, full-time jobs. Because of this it is also nearly-impossible to get a reference for anything.

The seminary you select should allow you to achieve your goals. Note what I did not say. I did not say that a seminary should agree with all of the doctrine you agree with. Especially if you are firmly grounded, a divergent view here and there shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, to a certain extent, it should be encouraged.[2] Look at it this way: if you’re wrong about the issue then you’d want to know and look at the options. If you’re right you should know how to develop and defend your view. And let’s face it: chances are you’re wrong about at least one of your currently-held views.

The seminary you select should have academic and ministerial courses available to you. The faculty should not all be “inbred” (as I have heard the term) in that most of them should have their terminal degrees from different schools than the institutions in which they teach. Their academic material should be challenging, meaning you should have to read and write quite a bit. Finally, don’t trust any school which offers a degree mostly or solely on the basis of “life experience,” or the writing of a few papers. There can be exceptions (after all, terminal degrees in the UK are researched-based and so awarded solely on the basis of writing), but most of these degrees should be viewed as suspect. Rule: If it looks too good to be true, then it’s probably a garbage degree.

What else do you have to advise people on? Comment below!

                [1] One may note this is exactly my degree and I am going on to a PhD program (at least in theory). But it is also true that I have had to consider both secular and international options (in addition to scheduling courses that will transfer into an MDiv should I need to complete this degree as well).

                [2] Of course, there are limits for every person. For some, it would be tolerable to enter a completely secular school (or one which is secularly-based) like Yale Divinity School or Duke or the University of Chicago. Others would want to keep to a school in the evangelical tradition, while others would want a specific denomination. Whatever your choice, make sure that your limits placed in this area are not due to a desire to remain comfortable.

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  1. Good article, glad my school made honorable mention! Piedmont Baptist Graduate School is really good. Luther Rice University, where I got my B.A. also offers Greek and Hebrew online.

  2. Thanks for commenting J! I've heard nothing but good things for their PhD program also. What degree did you receive from them?


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