St. Vincent's current rector, Kurt Belsole, left, was a student when Demetrius Dumm, now completing a half-century on the faculty, was rector.

The Reverend Demitrius Dumm, a Benedictine monk, has been at it for a very long time. He joined the faculty of St. Vincent’s Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1952, served as its rector from 1963 to 1980 (a time that was a roller coaster for all theological educators, but especially for Roman Catholics), and continues to teach courses one semester each year (he spends the rest of his time writing). Years of experience have enabled him to say confidently and concisely what the point of a master of divinity degree is: “The M.Div. student must learn theology and how to communicate it to the people entrusted to his or her care.”

It’s been forty years now since the M.Div.—a three- or four-year program, usually including groundings in biblical studies, theology, church history, and a variety of practical disciplines like preaching and counseling—became the gold standard for pastorally oriented theological education. There are periodic calls for the overhaul of the seminaries, and a number of experiments with other ways to prepare people to work in congregations. Even so, although a Rip Van Winkle seminarian who fell asleep in the 1960s and woke up today would have plenty to surprise him—including the presence of large groups of classmates who couldn’t be referred to as “him”—the basic structure of his degree program would be intact, and lots of his credits transferable.

Dumm has a concise explanation for this reality, too. He said that although there’s always something new to address in the world, “the M.Div. is a degree in hermeneutics, the science of interpretation.” So, with the right tools, a seminary graduate realizes that “the Word keeps answering questions the author never thought of.” He cites the aging population as an example. “It wasn’t a biblical issue,” he explained, notwithstanding some extremely long-lived biblical figures. Still, he’s convinced enough of a biblical word to the aging that it’s the topic of the book he’s working on now.

When Dumm joined St. Vincent’s faculty, the school offered no degrees at all. It trained priests mainly for the Benedictine archabbey to which it is attached, and those who needed degrees got M.A.s through the attached college. But, he said, there was a sense that time and effort should be rewarded, and since many priests were teaching as well as preaching, the point was made that degrees offered credibility. St. Vincent’s first degree was the bachelor of divinity, introduced in the 1960s, just at the moment, Dumm said, that “other schools were moving into the M.Div.” St. Vincent’s quickly followed suit.

St. Vincent’s M.Div. is about to undergo a rather substantive change. The required credit hours are will jump from seventy-five to 100. Most of the students in the M. Div. program earn about 100 credits already, but they’re presented their degrees after their third year, with another year of studies in front of those preparing for priesthood. The move was urged strongly by the school’s advisory board, who thought it made sense that the required fourth-year courses should be part of the degree. For governance purposes, the seminary is part of the same corporation as the college, with a shared board of regents. The advisory board, however, is more than a token group for the Reverend Kurt Belsole, the seminary’s rector. “You can’t get the caliber of people you want if you don’t take their advice seriously,” he said.

Belsole has also seen changes since his student days at St. Vincent’s in the 1970s. The student body is twice as large now (seventy-eight students in the M.Div. program, twelve doing M.A.s), with students from fifteen dioceses (scattered as far west as Oklahoma) and from ten countries (the international students are all attached to U.S. dioceses or orders). The average age of students has climbed, but not much: it now stands at 32; Belsole makes the point that these people are not exactly second-career. He notes, too, the increase in the size of the faculty and the presence of adjunct faculty who come from beyond the sponsoring community. (No longer is it true, as Dumm said of his days as rector, that “my faculty lived in the same house I did.”) And there have been changes, some decided internally, some in response to the required program of priestly formation, in how, where, and when field work is done. But is it the same M.Div., with the same core values, the same essential structure, the same basic content. Yes, it is.

Starting the M.Div.
Across Pennsylvania, on a wooded hillside with a goose-populated pond in the Philadelphia suburb of Langhorne, Philadelphia Bible College has just become Philadelphia Bible University, and the M. Div. (along with five master of science offerings) is one of the degrees in its graduate department.

Why a new degree, and particularly why the M.Div., from a school that has been around since 1951 as a merger of two Bible schools founded in 1913 and 1914? Many graduates of the college are, after all, already in ministry. And why add another M.Div. in the greater Philadelphia area, where nineteen schools within a 150-mile radius already offer the degree? 

Jay Quine is the M.Div. program director at Philadelphia Bible University.

According to Jay Quine, the program’s director, it was the students who asked for the M.Div. Over the years, the M.Div. has become as much of a standard for ministry in much of the evangelical world as it is among mainstream churches. Also, some students ministering with a degree in Bible feel the need for more training, more learning.

Quine knows this because the school did research among its own students beginning in 1997. Of the 330 students responding—both graduate and undergraduate—fifty-seven said they were definitely going to do an M.Div. and forty-nine of those said they would do it at PBU. Another eighty-seven were considering an M.Div. In 2000, another survey, aimed at undergraduates in the Bible program, had 421 responses. Of these, ninety-seven were definitely planning on getting an M.Div., 154 were uncertain, and 163 had no interest. When asked what would most attract them to an M.Div. at PBU, the most frequent response by a significant margin was “the doctrinal position of the institution,” which Quine describes as “evangelical, conservative, and traditionally dispensationalist.”

That was enough for the administration. Quine, who had been teaching New Testament at the school since 1992 (before earning a Ph.D. at Dallas Theological Seminary, he had been municipal court judge and prosecuting attorney in Colfax, Washington) was appointed to develop and direct the program. “It’s been a humbling experience,” he said. “How many people get to do such a thing?”

It’s hard to tell how much of the program reflects Quine’s own style and how much that of the school. There seems an unusually seamless fit between the two. The program is geared toward those already in ministry: Quine has pastored a church throughout his teaching and administrative career, and although the church he served recently decided it needs a full-time pastor, he fully expects to keep a foot in congregational ministry. The program he’s developed is heavily weighted toward Bible, including a year each of Hebrew and Greek and a reading course on Romans, but what else would one expect of an institution which has the word “Bible” in its name? Other facets of the program seem to have been based heavily on students’ stated desires. Bible was at the top of their list of important courses; history, missions, and church administration at the bottom. The degree is as light on the latter as it is heavy on the former. The one required church history course comes under the aegis of the practical theology department and is titled “Defining Moments in Church History.” There is no required administration course as such, although there is one in “organizational leadership.”

Quine brings to the school a passion for revival, and prayer for revival begins many classes. “The Northeast hasn’t had a revival since 1881,” he said “and we’re praying that it comes again and that we’re part of it.”

The state of Pennsylvania approved the course this summer, and the school has made contact with the Association of Theological Schools looking toward accreditation. The first class of twenty-four students is in place.”We’re hoping for controlled growth,” said Quine. The mix looks different from the undergraduates, who are overwhelmingly white, come mostly from across Pennsylvania, and tend to be solidly middle class. The M.Div students come from greater Philadelphia (and “greater” is the word: they commute from New Jersey, Delaware, and New York, too). Some of them are older, subject to the financial stresses of those juggling school and ministry. But they have committed along with PBU to what Quine said “the majority of churches understand as the recognized degree for practitioners of ministry.”

An Old M.Div. Up Front Again

Joseph Hough is president of Union Theological Seminary in New York.

The M.Div. at Union Theological Seminary is not a new one. The liberal nondenominational New York school has been preparing ministers since 1836. For much of that time, it has been a force to be reckoned with in the world of theological education. In the first half of the twentieth century, it recruited the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. The glory faded somewhat in recent decades, although top-notch research continued at the school. Connections with the churches loosened and finances slipped. The last presidential vacancy lasted more than a year.

President Joseph Hough has been on board since the fall of 1999, and the school has been undergoing an intense self-study, a revisioning of its purpose. It was clear that the school was financially incapable of doing everything it had been. The quality of scholarship at Union remains a core value for Union’s leaders. “If one were to canvass professors in seminaries and religion departments,” said board member Leon Pacala, a former executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, “many have a connection with Union.” Nonetheless, research scholarship was not finally what the board came to see as the school’s main concern for the twenty-first century. “Very early on,” said Pacala, “the board came to the conviction that the M. Div. had to be the primary focus.”

The conviction came from a sense of the school’s being not only uniquely a school in the city but also for the city. The board decided that Union best serves the city and the world through the churches, and best serves the churches by providing them with ministers. Union is not abandoning its storied Ph.D. program, but it is looking toward sharply curtailing the options for advanced study. The M.Div. focus will set the tone for the Ph.D. programs that remain, according to Pacala, who suspects that biblical studies and religious history will probably be among the survivors. The school’s anticipated closer relationship with Columbia University will take up some of the slack, with students using the resources of both schools.

Rosemary Skinner Keller is Union's academic dean.

The retrenchment news did not come as a surprise to the faculty. They have been part of the revisioning discussions from the beginning, and there has been an ongoing series of highly structured faculty meetings as the M.Div. is rethought. And they realize that the rethinking has been a long time coming: there hasn’t been a substantial change in the M.Div. program in twenty years. Barbara Lundblad, a professor of preaching, is matter of fact in her assessment. “Sometimes you’re pushed by financial reasons to do things you should have done anyway,” she said. The process is not complete yet. When a visitor talked recently with three faculty members, including Lundblad and Rosemary Skinner Keller, the academic dean, two things were obvious: the faculty has signed on to the policy that the M.Div. program is going to be central, and it’s going to take a while for them to settle into it. Pacala is not surprised. “Any reconfiguring of an institution rubs up most sorely against the faculty,” he said. That’s true because the faculty needs not only to implement but also to flesh out changes: Keller said, “The faculty understands itself to be the primary constituency of the seminary responsible for curriculum planning, and the board rightly cedes that function to them. The faculty will share its movement regarding curricular planning with the board, through the educational policy committee of the board and in full board discussions, at various points in the process when it is appropriate.”

David Carr, professor of Old Testament, put it succinctly. “We represent,” he said, “a vocation different from that of most of our students.” His remark led to comments by others in the group about trying to pass on their own love for their subject matter at the same time as they help students learn how best to use their knowledge to teach and preach. Union is a very different school than St. Vincent’s, Latrobe, but if the playing out of the task is different, the bottom educational line is the same.

One way Union has attempted to connect learning and worship is through courses taught by several faculty and aimed at preparing a service for chapel. Recently such a course taught by a homiletician, a Hebrew scholar, and a liturgist centered on one text, Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel (Genesis 32:24-32). The chapel service they prepared included multiple readings of the text in different voices while a diverse and well-chosen set of images of struggle—sacred and secular—was projected on a screen. Then the group was invited to experience struggle physically. Participants were invited to grasp a section of cloth. There were yards and yards of the stuff, tied together. What ensued was a dance with just a bit of danger, considerable playfulness, and seriousness as well. It was accompanied with drumming. Afterward there was a time of debriefing. An outsider to the community couldn’t catch all the nuance, but it was evident that the text connected to lives in an extraordinarily lively way.

That the struggle looked like a dance might have had something to do with the recent influx of dancers into the school, yet another reminder that Union is in the city of New York. The faculty are not of one mind about how this dancers’ group is or will be serving the church. One says that when they have their own companies, they will be producing theologically informed art that simply by its existence is a service to the church. Others insist that the focus has to be somehow in congregations. The nature of the church that is to be served is an important piece of the puzzle for Union as it labors to shape its future, and neither has yet come entirely into focus.

Dedication at What Price?
Sometimes the standard is set a little higher than circumstances allow, and that is one of the ongoing challenges to the M.Div. A case in point: St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York. St. Bernard’s used to be a seminary training men for the Roman Catholic priesthood. Now it trains lay people for ministries that range from the permanent diaconate to parish administration to work in church schools and social institutions. Almost all the students are part-time. The school offers both the M.Div. and the M.A.; the former program lasts twice as long (four years) and costs twice as much as the latter.

According to Devadasan N. Premnath, St. Bernard’s dean, a number of students—many of whom are already working at some version of the jobs they’re training for—have enrolled in the M.Div., but transferred into the M.A. when issues of money and time came to the fore. This year, the school graduated twenty-one M.A.s and only two M.Div.s. “Some have realized later that they needed more, and come back for the M.Div.,” he said, “even though they won’t necessarily be paid more if they have it.”

What is it that M.A.s don’t get? It’s not just a matter of more classes, said Premnath, it’s a matter of formation. M.Div. students are involved in a careful program of goal-setting. At the beginning of each year they meet with an advisor to plot out specific academic, spiritual, ministerial, and interpersonal goals; at year’s end they meet again to evaluate the student’s performance.

What is a luxury and what is a necessity in the training of ministers? It’s a tough question, especially among Catholics as they face a shortage of priests and a shortage of money to pay lay professionals.

St. Vincent’s Dumm described the nature of the M.Div. like this: “In my estimation, it’s not a graduate degree in the usual sense of research orientation. Its purpose is to enable people to practice their profession.” It’s not the only way to do such preparation, and interesting alternatives will continue to evolve. But at least for the foreseeable future, it’s the M.Div. against which they will be judged.

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