The master of divinity (M.Div.) is the acknowledged gold standard among accredited theological schools in North America. But it’s not working.
To keep ministries and leadership relevant, church leaders need to be engaged in lifelong learning across the theological disciplines. I believe that one way to do this would be to beef up the doctor of ministry (D.Min.) — currently the most devalued degree in seminary education — and shift our emphasis away from the M.Div.
In this vision, the purpose of the D.Min. would be to motivate hearts, minds, and souls in a context that acknowledges the uncertainty in which ministry takes place. It would inculcate competence, humility, and integrity. Students considering a call to ministry would embark on the D.Min. immediately after college. Entrance testing would ensure that they have knowledge of Hebrew and Greek before they begin, as well as a basic grasp of the English Bible.
Three years of concentrated study in residence — with students living either on campus or nearby — would be mandatory so that students could live into the dynamics of discipleship in community. The seminary would offer pre-school care and instruction for the children of seminarians, as many do already.
The first two years of the D.Min. program would be filled with classical coursework — scriptural interpretation, church history, theology, philosophy and critical thinking, ethical issues from church and society, and case studies addressing missions, ecumenical and international relations, and modern interfaith understandings and conflicts.
The final year would be divided into two. In the first half, students would take practical courses, co-taught by faculty and adjuncts, focusing on social services for changing neighborhoods — services like community health care, cultural and scriptural literacy, and advanced computer instruction.
The second half of the year would send students off campus to a challenging environment, either nearby or far away. There, students would be supervised by faculty advisers and lay people and would work with other volunteers. After concluding this semester of service, students would write up case studies including both analysis and recommendations to improve ministry in that region. The case studies would become part of the students’ ministry portfolios and would be available to churches and judicatories, along with sample sermons and comments from faculty and lay advisors.
This classical and practical education would produce D.Min. graduates with intellectual knowledge, investigative skills, and the ability to practice ministry in a global society as committed lifelong learners and skillful practitioners of the faith.
A new master’s degree
An alternative to the new D.Min. would be a new master of arts in theological studies (M.A.T.S.). Unlike the D.Min., the M.A.T.S. could be earned online or on campus, either on a traditional academic schedule or through flexible scheduling. The new master’s degree would welcome three kinds of students: (1) recent college graduates with a desire for full-time study in residence, (2) employed professionals requiring flexible scheduling, and (3) retired lay people seeking to enrich their service to their churches and communities. (Some of the most enquiring minds I have ever encountered have come from this last group.)
The M.A.T.S. would address the varied career goals of those still on a journey of discovery, trying to grow in knowledge about their faith. It would help people discern various places of ministry in church and society. And it might even offer potential Ph.D. candidates the opportunity to frame their theological outlook as they begin to focus on their future careers.
Becoming tomorrow’s seminary is a never-ending challenge facing theological educators, their students and supporters. Eliminating the M.Div. would be one good way to meet that challenge.
In the next issue: With more flexible academic programs, what options can seminaries explore to prepare both students and institutions for an open-ended future?