One of the top things I'm asked is about counseling degree options. One of the universities I'm affiliated with has an undergraduate counseling minor (very similar to a pre-counseling program at many other schools). One of the universities I went to as a student had several different degree paths for would-be counselors, including several masters programs and a Ph.D. I've taken a little counseling coursework and have done plenty of one-on-one student counseling, but I'm not a professional counselor and don't intend to be. However, I've met with enough counseling students to know where the big questions arise when they're looking at degree programs and I've compiled those together and tried to address some of them in this article. Your goals as a counselor will largely determine which direction you should go when choosing a degree program. Here are the three main options:
Option 1: Other Degree Programs
Make certain that counseling is what you want to do and that this field of study best fits your professional goals. That's one of the great things about tackling some of it in your undergrad years. Getting even limited experience would be very helpful in determining your interest in pursuing that. For others, social work, like helping the poor or working in an orphanage, is more your ultimate goal. If that's the case a Master of Social Work degree is more appropriate. A counseling degree is usually geared more towards clinical counseling (sitting in an office, having clients, etc.). For those going into ministry, counseling is a necessary skill to have. However, for most, having one or two courses would be more appropriate than having an entire degree in it.
Option 2: Church-based Counseling
Counseling within a local church may mean that you're on the pastoral staff and you're doing informal sessions with members. For some churches, though, counseling involves a more structured program that allows members and non-members to seek help. In these cases someone with a degree (but not necessarily licensure) can usually counsel. It really depends on the state, though, so do some research on your own state's law about operating a full counseling program in a church and the qualifications they seek.
Option 3: Professional, Licensed Counseling
Most professional counselors will seek licensure. This is done mainly because it is much harder to find a good, long-term career as a counselor without it. Getting licensed is a process that you have to do through your state. You are evaluated based largely (if not solely) on your education. If your degree program fits their criteria, then you'll be in. If not, then there's usually not a lot you can do about it (except go back to school). To have a standard for professional licensure in counseling, there is a specific type of accreditation that has been created and generally agreed upon: CACREP accreditation. They are an academic accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (the government organization that recognizes valid accrediting bodies). If you graduate from a program that is CACREP accredited, then you usually are set to get licensure in any state. Of course, with a CACREP-accredited degree you can also do church-based counseling, which makes this option (usually) the best one for those wanting to begin a career in counseling. You can find a list of CACREP accredited degree programs HERE.
One of my favorite movies growing up is Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the movie, Indiana Jones travels around to recover the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazi's. At the end, he recovers it and the ark is brought back to America (I'm sorry if that spoils the movie for you, but it's been like 30 years so you should have seen it by now!). Dr. Jones sits down with the "government men" and they explain that "top men" are working on the ark and that it won't be going to a museum. It then cuts to a scene with the ark being put in a wooden box and pushed around a giant warehouse filled with similar wooden boxes. That scene has been etched in my mind since then as a symbol of futility.
When I began looking at masters programs in theology and church history, I saw the option that many had of either writing a thesis or taking some extra courses and skipping the thesis. As an undergraduate looking at those options I thought, "Why would I write some huge paper when I can just take a couple of extra classes?" As I made my way through my masters I realized that writing in my graduate program was totally different than what I did in my undergraduate program. Most of it was me - I had matured and I had focused my own research to several key areas that I really enjoyed not only learning about, but writing about too. Suddenly the thought of a thesis was not overwhelming - like the warehouse scene: filled with boxes that just went on and on. It was something that could be tackled because I knew how to write in my field by the end of my program. More fundamental, I learned how to research. I went to some great libraries as an undergraduate, but I often sat there and just stared at the rows and rows of books, not really knowing where to begin. By the end of my grad program I was sitting at my desk with primary sources, going to the library only when needed for secondary sources, and getting some real work done. I say all of that to just make you aware that it is doable.
Now, which option is better? It really depends. If there is any chance that you're going to continue to a doctoral program, then you should seriously consider the thesis option. If you want to write in your field or do extensive research on a particular topic, then you probably should go the thesis route.
If you are doing a more practical masters and aren't interested as much in the academic side of things (teaching, writing, etc.) then you might not be as motivated to complete a thesis. If you do a non-thesis option, that doesn't necessarily mean that you won't be prepared for doctoral studies. One thing I'd recommend if you go that route is to be strategic in your writing for each class. Almost all of the papers I wrote in grad school touched on church history and historic theology. At the end of my coursework I had a collection of great papers in one field of study. Some of those papers could be reworked into publishable articles or even a thesis or dissertation (as a basis for larger research).
I'd be interested in hearing your own experiences with either your thesis/non-thesis program or if you have any tips for those looking into such programs.
One of the most frequent questions I get is, "What degree do I need to teach in a Christian college or seminary?" Well, let's get to the point and look at some options:
Undergraduate Degree - If you just have a bachelors degree, you likely won't get a faculty position in any college or university. However, most will have remedial teachers that teach basic English or basic Math courses. By most accreditation standards these instructors do not have to have a graduate degree because they are technically teaching high school level courses. Because of this you just have to have a grasp of the subject matter, although no doubt employers would prefer a at least a minor in whatever remedial subject you're planning on teaching. Sometimes, teaching something is better than teaching nothing.
Uncompleted Masters - Aside from Teaching Assistant positions, you can often be considered for a (usually adjunct) professorship if you have began work on your masters. To teach on an undergraduate level you need at least 18 hours in a particular area.
Complete Masters - Once you have completed your masters you greatly increase your chances of getting hired as an adjunct or perhaps a full-time undergraduate professor. Even if you don't have 18 hours in an area, if your masters is in that area, then its a moot point. For example, if you have a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies which required twelve hours of actual Bible courses you can still teach Bible courses because that is what your masters is in. It's a bit complicated, I know, but that's how it works.
Master of Theology (Th.M.) - If you missed the description in the Degrees section, I'll summarize: A Th.M. is usually a post-masters degree that generally takes a solid year or year and a half to complete. Because it basically gives you a concentration in a particular area, Th.M. graduates are great candidates for undergraduate teaching and having a Th.M. will often help you transition into a Ph.D. or Th.D.
Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) - If you have a Doctor of Ministry degree you can teach undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral courses in ministry. Depending on the school, they may ask you to cover a Biblical Studies course, but they will often have Ph.D.'s or Th.D.'s to do that.
Doctor of Philosophy / Doctor of Theology (Ph.D./Th.D.) - Having either of these doctorates is the ideal degree for teaching in most fields on the undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral level. Things that can affect your hiring once you have this degree are things like: your dissertation topic, the place you received the degree, how well you've connected with others in your field and how well you've connected with those at the place you're applying (yes, unfortunately it's still usually about who you know and who knows you).
Master of Arts in Religion at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary at Liberty University: A Current Student's Prospective
This student perspective is from Austin McCann. Austin just finished his B.A. at Piedmont International University. He is currently working on his Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary while starting in full-time student ministry. You can find more of Austin’s thoughts on his website. Here are his thoughts on that particular school and program:
During my last few semesters at Piedmont International University, I started to think about seminary. I thought, "Do I even want to spend a few more years in school? Or, if I do attend seminary, do I want to work on a M. Div. or shorter Master’s program?" Eventually, after a lot of thought, prayer, and wise counsel I decided to attend Liberty Baptist Theological Baptist Seminary and decided to work on a Master’s of Arts in Religion with a specialization in Christian Leadership online. I wanted to take a few moments and explain how I decided the seminary track I am on and hopefully help you if your on the fence about seminary. Before I share my thoughts, I want to make one thing clear. I do not believe the way I am doing seminary is the only way to go about doing seminary work. There are many options and ways to go about it, but here is why I chose what I am doing.
Master’s of Arts in Religion. As much as I respect the M. Div. program and the practical, pastoral education it gives you, I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend that many more years in school and if seminary was even going to be a good fit for me. So I decided to start a MAR that is somewhat smaller than the M. Div. If you want a good, professional seminary degree that is not an M. Div., go for the MAR. One of the reasons I chose this route is because at most school’s the MAR can roll into an M. Div. that you can finish in another year or two. The MAR is a great degree because it allows you to continue in seminary if you’re financially and willing to do so.
Christian Leadership. Like the M. Div., when you take the MAR, you get to choose a particular specialization. I decided to specialize in Christian Leadership because I believe leadership is an extremely important part of church ministry that we do not focus on a lot. If you’re planning on being in local church ministry in a pastoral role you need to focus on leadership. Our churches need people who are trained leaders. Even if you’re not going into church ministry, leadership is an important aspect in business and family. I am going into full-time student ministry. Part of having an effective student ministry is building a team of leaders to help you serve students. Studying leadership in seminary is helping me become a better team builder, how to handle conflict in leadership, and how to be the right kind of leader in a local church.
Liberty Theological Baptist Seminary. There are so many good seminaries and graduate schools to choose from these days. I decided to go with Liberty for a few reasons. First, I love the legacy of Jerry Falwell and what he did with Liberty University. I respect the school and what the school has and continues to stand for. Second, they are extremely well-known. I went to a relatively unknown school for my undergrad. I wanted to go somewhere more well-known for seminary. I know we shouldn’t judge people by where they went to seminary, but a lot of churches will look for candidates that are from particular schools or schools that are more popular. Third, I went with Liberty because of their great online education.
Online. If you enjoy the classroom setting and learning in person from a professor, than make sure you attend a seminary on campus. Online education is not for everyone. If you can learn well and stay motivated by online work, than look into doing seminary online. Doing seminary online through Liberty is the most affordable seminary you will find. I went with online for two main reasons. First, it was cheaper and I didn’t want to spend too much on seminary. Second, I wanted to get into full-time ministry. If you want to jump straight into full-time ministry after undergrad, than do seminary online. It allows you to work on your education while doing what you love, ministry!
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.