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).
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary's Master of Theology program is designed for those that have already completed a masters in a theological field. It's particularly attractive for those wanting to teach in a particular area since it will give you the graduate hours in whichever concentration you choose (in case you didn't get 18 hours in your previous masters).
This student perspective is brought to you by Tim Decker. Tim did his BA and MA at Piedmont Baptist College and is completing his ThM at the aforementioned Southeastern. Tim has been a pastor and is currently teaching in Honduras. His blog is Unpluckable. Here is his perspective on SEBTS and their ThM:
"Looking for a solid theological/biblical studies education in North Carolina and the surrounding area is quite simple. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS for short) is one of those seminaries that has an outstanding and diverse faculty that will challenge students to think deeply and critically. My situation coming into SEBTS was a desire for the academic side without the “ministry classes” to go with it. Part of that is based on the fact that I had completed a BA in Biblical Studies with a concentration in pastoral ministry along with three years of pastoral ministry experience. Therefore, an MDiv was not attractive whatsoever. My choices were to do the university MA to PhD route or find a seminary that would accept my MA into their ThM or PhD program. SEBTS was that seminary.
The PhD program of SEBTS is a completely separate post, but needless to say I felt that more preparation was needed before I pursued a PhD. Studying under men like David Alan Black, Maurice Robinson, Jonathan Pennington (a Southern Baptist Seminary prof who taught a class at SEBTS), and (hopefully in the future) Andreas Köstenberger is the chance of a lifetime for any aspiring NT student. These scholars are by no means slouches either. I knew that I would have to step up my game with these men. And so I entered their ThM program, and I have not regretted it since.
SEBTS’ ThM is fairly unique in a couple of ways. First, it is only a 24 credit degree on top of the MDiv (or equivalent). Most are 30 credits past the MDiv, so this smaller load is easier to complete in a year. The MDiv equivalency is part of SEBTS attraction as well. They base their equivalency on certain classes taken and not so much the amount of total graduate hours. For instance, in my case I met much of their requirements for MDiv equivalency with my MA and other postgrad classes I had completed at another institution. However, since most of my Greek was taken at the undergraduate level, I had to make up 6 credits of Greek exegesis classes to show that I was up to snuff. So now I am basically taking 30 credits for a ThM. I also had to do 2 more intro classes as well since part of their MDiv equivalency is 6 credits for OT intro and 6 for NT intro. Having only 3 in each, I was required to do 3 more in each (both online). They were amazing classes, even though they were not directly part of my ThM.
Another unique feature of SEBTS ThM is their 2 different routes: thesis or non-thesis programs. The non-thesis program is the entry level track where the student can take 4 advanced graduate level classes (or a post-grad class or two with permission). Instead of a thesis, the student has 2 guided reading classes (3 credits each) that allows a lot of interaction between the student and his/her faculty mentor. The culmination of the non-thesis track is a 40-60 page “mini-thesis” worth 3 credits. Therefore, those desiring advanced education and enjoy studying but lack the research capabilities for a publishable thesis, this route is excellent. There might be other extenuating circumstances that would prompt a student to this route also. I am still considering it since I am outside the country at this time and the 2 reading classes would allow me to continue my stay in Central America.
The thesis route must be approved by the ThM office and faculty mentor, usually demonstrated by a previously written research paper showing one’s capabilities at a higher academic level. The differences between the two programs are minor. Instead of 4 advance graduate level classes, the student takes 2 advance graduate classes and 2 post-graduate classes or seminars. Instead of the guided reading and mini-thesis totaling 9 credits, the student labors on a 9 credit, 120 page thesis (mine happens to be on “The Form and Structure of the Pauline Euloghtos Sentence of Ephesians”). Perhaps the nicest thing about these two different routes is that it offers flexibility for students. In case you were doing your math and realized that only 21 credits have been accounted for, both routes require a bibliographic class towards the beginning wherein the mentor can guide the student into the school’s library and research capabilities. It is a beneficial (maybe “tedious” would be a better word) class for the exposure of research materials, but it also proved very helpful for thesis or mini-thesis research down the road.
The faculty mentor is another wonderful feature of the program. Considering the stellar teachers that the school employs, finding capable mentors is not difficult. My first choice was David Alan Black, who gave me his own application that was a bit lengthier than the school’s. He has been extremely encouraging and a wonderful testimony of what it means to serve Jesus in his kingdom. In fact, the faculty is part of the reason I so highly recommend a Southeastern degree. Along with this is the school’s gold-standard accreditation (SACS and ATS). This leads into a negative, however. Having ATS accreditation leaves it nearly impossible to do any kind of non-residence studying for a post-graduate degree. For instance, directed studies are virtually non-existent, and you can definitely rule out online classes that go toward the ThM.
There are a few unattractive features of SEBTS’ ThM. For instance, I feel that it is one of their better degree programs, although it is rarely advertised. Many profs will encourage their students to do the MDiv to PhD/DMin route as most of them did. But the ThM is a well respected degree and will prepare the student for future PhD level work (especially a European PhD) or simply give the student a good terminal degree if a PhD is not an option.
Unfortunately, the PhD program at SEBTS (and 4 of the remaining 5 SBC seminaries as far as I know) do not accept the ThM credits into their PhD programs. They are separate and distinct from the ThM, which makes the degree a bit superfluous if the PhD is one’s ultimate goal. In my case, a ThM was attractive because I do not have an MDiv, did not want the extra ministry classes for an MDiv, and may desire to do a PhD later thus needing an MDiv or ThM. Yet knowing that a PhD is another 60+ credits at the same seminary is a bit disheartening. At least it also opens the doors for schools outside the SBC and even opportunities to study at the university level if so desired.
Besides these few issues, I have found my studies at SEBTS to be very fruitful and enriching. Anyone in the southeast looking for a quality, advanced education should seriously consider SEBTS’ ThM (and for that matter the ThM degree, period!). The interaction with scholars like the ones mentioned above is reason enough to study at SEBTS. But a ThM from SEBTS will look very attractive on a resume and intensely prepare the student for future ministry, academic or otherwise."
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.