Degree Reference Guide
Choosing a Degree
Before choosing a degree, it is important to find where your interests lie. God seems to usually lead men and women into a particular aspect of ministry that they are gifted in and have a passion for. This is not to say that the preparation for the ministry and the ministry itself will not be without hardships, quite the opposite, but rather my point is, if you assess where your gifts, talents, and desires are, and compare that to where you feel God has called you, then that will narrow down your degree choices considerably. I have outlined the various theological degrees found in colleges, universities, and seminaries. In addition to those I have expanded the list to include other, standard degrees in the areas of education, law, and counseling.
Your undergraduate degree is the foundation for the rest of your formal education and many times provides a framework from which you view life. Since Theology has traditionally been considered part of the School of Arts, most four year theology and biblical studies degrees are called Bachelor of Arts. Most schools provide a variety of course concentrations, or majors. These majors will be what define the courses you take (especially in your junior and senior year) and they will also let others know after you graduate what your area of specialization is. Theoretically, one that has a B.A. in Youth Ministry would be better equipped to be a youth pastor than one that has a B.A. in Music or Missiology. In reality, your major may define others' initial perceptions of your capabilities, but ultimately if you are gifted in teaching youth (but did not major in that area) and you feel the Lord calling you in that direction, then you should make that known to those looking to hire a youth minister. If one were planning on being a youth pastor, however, one would be best prepared if their coursework reflected their interests and desires. Planning ahead will save you much grief and hassle later on.
Associate of Arts (A.A.)
The Associate of Arts is typically a four semester degree. During the two years of study the student is introduced in part to basic theology and surveys of the Bible. In addition, the student takes much of the general coursework that is also found in the Bachelor degrees. This coursework usually includes English, History, and Math. This degree equips one to be a lay teacher in a church and can prepare one for a Bachelor degree, with (hopefully) most of the credit transferring over.
Associate of Divinity (A.D.)
The Associate of Divinity is a degree that is somewhat rarer than the Associate of Arts. It is usually designed as a way for older students that are not qualified to start a Master of Divinity to have a foundation for ministry. Sometimes the student with this degree will continue onto a Bachelor of Arts program, having already completed two years of coursework. The Associate of Divinity, while taking the same time as the Associate of Arts, contains more ministerial-based courses. Biblical languages and advanced doctrinal studies are not covered, however pastoral theology, biblical exegesis, and surveys of the Bible are generally covered. What it generally lacks is general coursework in Math, Science, and some of the other general course work found in the Associate of Arts. This is a practical degree designed for one that is preparing for lay leadership or a church ministry position.
Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.)
The Bachelor of Divinity is not a very common degree in the United States. However, it is awarded by some schools and is usually designed as the equivalent to a Bachelor of Arts with a Divinity (or theological studies) major. In the United Kingdom, the Bachelor of Divinity is sometimes a graduate degree, with the Master of Theology (M.Theol.) being an undergraduate. That seems backwards to us, which is why the Bachelor of Divinity in the United States has been reworked over the last hundred years to reflect the American degree system.
Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)
The Bachelor of Arts degree is a four year degree that consists of English Composition, Literature, History, Science, and Math courses. In addition to these, one usually has to take a course or two of a foreign language, fine arts, and physical education. The rest of one’s coursework consists of electives and requirements for one’s major(s) and minor(s). Many that are planning to go into Christian ministry will get their undergraduate degree in a field that is not related to ministry (such as Chemistry, Political Science, Math, etc.). They would then get their Master of Divinity degree to qualify them for ministry. While that has been the typical route, thanks to Bible Colleges and Christian liberal arts colleges, many now choose to start their theological and ministerial training on the undergraduate level.
Typical majors for those planning on being in Christian ministry and pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree include Biblical Studies, Youth Ministry, Missions, Music, and various degrees to prepare the student for teaching in Christian schools. Typically, a Bachelor of Arts degree will prepare one for ministry in their area of major. So, if a student’s major is in Music Ministry, one would expect them upon graduation to be qualified to be a Music Minister at a church or teach at a primary or secondary school.
If you are planning on teaching immediately after college, make certain that your degree program provides state accreditation. Being a qualified teacher will mean that you are more marketable to both Christian and public schools. Such programs also provide a semester of on-the-job training, called a practicum.
Bachelor of Theology (Th.B.)
The Bachelor of Theology is a five year undergraduate degree. Once a somewhat common degree, this degree has fallen into disuse due to its length when compared to the more popular Bachelor of Arts degree. The upside to the Th.B. is its inclusion of Greek and Hebrew into its curriculum. The downsides are that it is an extra year past the B.A. and biblical languages can be taken in a B.A. program at many theological schools. Many unaccredited schools seem to gravitate towards using this degree, so be wary when looking into this particular degree. Just as a note, if you are looking for schools in the U.K., you will find that the Bachelor of Theology will be a shorter program, comparable to a B.A. in Theology.
Traditionally in the United States, one’s theological training begins at the graduate level. If your undergraduate is in a non-theological field, then graduate coursework is usually necessary for full-time ministry. A traditional seminary will not expect their students to have had much previous theological training and should provide both introductory courses as well as ones that are more advanced.
For those that have an undergraduate degree with a major in a theological field, one can expect certain differences on the graduate level. For example, a student that took surveys of doctrine during their undergraduate will expect a graduate course in systematic theology to be more in depth, providing the student with multiple views on a given subject and delving into a more critical analysis of each view. Such in-depth study is usually a given at the graduate level.
The student starting graduate school should also be prepared for graduate writing assignments. Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations is is generally the format used in writing at seminaries. A student should be prepared at most seminaries to write a research paper during the length of most classes. Usually, great leniency is given to the student concerning the paper’s topic. Choosing a topic of interest is crucial in creating a good paper, as well as using primary sources. Being able to use primary sources well and interacting with them will help your grade, and your learning, immensely.
Master of Ministry (M.Min.)
The Master of Ministry degree is designed to enhance the skills of men and women already in some form of ministry. It usually can be completed in about a year or two, depending on the school. The focus for this degree is very practical. Courses in theology and apologetics are balanced by a variety of ministry-related classes that seek to apply the gained knowledge to real life ministry.
This particular degree is a good alternative to the Master of Divinity, as it can be completed in less time, thus costing less as well. The downside is that usually one gets no coursework in biblical languages. Other aspects that are not present in many Master of Ministry programs are historical theology and research methodology. If considering being a pastor, missionary, or a teacher in a church, then this degree should prepare you for many of the practical, as well as theological, concerns that would aide you in your ministry.
Master of Arts (M.A.)
The Master of Arts program, like the Bachelor of Arts, is usually geared towards a particular concentration. There is no general coursework, however, only courses in your particular field with electives being from a wider range, but still related to your concentration.
The Master of Arts in Biblical Studies allows the student to study general theology and some historical studies. The main thrust of this particular program, however, is the study of the biblical text. One can usually choose a New Testament or Old Testament Concentration. Biblical Greek or Hebrew is generally required, depending on your concentration. Being that this program is shorter than a Master of Divinity, it does appeal to those already in ministry or to those that want a theological degree but do not require a Master of Divinity.
The Master of Arts in Theological Studies is a common M.A. program that provides students with an overall study of systematic theology, historical studies, and biblical studies.
Another common M.A. program is the Master of Arts in Religion. The coursework for the M.A.R. is even wider in its scope and generally longer in its coursework. This program generally looks at Christianity and Christian doctrine within the context of world religions. This program is common in both Christian and secular institutions. Obviously, at the more secular institutions the emphasis on Christianity would be diminished.
The Master of Arts in Christian Education focuses the student’s studies to within the context of education. The typical M.A.C.E. student is one that has experience in professional teaching and desires to increase their knowledge and/or their position within a school. Variations on this program can allow one to be more qualified to be a school administrator as well.
The coursework for M.A. programs are geared towards a more academic study. Those looking for a more pastoral and practical study should consider the Master of Divinity or the Master of Ministry. A good M.A. program should provide the framework for further education, even if you are not considering it at the time. Most M.A. programs will be sufficient enough to get you into doctoral programs, although you may have to take several additional courses before admittance. The time to complete an M.A. can generally range from one year to three. Most schools require around 36 credits. In the end, if one is going to go straight from a M.A. to doctoral work, it will usually be faster and more practical to do an M.A. (even if you have to take extra courses for admittance) than doing an M.Div. The downside is that biblical languages are not usually included in most M.A. programs. This can mean that before you begin your doctoral studies you are taking Greek, Hebrew, and one or two research languages. Another downside to the M.A. is that some denominations require the M.Div. for ordination. So, check the ordination requirements for your church or denomination to see what degree requirements are needed.
On a personal note, this is the degree I chose for my first graduate degree and I don't regret it. I chose a M.A. in Theological Studies and then geared the electives to support my desire to teach church history/historical theology.
Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.)
This degree is very similar to the M.A. in Theological Studies. The difference is that the M.T.S. is usually an additional 10-12 credit hours more than the M.A.. This will mean at least two more semesters of study. The term theological studies means that the degree is designed to cover the academic realm of theology: systematic theology, church history, and some courses in biblical studies. If considering this particular degree, do some extra research, as this degree tends to be highly adaptive and varies greatly by school. I think this is a good degree choice for those not needing a Master of Divinity, but needing or wanting a bit more credits than what a Master of Arts provides.
Juris Doctor (J.D.)
In the U.S. the Juris Doctor is the standard professional degree for lawyers. It is included in this list because it is a very versatile degree. When I worked at an international non-profit, our Chief of Staff held a J.D. In addition to similar non-profit positions, many law school graduates can be found in government and politics. There are a few pastors that have undertaken this degree as well. Some universities offer the Juris Doctor in conjunction with other degree programs. For example, Duke University offers a dual-degree option of a Juris Doctor and a Master of Theological Studies that combines some of your coursework to reduce the overall cost and time involved. It is generally a 3 year course of study to complete a J.D. Upon graduation you are eligible to take your state's bar exam (if you're in the U.S.) which will technically give you the authority to practice law in that state.
Master of Divinity (M.Div.)
The Master of Divinity is usually the core degree of a seminary. If you are looking into this particular program, ask yourself two questions before committing yourself to it. First of all, is your goal to be ordained to be a pastor, to be a leader in a church, or to work as a professional in a theological field? Secondly, do you have three to five years to devote to serious study and scholarship? If your answer to either of these is ‘No,’ then you should probably consider another program. The Master of Divinity degree is designed as intense, practical training for those in or going into ministry. In depth biblical study, as well as learning both Greek and Hebrew, coupled with practical ministry training is the hallmark of the M.Div.
Some schools offer the M.Div. in a generalized format. Others will provide variations on the degree that will allow concentrations. Some concentrations include emphasis on biblical languages, New or Old Testament, and Biblical Counseling. The length of time for a Master of Divinity degree usually ranges from 90-120 credit hours. It is important to ask a school, especially when thinking about this degree, about the average time it takes to complete their program. If you hear anything less than 3 years, be suspect. As with any degree, check for appropriate accreditation. It would be truly tragic to go through 3 or 4 years of seminary only not to be qualified for ordination or to be denied a position due to a non-accredited degree.
Advanced Degrees and Doctorates
Ideally, your Master’s program will set you up perfectly to begin doctoral studies. However, this is not always the case. Schools usually have a list of things that they require for a student seeking a particular advanced degree. These requirements can include a working knowledge of various languages and a certain number of courses in a variety of different theological fields (ethics, systematic theology, church history, etc.). If one fails to meet the required number of courses, the student will usually be allowed to take those courses and will be admitted on a temporary, or probationary, status.
Being a full-time student working on an advanced degree and having a full-time career is generally unwise. The amount of time needed for research, reading, and writing is immense. Whatever you decide, being on the same page with your spouse and having a financial plan will help the transition into advanced study be as smooth as possible. I went against this advice with my graduate and post-graduate work and had a full time career while in grad school full time, so it is possible to do - you just have to know that this is what God has called you to do and also have to make time for your family and recreation.
Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.)
The Master of Sacred Theology is designed to be a post-Masters degree program. This means that one has to have already completed one graduate degree. There are several reasons to choose this program over a doctoral degree. Firstly, this degree is usually rather short, being a year to a year and a half of full-time study. Secondly, some S.T.M. programs are designed so that one can continue their ministry while still in school.
Master of Theology (Th.M.)
The Master of Theology is an advanced degree, being taken after the completion of a first Masters degree. In more traditional seminaries, they may require you to complete a Th.M. before beginning doctoral work. Some schools may require that you have a Master of Divinity degree before beginning the Master of Theology, but many would allow a Master of Arts in a theological field to be an adequate prerequisite.
Usually lasting a (very busy) year, the Th.M. should be designed to give specialization in a particular field. Concentrations vary by school, but are usually similar, if not identical, to the school’s M.Div. concentrations. Some schools would distinguish a Master of Theology program from a Master of Sacred Theology program by stating that the Th.M. is designed to be a more academic degree, while the S.T.M. is designed to be more practical. In reality, though, they can overlap depending on the school.
Upon completion of a Master of Theology degree, one should be qualified to teach on an undergraduate level. The Th.M. can also aide pastors and missionaries in further theological training.
One other note concerning this degree (just to make it more complicated). At Dallas Theological Seminary and in other parts of the world, the Th.M. is a degree that you do instead of a Master of Divinity. It is a four year program at Dallas. In other parts of the world, like the U.K., it is similar in scope to a Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.).
Doctor of Missiology (D.Miss.)
Probably the rarest of the degrees in this list, the Doctor Missiology generally focuses on cross-cultural ministry. You may also see some programs emphasizing Urban Ministry. This degree can be used to hone the skills of a practicing missionary, but tends to be used instead to qualify veteran missionaries to teach on the undergraduate and graduate levels. Having a D.Miss. would place you in a small group of people that have terminal degrees in this area, thus making you very attractive to schools training pastors and missionaries. Many other schools will have a Ph.D. or Th.D. in Intercultural Studies or Missiology which will usually accomplish the same thing and may make you more marketable just because people look for Ph.D.'s or Th.D.'s to teach.
Doctor of Educational Ministry (D.Ed.Min.)
A D.Ed.Min. program generally requires an M.A. in Christian Education, a Masters of Religious Education, or something similar. It is a professional degree, like the M.Div., J.D., and D.Min. It is usually designed to equip those working in the administration at Christian schools, mission agencies, or church-based ministry. Some schools, such as the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary offer concentrations within this degree such as counseling, church growth, and missions. Also, there may be a requirement, such as the case with Columbia Theological Seminary, that you have to have been involved in ministry for a certain number of years. For most going into this program, such a requirement generally isn't an issue. For those looking to teach on the graduate/post-grad level, this degree would most likely limit your teaching to practical theology and ministry/church education courses. If you're planning to be in a school-based environment or in a non-Christian environment, you may be better off going with the Ed.D.
Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.)
As the M.Div. is the standard graduate degree for theological training, so too is the Doctor of Ministry degree the standard post-graduate degree for those in ministry. Because of the sheer number of schools with D.Min. programs, a lot of people in ministry feel that this their only option in doctoral programs. It is obviously not the only choice, but it certainly not a bad one.
A typical D.Min. program will last three years. Some programs require that you have significant ministerial experience prior to beginning the degree. This particular degree is designed to provide practical training for pastors and Christian leaders. If, however, you are looking to teach in a college or seminary, you should avoid this degree, unless you plan to teach ministry courses or pastoral theology. Many do not realize this fact until after they complete their degree.
Most D.Min. programs require significant writing in the form of a dissertation. Unlike dissertations in other programs, the D.Min. dissertations are usually geared towards research in a practical area of ministry or the implementation of a project.
Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
The Doctor of Psychology provides training for potential psychotherapists and clinical practitioners. While not a theological degree, the need for Christian counselors certainly qualifies this as a potential ministry degree. When looking for programs, make certain that the program will place you on the track towards proper licensure. If you are thinking of a Psy.D. at a Christian institution, then a graduate degree in a theological field should allow you to begin this program. The difference between the Psy.D. and the Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology or Counseling is usually negligible and comes down to personal choice. This program usually takes five years to complete.
Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
For those of you continuing past your Master degree and are involved in education, then the Doctor of Education would be a good choice. The Ed.D. provides advanced study in the areas of educational theory, teaching methods, curriculum, and educational leadership. Specializations are available at many schools that provide emphasis in areas such as leadership, teaching, and curriculum design. In addition to enhancing teaching skills in a classroom, the Ed.D. is a degree that would provide qualifications for one to be a principal, superintendent, dean, or college president. If you are considering teaching a specific subject on an undergraduate or graduate level, then you would do well to consider a Ph.D. or similar degree in your specific field instead.
Doctor of Theology (Th.D.)
The Doctor of Theology is abbreviated Th.D., D.Theol., or D.Th. depending on the country and institution granting the degree. There is usually little difference in a Doctor of Theology and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). See below for in-depth information about the Ph.D., which is also applicable to the Th.D.
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Outside of theology and medicine, the Doctor of Philosophy has for some time been the standard, traditional degree in the realm of academia. The purpose of any Doctor of Philosophy degree is to provide the student with an academic study of a particular field with a particular emphasis on research and writing. In theological circles, the Ph.D. is beginning to be more and more common. As such, one can now find Ph.D. programs with concentrations in Systematic Theology, Biblical Languages, Church History, Intercultural Studies, and many other specializations. There is usually no or little difference in most Ph.D. and Th.D. programs.
One thing that varies by school, and by your area of study, is the admission requirements. The more traditional seminaries will require a Master of Divinity or its equivalent. Other schools, such as Christian or secular universities, will generally be satisfied by a Master of Arts degree in a related field. The required Grade Point Average needed to get into a Ph.D. program is generally between 3.0 and 3.5 in your graduate studies. Your transcripts will be required for your undergraduate work, but your undergraduate GPA usually doesn’t play a role in your selection into a Ph.D. program.
With a Ph.D. program you usually begin your first year with a writing and research methodology class. Research and writing will both be the essential aspect of a Ph.D program. You should learn how to write more effectively and how to better use research in conjunction with writing. Most, if not all, of the rest of your coursework will be in conjunction with your faculty adviser. Your adviser will either be assigned to you, or you will have chosen them. Regardless, make certain that the decision is based on similar interests in your field of study. Your first two years will be doctoral seminars with language tests and usually some research towards your dissertation. The third year is given over to dissertation research and writing. Some take a matter of months to finish their dissertation, others take years. It is best not to put your research on the back shelf. If you go beyond the time limit for completion given by your school (usually 7 years total for Ph.D. work), then you will not be allowed to complete your degree, unless you have been approved for an extension. Some schools will award a Th.M. to those that do not complete their dissertation. That is not the most efficient way to get a Th.M. and certainly not the most cost effective. So, make time for your research and writing after the actual seminars are over.
Those with a Ph.D. are considered eligible to be professors on undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Pastors may also consider this degree if they want to focus part of their time towards writing or if they are interested in learning a specific area more proficiently. The problem, of course, for those already committed to a ministry is that this will either cause them to have to put a three to five year hold on their ministry, or they will have to somehow divide the time.
Degree Planning by Occupation
The following outline popular "degree paths" that people in ministry and Christian education generally follow. As mentioned before, degrees even with the same title (ie Master of Arts) can vary in length and coursework depending on the school. This is just meant to give you an idea of what might lay ahead of you as you plan for your education.
Degree Planning for Pastors
I would suggest that anyone studying to be a pastor carefully choose their school and make certain it is a school that is conservative in doctrine. By this I mean, make certain that the school upholds basic Christian doctrine. Many of the theologically liberal seminaries are nothing more than God-less graduate schools which may be fine for some graduate studies, but not for those going into the pastorate. Bible colleges are a great way to get the training you need on the undergraduate level, as many seminaries ignore this time and start training pastors only after the completion of the Bachelor degree. Because of this, the Master of Divinity is still the standard degree for ordination in many denomination. In independent Baptist circles, though, many pastors are trained on the undergraduate level and then go straight into the pastorate. There is no right or wrong way to do it - just pray about the schools you are looking at and pray that the Lord will give you wisdom as you make these huge decisions. Below are some common degrees paths for pastors.
Degree Path for Professor of Old Testament or Hebrew
To teach on the undergraduate level you need to have a degree in that particular field of study or 18 credit hours in graduate work in that area.
Degree Path for Professors of New Testament or Greek
To teach on the undergraduate level you need to have a degree in that particular field of study or 18 credit hours in graduate work in that area. To teach on the graduate level you need to have a Ph.D. or Th.D. in your field.
Degree Path for Church Planters/Missionaries
Most independent Baptist missionaries that I know have only undergraduate training in Bible with specific training in Missions or Intercultural Studies (depending on what the school calls it). Southern Baptist missionaries will do well to have at least a graduate degree in a biblical or theological field. Few missionaries continue to a doctoral level, but I've added it here in case you are interested. A terminal degree in missions would put you in high demand to teach at an undergrad and graduate level.
Degree Path for Elementary School Teachers
To teach in a Christian School, look for degree programs with ACSI accreditation or with the ability to recommend their graduates for licensure. Note that terminology will vary depending on the state or country that the school is in.
Degree Path for High School Teachers
To teach in a Christian School, look for degree programs with ACSI accreditation or with the ability to recommend their graduates for licensure. Note that terminology will vary depending on the state or country that the school is in.
For additional information on choosing a school for graduate studies, school accreditation, and degrees in the U.K. click here.