A Health Issue: Why I (Still) Think a 90+hr MDiv is Too Long

A year ago this week I wrote the following article on the history and future of the Master of Divinity degree in theological education. One year later, I stand by these words and remain convinced that we serve churches best when students can aim to complete a rigorous professional masters degree that focuses on the high quality biblical and theological core of what a student needs to prepare for pastoral ministry in three years. Since avenues for further specialized study beyond this foundational degree exist in the form of MDiv concentrations, the ThM degree, and doctoral degrees, a three year MDiv is ideally designed as the healthiest MDiv for the church.

A Century’s Oak

In an effort to ensure the health of the types of trees that outlive most humans, often the best course of action an arborist has is counterintuitive. Instead of leaving a century old oak tree alone to weather the elements as it has for decades or attempt to survive encroaching modernity, the life of the tree is best prolonged after careful pruning or even replanting.[1] Yet, such preventative maintenance is sometime misunderstood even by those who want to see the life of the tree prolonged. In communities where a tree of such age exists, the oak represents memories and experiences worth preserving, almost at any cost, but even then replanting might seem like a threat to the integrity of the tree and thus the viability is questioned.[2]

In the last 50 years of the world of theological education, the Master of Divinity degree has served as the oak of a seminary’s curriculum—and with good reason. As Jason Allen notes, “In it one finds the complete toolkit for ministry service: Greek and Hebrew, New Testament and Old Testament, theology, church history, preaching, pastoral care and counseling, evangelism, missions, and much, much more.”[3] Yet, as Allen shares, as the MDiv crossed the millennium, it fell on hard times. What was once the universally agreed upon standard, now has it’s challengers in the form of “shorter and less rigorous Master of Arts degrees.”[4] Thus, for this mainstay degree that has trained thousands, to reach the century mark of further effective training and formation, the time has come for it to be carefully pruned and replanted. For the MDiv to have new life extended for the 21st century and function as the century’s oak, revitalization must occur.

The MDiv: A History of Strength

For the first half of the 20th century, the standard theological degree offered by the seminaries was the Bachelor of Divinity. The term “divinity” was chosen as it reflected for centuries the formal study of theology in the Western tradition. By design, this theological degree was conceived and offered as a second undergraduate degree for those called to ministry and in many traditions served as the basic degree required for ordination.[5] There were graduate degrees available, such as the ThM, but such were designed for academic preparation in research and scholarship. However, by the middle of the century, many pastors and faculty members realized that what was taught and required had migrated toward graduate level education with a professional, rather than research, focus and, further, many pastors were starting to inquire about the creation of professional educational options provided at the doctoral level.

Thus, in 1964, a committee of the American Association of Theological Schools embarked on a two year study to recommend an appropriate name for the basic theological degree offered by the seminaries. After several listening sessions and surveys, the committee drafted an 80 page study document reviewed by 5 consultants, which led to a formal recommendation at the 1966 biennial meeting of the AATS [now ATS]. The committee gave member schools the option of either retaining the Bachelor of Divinity degree or adopting what they termed the Master of Divinity degree for programs that “have genuinely raised the quality of their work to the level appropriate to a master’s degree in a reputable university.” They recognized that study at the graduate level should have a “curriculum flexible enough to allow for adequate education for the diverse ministries emerging in our time, while at the same time providing required discipline in the basic fields of theological study, such as biblical study, church history, theology, and arts of ministry.”

In their explanation for the selection of this nomenclature, the committee explained that (1) they did not think they should use or co-opt an established masters degree, as the ThM already indicated advanced research study and Master of Arts degrees typically focused their work in one department and were more specialized. (2) They desired that the terminology function as both useful and clear, thus adequately connecting with the contemporary trends in theological education. (3) Finally, they sought to retain the use of the term “divinity” as they wanted to maintain a connection with the long-standing tradition of the study of theology for ministry. In short, following 1966 the new Master of Divinity arose as the agreed upon term for the basic professional degree offered by seminaries.[6]

Many schools immediately adopted the MDiv nomenclature and among them were the seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention.[7] These schools offered conversion plans whereby pastors with the BDiv could change their degree to the MDiv and, in addition to the change in name, the seminaries changed the content seeking to make the MDiv a more flexible three-year degree that “recognizes the importance of the individual student’s own choices.”[8] What this meant was a reduction in the required core courses in favor of a sizable number of elective courses while maintaining roughly the same number of total hours (95-100 credit hours).

Throughout the decades that followed, schools would amend this ratio of core courses to elective courses as well as experiment by adding several MDiv concentrations that increased the total number of required courses. By the turn of the century, there settled a common understanding that while, in theory, the MDiv is a three-year degree, rarely does one or is one able to complete it in less than four years or longer. The advent and expansion of distance education through technology that culminated in what is now online education, has aided in making a three-year completion more realistic in terms of course offerings, but the 95+ required hours continue to make a three-year graduate an exception rather than the rule.

Replanting the MDiv for Future Strength

In recent years, professionals in the field of church revitalization and church planting have started to use the term “replanting” to recognize the unique work required among legacy congregations to ensure their days of ministry effectiveness continue for future decades.[9] These churches once were highly effective for a season, but due to various factors, whether neighborhood transition, leadership dysfunction, or simple effects of longevity, these churches are no longer looking toward a future of renewed effectiveness without some kind of revitalization. However, they are not yet in danger of closing their doors, but rather need a renewed look at their core function and purpose, perhaps some operational pruning, and a net overall replanting for a future season of ministry.[10]

When it comes to the theological degree with long standing proven effectiveness, the Master of Divinity has and should retain its place as the oak among the more specialized curriculum willows. However, for ensured effectiveness in the 21st century, a pruning and replanting of this degree is required. Rather than minimize the theological and biblical studies core, which comprise the essence, or tip of the spear, of what students training for pastoral ministry need, the replanted MDiv should prune the number of free elective courses. While elective selection is important to students wanting to gain further language study or explore areas of interest for future doctoral study, the requirement of a dozen or more elective hours can actually serve to distract and prolong the student’s preparation. Less hours does not have to mean less quality.

With the growing pressures for today’s ministry student that include incumbent educational debt, the need to work while pursuing a seminary degree, and the urgency of the ministry task, the MDiv degree needs to come with an achievable and regular three-year completion rate. The replanted MDiv should provide the aspiring pastor with the core of theological training in the form of a professional graduate degree attainable in a window of time that keeps them from ever feeling like a professional student.

Further, with the increased desire and feasibility of pastors pursuing professional or research doctorates, a three-year MDiv can both prepare them well for advanced study and help them begin that study sooner. While this pruning and replanting might appear risky or even counterintuitive to even the most ardent supporter of high quality theological education, the future viability of the MDiv planted in a world of shortened Master of Arts degrees, requires at least steps of preventative maintenance, if not more holistic revitalization.

An Oak for a Century

These are wonderful days to pursue theological education as a tool to aid in the preparation of a call to gospel ministry. These are also days of great need and urgency for a generation of pastors equipped with the best possible academic training available. The Master of Divinity degree has served for the last 50 years as the very best degree available to aid and equip the one called to serve churches as pastor. To ensure that it remains so for another 50 years, the degree needs careful pruning and replanting. When that work is done well, this oak of a degree can stand strong and see the day when churches see it as their own healthy and thriving Century Oak.[11]

Midwestern Seminary engaged in an extensive curriculum revision during 2013-2014 that resulted in the pruning and replanting of the MDiv degree. The new 81 hour Midwestern MDiv retains a 72 hour core curriculum, but has reduced the number of electives to 9 hours, thus allowing students to complete the degree in 3 years while providing them with the solid theological foundation needed to engage in pastoral ministry.[12] If students desire they can still pursue more specialized MDivs by adding an additional 9 hour concentration.[13] The Midwestern MDiv is truly a professional masters degree replanted for the church.    

[1] “Pruning trees and shrubs,” University of Minnesota Extension. http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/trees-shrubs/pruning-trees-shrubs/

[2] “Ghirardi Compton Oak,” League City Parks and Recreation. http://leaguecity.com/index.aspx?nid=1806

[3] ‘Why We Must Recover the Master of Divinity Degree,” Jason K. Allen. http://jasonkallen.com/2015/09/why-we-must-recover-the-master-of-divinity-degree/

[4] ‘Why We Must Recover the Master of Divinity Degree,” Jason K. Allen. http://jasonkallen.com/2015/09/why-we-must-recover-the-master-of-divinity-degree/

[5] “3 Seminary, 4 College Years Before Ordaining,” Baptist Press, December 10, 1960. http://media.sbhla.org.s3.amazonaws.com/1440,10-Dec-1960.pdf

[6] “Report on Degree Nomenclature,” AATS Bulletin 27.

[7] “Golden Gate Seminary Changes Degree Name,” Baptist Press, February 7, 1967. http://media.sbhla.org.s3.amazonaws.com/2334,07-Feb-1967.pdf; “Midwestern Seminary Changes Degree Name,” Baptist Press, January 5, 1967. http://media.sbhla.org.s3.amazonaws.com/2320,05-Jan-1967.pdf; “New Orleans Seminary Announces New Degree,” Baptist Press, March 15, 1967. http://media.sbhla.org.s3.amazonaws.com/2354,15-Mar-1967.pdf

[8] “Minutes of the Fall Faculty Retreat, August 24-25, 1970,” Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. See also “Southern Seminary Will Exchange Bachelor’s Degree for Master’s,” Baptist Press, June 12, 1967. http://media.sbhla.org.s3.amazonaws.com/2407,12-Jun-1967.pdf

[9] “Legacy Church Planting,” North American Mission Board. http://www.namb.net/legacy/

[10] Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick, Replant: How a Dying Church can Grow Again (David C. Cook, 2014). http://www.amazon.com/Replant-Dying-Church-Grow-Again/dp/0781410320

[11] Many thanks to Robert J. Matz, Assistant Director of Online Studies and Institutional Effectiveness and Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Midwestern, for his valuable research help for this article.

[12] “Midwestern reviews first year of 81-credit-hour MDiv,” Baptists Press. September 14, 2015. http://www.bpnews.net/45481/from-the-seminaries-midwestern-affirms-81credithour-mdiv-convocations-at-new-orleans-and-golden-gate-seminaries

[13] http://www.mbts.edu/academics/masters/

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