RNS wonders why more people are avoiding the MDiv degree in U.S. seminaries

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There was a fascinating piece by Yonat Shimron of Religion News Service last week about how more people in seminary are opting for two-year master’s degrees instead of three-year master’s of divinity degrees.

To most people, this may sound like an ecclesiastical yawner but stay with me. There’s some really interesting trends in there, trends that have been building up since the 1980s and the rise of pastoral counseling.

Back in 1992, I got a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry, one of 11 Episcopal seminaries. I always felt the seminary favored the MDiv folks, while we MA students were definitely second class. This was beyond annoying in that the MA'ers were paying the same tuition amounts per year as the MDiv’ers.

But the three-year degree folks were seen as the real reason a seminary exists -- to get people into positions as priests and bishops in our denomination. The master’s degree earners were all laity whose callings weren’t held in the same esteem. So I was surprised to hear RNS saying that the MA degree is actually preferred these days.

This excerpt starts a few paragraphs into the article:

The gold standard for church leaders -- the Master of Divinity -- is losing some of its luster to its humbler cousin, the two-year Master of Arts.
“People are trying to get the training they need and get out,” said (Sean) Robinson, 28, who graduated Friday (May 11) from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “It all boils down to time and convenience and the culture and lifestyle we see today.
A new projection from the Association of Theological Schools, the main accrediting body for seminaries in the U.S. and Canada, finds that the number of seminary students enrolled in various Master of Arts degrees will likely exceed the number of Master of Divinity students by 2021.

Where I went to school, the MA and MDiv students had exactly the same classes in theology, church history, Anglican studies, missions, spirituality and ethics. What I missed by not taking on a third year included classes in homiletics, Greek (I did take some Hebrew) and clinical pastoral education, a kind of internship otherwise known as CPE.

The reasons for the decline in the Cadillac degree, required by most mainline denominations as well as the Catholic Church for anyone wanting to serve as pastor or associate pastor, are many and multifaceted.
One is the growth of seminaries affiliated with evangelical and Pentecostal denominations. These religious groups don’t typically require the Master of Divinity for men and women who want to be ordained.

Actually, a lot of Pentecostal/charismatic groups don’t require any theological degree for a lot of their pastors. Case in point: Bill Johnson, pastor of the popular Bethel Church in Redding, Calif. doesn’t have such a degree, according to his bio. If he got one at some point, someone please let me know.

But when I called up the web site for Southern Seminary, a Louisville-based seminary for Southern Baptists, America’s largest Protestant group, I saw a huge list of MDiv and MA degrees. The latter were obviously for specialized or supporting ministries; the former were for pastors.

I’d like to know which evangelical denominations have relaxed their requirements because the Southern Baptists obviously haven’t.

Over the past 50 years, the share of Americans who identify with mainline Protestants, on the other hand, has been shrinking significantly as younger millennials leave the church and the ranks of the unaffiliated grows.
Some seminaries have responded by trimming the Master of Divinity credit hours from 90 to as low as 72 to be more competitive with the shorter M.A. degrees, while still keeping it a three-year degree.
It hasn’t worked.

I really enjoyed seminary and taking courses that would help me when I returned to the religion beat. I met a lot of laity who were interested in what I was doing, wanted such an opportunity for their own spiritual growth but didn’t see themselves entering the professional ministry.

When my seminary emphasized its primary role was to prepare ordained clergy, I felt they were missing out on an enormous opportunity. Here were people willing to pay for theological education. It made no economical sense to push away such folks. I've been gone more than 20 years, so hopefully things have changed since then.

Instead, the economics of church decline and practicalities of today’s students may play bigger roles.
Attending school full-time for three years and incurring loan obligations may contribute to some students’ calculations.
“The crisis we have is that if you’re graduating with a Master of Divinity you’re likely graduating with some significant debt and then you’ll struggle to find jobs and jobs that pay really low wages,” said Cameron Trimble, CEO of the Center for Progressive Renewal, which trains Christian leaders and helps older churches grow.

When I was studying for my MA in religion, I was also doing speaking engagements connected to my first book, which was on being Christian and single. I saw a ton of singles at various meetings and conferences who were turned off to a church culture that emphasized family above everything else.

What if, I thought, seminarians could take a class on what’s really happening out there in the pews? How about ministry to specialty groups such as older people, foreigners/immigrants and singles, all of which were growing demographics in 1990s America? Or what about a course in money management, fundraising, sticking to a budget and capital fund drives?

And many seminaries are realizing their curricula may rely too heavily on the traditional academic subjects such as biblical studies, theology, Christian ethics, Hebrew and Greek, and that they lack a more intentional emphasis on leadership formation.
Some are beginning to address that. As a first move, they are also allowing working students the opportunity to take classes online.

They’re going to have to do a lot more than that to stay current. Online classes have been around for a long time, so that’s hardly new. What’s really bringing in the numbers are the informal ministry education schools like Youth With a Mission’s six-month Discipleship Training Schools. We're talking thousands of people.

So does Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry, which looks to be a year long and the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer University, which has similar training for laity. Schools like those are the trend setters in ministry. They're where a lot of young folks are going.

The article ended with an anecdote from another SBC seminary, Southeastern, describing how its MA programs are expanding fast. Who is taking them? Are they would-be pastors? Or are they laity wanting a Christian graduate program? 

Such a piece on an intriguing trend in theological education was long overdue and I’m glad RNS caught it. I’d like to know more. If there are less folks taking MDiv programs, that means there will be fewer pastors coming down the pike, which could mean a national clergy shortage. Is this affecting all churches and denominations equally?

This country has had a wealth of clergy for a long time. If their numbers are decreasing, that’s an important story journalists should be out there covering, right?

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