Why Many Seminary Students Are Leaving Behind the Master of Divinity Degree for More ‘Practical’ Degrees in Ministry

Sean Robinson, left, stands next to professor Stephen Eccher at the commencement ceremony at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in May 2017. Robinson graduated May 11, 2018, with another master's degree. (Photo courtesy Sean Robinson)
Sean Robinson, left, stands next to professor Stephen Eccher at the commencement ceremony at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in May 2017. Robinson graduated May 11, 2018, with another master’s degree. (Photo courtesy Sean Robinson)

Like many seminary students walking across the stage to accept their diplomas at commencement ceremonies this month, Sean Robinson already has a job lined up.

Beginning in June, he will be the new minister to students and their families at Open Door Church in Raleigh, N.C.

But Robinson’s diploma isn’t the traditional Master of Divinity, awarded to seminary students who have completed a three-year course of study.

He’s graduating with a master’s degree in ministry and leadership. And increasingly many other seminary students are, too.

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 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.

There were 28,400 students enrolled in the Master of Divinity degree last year, a gradual decline from a high of 35,000 in 2006. By comparison, there were 23,300 students enrolled in seminary Master of Arts programs last year, up from 20,800 in 2006.

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.

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.

“There’s no indication that reducing Master of Divinity credit hours leads to increased enrollment,” said Chris Meinzer, senior director of administration and chief financial officer at ATS.

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.

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SOURCE: Yonat Shimron 
Religion News Service

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