Master of Divinity 101: The Basics

Over the last couple of months, I’ve touched on different types of theology degrees: what they entail, what kind of person should consider them, what benefits they offer, etc. I’ve left one type of degree untouched, until now. It’s the degree I’m earning: the Master of Divinity.

I’ve waited to talk about the Master of Divinity (or M.Div.) because there’s so much to say about it. The M.Div. is extremely flexible and covers a lot of subjects. It can also be applied in the professional and academic world in many ways. I’ll be speaking about it from my perspective as a Protestant seminarian, while trying to be as broad-focused as I can.


What is a Master of Divinity?

The Master of Divinity is a degree that can be obtained in either seminary or a graduate/divinity school. The difference between a seminary and a divinity school is that, typically, a seminary is a freestanding institution that is affiliated with a particular denomination of Christianity, whereas a divinity school is typically non-denominational and connected to a larger university, similar to many law or medical schools.

The M.Div. is certainly academic in a lot of respects, but on the whole is considered to be more of a professional degree, like an MBA, instead of a research-oriented degree like a Master of Literature that is designed to lead into doctoral work.

If you ultimately wish to earn a Ph.D., an M.Div. is not a bad option to start with. However, many graduate programs will require you to earn a secondary degree like a Master of Theology before pursuing a doctoral degree. The point of that is to supplement what you’ve learned in the M.Div. and get you ready for even more reading and writing on a graduate level.


What would I learn?

Students of the M.Div. program are required to take a wide range of classes. Topics vary depending on your school, your denomination, and your goals after graduation. Usually, the curriculum includes languages like biblical Greek, Hebrew, and sometimes Latin (or a language useful for full-time ministry, such as Spanish).

Students spend multiple years on classes focused on religious scripture, like the Pentateuch and epistles of Paul. M.Div. candidates also learn about church history, theology, and sometimes philosophy and ethics. That’s where the academic element of the degree comes in.

More practical and hands-on classes like worship, preaching, and pastoral care prepare students for professional ministry. Though M.Div. students do not receive certification in fields like social work or counseling, they may have the opportunity to be introduced to these subjects in school.


How can I make the degree my own?

Seminaries and divinity schools sometimes offer students the ability to specialize their degree, in areas that may include (but aren’t necessarily limited to): interfaith studies, youth ministry, environmental/eco-theology, ministry in communities of color (African-American, Latino, First Nations people, etc.), science and religion, church history, theology, biblical studies, and so on. Some schools don’t offer M.Div. emphases, so it’s important to look into that if this matters to you.

Some schools will even provide chances for students to study abroad, either in a country where the church is emerging and growing, or in a country that has deep ties to the school’s denomination. If you have the time and the money, these opportunities can really enrich your education.

Hands-on work like student chaplaincy or assisting part- or full-time in a church setting will vary based on the student, the denomination, and the school of choice. Sometimes, the school will not require this work, but your denomination may if you seek ordination. How much you are required to do outside of your school’s walls will change how long your degree program will take. For Protestants, the class element will typically take three years, whereas (for instance) with a Roman Catholic seminarian, it may be more.

Finally, you can take classes in person or online. Though some denominations and schools are slow to accept this, an increasing number of institutions are learning that more students have the opportunity to enroll when offered the chance to take classes online. The entire degree may be online, or the school may require you to be on campus for a couple of weeks a year.

Online students may be placed in cohorts of students in similar situations, so you can learn and grow in an online community together. If you have any field education or hands-on learning, this of course will need to be done in person.


Next month, I’ll talk more about what you can do with a Master of Divinity. It’s a long list that I hope will shed some light on all the available options, for those of you who are looking into this degree.