What’s your backstory?

When I first looked into starting a Masters of Divinity program, I wasn’t sure if I was qualified. A couple of years before, I had graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison with a degree in journalism. I didn’t have the background that I assumed a pastor might need.

After doing some research, I found that a bachelor’s degree in religion, theology, or a related field wasn’t a requirement for acceptance, at least for my denomination’s seminaries. Like many schools, it did require at least a 3.0 GPA (or some kind of acceptable explanation for lower grades).

I was considering possibilities that I hadn’t thought of before. Unlike a lot of seminarians I’ve met, I never intended to go back to school for a degree in theology. If I could go back and make a different choice, would I have majored in something different for my undergrad? Did it even matter?

Speaking from my personal experience, and more than three years of theological education, I have a better picture of what type of college and professional background is helpful in seminary and divinity school. Is it better to have a bachelor’s in religious studies? The answer is: it depends.

For some people who want to be theological educators or pastors, a foundation in faith-related studies is the right choice. Frequently—not but always—people with this type of bachelor’s degree have wanted to work in theology for a long time and have no need or interest in studying other fields.

If you are this person, this plan makes sense for you. Having a particular vision for your career and sticking with it can be a wonderful thing. Furthermore, a familiarity with theology, religious history, practical faith-related skills, and so on certainly makes classes easier. The learning curve isn’t so steep and it’s easier to adjust to this type of learning and thinking.

For me, my undergrad degree was not directly connected to a Masters of Divinity, and that was okay, too. The admissions page of the seminary I applied to was accurate: you really don’t need a particular undergraduate degree to be successful in a theological school. Many faith traditions believe that God can call someone to a pastoral vocation at any time in life, even if he or she is well into a completely different career.

Having a background in a realm other than theology can be helpful, too, in surprising ways. I found my degree in journalism was indirectly related to my master’s program because both demanded so much writing in short periods of time. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that just about anything could conceivably be relevant to theological studies, to varying degrees.

Your unrelated background may be convenient in ways you don’t expect. If you do hope to become a clergy person, studying and/or working in a field other than religion can help you relate to professionals with secular careers. And frankly, if you have trouble finding a position in theology after you graduate, you have other skills to fall back on while you’re trying to start your religion-focused career.

From what I have seen, “second-career students” have the smoothest transition into theological studies if they’re earning a professional degree like the Master of Divinity or a Masters of Arts in Ministry. Of all the fields in theology, the role of a clergy person is most varied—they teach, preach, offer basic counseling, write, translate languages, plan events, and sometimes even run the day-to-day operations of their churches.

That being said, this is less true of academics, which is a word of caution that I want to add. For those hoping to earn their PhDs and become professors, it would probably be more helpful to have a solid previous educational background in theology. Depending on the type of program you are considering and the goals you have in mind, you may need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for admittance, which will draw on what you’ve learned in school so far.

Everyone is going to be in a unique situation, so it’s important to do your research and advocate for yourself. Most importantly, please know that your previous career and undergraduate degree won’t disqualify you if you’d like to earn a degree in theology. Everyone has special talents and gifts to offer. What are some of yours?