Becoming a pastor is competitive business. I had a solid seminary education, passed the Presbyterian (PCUSA) ordination exams on my first shot, passed the psychological evaluation, and was free to seek a call to be a pastor of a church.
But I didn’t go the route of a pastor and chose instead to pursue work in higher education.
Part of my reasoning was the job market for pastors. Maybe I was too picky with unrealistic expectations. I went to Princeton Seminary where graduates generally expect serve at big churches. I was not even thinking about the small church life. It was the data balanced by my expectations that switched my career path. I wanted to get in the pulpit to preach and organize education programs right out of the gate. I found that to be an unrealistic goal when I saw where most graduates were landing in their first positions. As someone who neither liked youth ministry nor the small church life – I had done both – I got out of the system.
There are many recent seminary graduates and current students who have the same expectations and experiences I did. They are accepted into M.Div. programs throughout the country and after earning a master’s degree they expect to be employed. The Master of Divinity is a professional degree. This means that you earn it as part of a training program in order to enter church leadership. In the latter half of the 19th century, higher education introduced professional degrees in law, business, and medicine. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard (1869-1909), sought to give the vocation of the pastor as much credibility and validation as these other professions in order to maintain and justify the divinity school at Harvard. It was this kind of thinking that transformed the Bachelor of Divinity, which had been the seat of training for ministry, into a professional graduate degree we now call the Master of Divinity (M.Div.).
It may have been a good idea at the time when the mainline churches were large and growing. But today, the degree has serious problems. The average time it takes to complete an M.Div. (90) is on par with or more than business (MBA – around 60 credit hours) or law school (Juris Doctor – around 85). A Master’s in Health Administration requires about 40 credit hours whereas the nursing profession requires a B.S.N. and a passing NCLEX score. Even then there are accelerated programs which take only 11-18 months to complete. Granted the cost of a degree like the MBA or J.D. is much higher than an M.Div., but so is the return on investment. Moreover, the M.Div. is also used as a gateway to doctorate degrees in theology and religion which means that the curriculum itself complicates academic programming outcomes at theological seminaries. Thus, a terminal degree in theology can take a longer time to earn than in some other fields.
Adding to all of these problems are denominational ordination requirements which seek the same rigor as other professional fields like law or nursing. These require candidates to endure multiple hoops of examinations both written and oral. The process can be very long, expensive, and arduous for a job that will offer a median income of around $35,000. This is just above the poverty level which in 2012 was about $23,000 correcting for location. M.Div. graduates can barely make payments on the interest of student loans acquired not only from undergraduate education, but from the M.Div. process. Undergraduate debt is now over $29,000. They have to eat and pay basic bills too. Carol Howard Merritt reflects on this burgeoning problem:
The truth is that it is very likely that you will go to seminary and never be able to get through the ordination process. I usually tell them my story. I graduated with great grades. I had been a Teacher’s Aid, Tutor and Research Assistant in Systematic Theology, Church History, Greek, Hebrew, and Practical Theology. My internship went well. The church hired me when the internship was over, because they wanted me to continue in the position. I had wonderful recommendations. But I couldn’t pass one of my Ordination Exams, so I couldn’t look for a job.
Some institutions have sought to cut down on some of the problems in the system with accelerated M.Div. programs. But the result is just not helpful enough. Liberty University’s accelerated program still requires 75 credit hours and a thesis. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary offers an Advanced Master of Divinity that requires undergraduate study in religion with a 3.3 minimum GPA. But even here, the M.Div. and still requires 79-80 credit hours to complete. The degree itself does not go below 80 credit hours as the standard. Thus, no amount of acceleration will give a student much of a break. This hardly compares with the other accelerated programs or innovative ideas to accelerate the Ph.D., especially in the humanities. American University’s Ph.D. in Communication is particularly “out-of-the-box.”
So where is the M.Div.? I don’t know. Mainline church membership is continuing to decline, there is a glut of candidates for the ministry, and M.Div programs along with the denominational requirements are putting unrealistic expectations and pressure on those just respond to a call to serve God and people in a small community. Where churches often face frustration levels so high that they pass over into resignation over declining numbers, the denominations and their seminaries are not moving enough to restructure the training requirements for prospective ministers. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Seminaries and denominations have got to innovate and restructure the educational requirements for the M.Div. and for ordination. Why this cannot be a 60 credit degree or a 2-year fast track is baffling. It’s time to stop asking questions and to start acting like the rest of graduate education that understand what and who they need to serve.