Theological Education and Ministry
Updated: Sep 11
Churches throughout the world depend on seminaries to train and teach pastors to lead churches and these churches typically rely on colleges and seminaries to offer a comprehensive education that encompasses various aspects of ministry including counseling, leadership, theological studies, and more. As a seminary student and pastor, I have noticed that many churches, while they want college and seminary-educated pastors, have no idea what the actual degrees mean. This post will attempt to explain the importance of theological education and the differences between degrees in a hope of helping people understand what exactly they mean and the time requirements needed to obtain these degrees. This post will not delve into various majors, but will look specifically at the degrees themselves and will also show rough estimates of how long the education process would take for someone to finish that particular degree.
Why is theological education important for the individual?
Many people have the idea that theological training and education is unimportant or a waste of time and the usual line of reasonings include, "Jesus wasn't seminary educated" or "the apostles didn't have college diplomas." In some cases, people are knowledgable about church history and can point to examples of non-educated church leaders that had a tremendous impact (such as C.H. Spurgeon). The issue is that Jesus did not need seminary education because he was and is God; the apostles were taught and trained by Jesus; and people like Spurgeon are few and far between. There is no human alive today that is God; there is no human alive today that was trained directly by Jesus; and the few that think they are as talented and gifted as Spurgeon, usually are not as talented and gifted as they think. For those of us who aren't God, have no direct training from Jesus, and can openly admit that we aren't as gifted as Spurgeon, the only way that we can prepare for ministry is to be trained and taught by others.
The question then becomes, "can't I just study my Bible and learn under my pastor to become a good pastor?" While this has been the pattern in some circles, many times this leads to faulty teaching and preaching, lack of accountability, and cult-like tendencies within churches (while I have many examples of this, I would rather not share them). And the mindset of "can't I just study my Bible and learn under my pastor" can lead to faulty conclusions and false teaching. Formal, theological education can help to lessen these issues (though obviously, even people who go to good schools can later reject truth).
When someone goes to a conservative, Bible-believing university and seminary, they should learn to interpret Scripture in a consistent and God-honoring manner. Can this happen without university and seminary training? Absolutely, but how frequently does it not happen? Being in a conservative, Bible-believing university and seminary should help that student learn to be discerning when reading commentaries and other resources that they will then teach their congregation. Or in other words, being trained theologically will affect every aspect of a person's ministry just like not being trained theologically will affect every aspect of a person's ministry.
And since pastors are to study to show themselves approved and able to rightly divide the word of God and they are to labor in their preaching and teaching, some amount of formal theological training will help them to better minister to their people. Without that formal theological training, that pastor has not had the experience of many spiritual men and women pouring into their lives for the purpose of educating them for the work of the ministry. And while they still may be a great pastor, it seems to me that people who want to do their best to minister to their people would want to be trained in the right ways of handling God's word effectively. There is much more that I could say on this topic and you can feel free to ask me about it by emailing me with the email listed on this website.
Why is theological education important for the church?
In addition to what I have stated above concerning the individual wanting more training to effectively handle the word of God, there are many reasons why churches ought to desire that their spiritual leadership ought to have some formal training. First off, your pastor will play a significant role in your life and the lives of your family members. In other words, your pastor teaches you, preaches to you, shows you how to study Scripture, and participates in your life in some way or another. Because your pastor does all of these things, shouldn't your pastor be trained in rightly handling God's word?
Second, because your pastor teaches and preaches to you regularly, it can be easy to forget to be discerning while consuming the information that he is giving you. While each person needs to be discerning in what they're hearing and reading, let's be honest, most people at church are not listening to a pastor with a discerning ear (and that's a huge problem). Now, we should work to fix the issue of a lack of discernment in churches, but until we can fix that issue we need to make sure that our pastors are trained by God-loving, Bible-believing Christians so that if people neglect to listen with discernment, we at least know that the pastor is trying to teach the truth faithfully.
Third, theological education is important for the church because the church deserves the best possible. The church deserves someone who is able and willing to study the word of God for hours through the week to prepare a message to preach on Sunday. Without any formal education, the only information that the pastor can portray is what he learns from Scripture that week. That may not sound terrible (and depending on who the pastor is, it might not be terrible), but how frequently do you read your Bible and come up to something that doesn't make sense to you? Now, how often does a pastor read something in Scripture that might not make sense to him? With a formal education that sought to train the person on how to interpret Scripture and understand difficult passages, he has years of training to fall back on--he knows what commentaries are conservative and liberal, he knows whether certain ideas are heretical, and he knows when to simply admit that he doesn't know. Formal education for a pastor isn't just in memorizing facts about the Bible, but learning how to interpret and apply difficult passages that the average person may think is irrelevant to their lives.
Finally, theological education is important to the church because a pastor that is willing to admit that they don't have all the answers and actually seeks to learn more is necessary for the church to grow. We've all seen people (even pastors) who think they know everything and they aren't afraid to let us know what all they know. In a pastoral situation, a person who is a know-it-all is detrimental to the ministry of the church because even Scripture tells us that we cannot know it all (the wisdom of man is foolishness to God (1 Corinthians 1:25)). A good pastor would openly admit that he doesn't know it all and seek to learn and to grow. While that learning can and should be done continuously even in non-formal academic settings, there are significant benefits for someone to seek education formally for ministry. (1) It provides accountability, (2) it provides credibility, and (3) it offers a place in which like-minded believers can study Scripture together (even those difficult passages). Where I am weak on knowledge, my teacher is an expert and learning to glean just a bit of his knowledge will help me to glorify Christ and disciple believers in the church.
What theological degrees are available?
This is actually the primary point of this post, because I have read several job postings for pastors that are honestly a bit absurd (and I mean that in a loving manner). What I mean by that is that most churches have no clue what the different theological degrees mean and what those degrees require and so they regularly seek pastors with either no degree (which I hope the above sections proved that some education is important) or they seek pastors that are way over-educated for their church (I'll explain that point after the list of degrees). Listed are the different theological degrees available for people going into ministry, I've done my best to explain what they are and the typical time commitment needed to complete those degrees. All of the Masters and Doctorate degrees require a BA or BS and the Master of Theology actually requires a MDiv prior to starting the program (please keep that in mind as you read through the degrees).
Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS)
These degrees are offered at the undergraduate level, which means that the student only need a high school diploma or equivalent in order to start this program. These degrees are typically seen as a prerequisite for further training on the graduate/seminary level. Because these degrees are at the undergraduate level, they all have general education courses (English, literature, math, and science) in addition to their major and minor courses. Typical majors for the BA or BS for theological students include: Bible, Biblical Studies, Theological Studies, Ministry and Leadership, and many more. A BA or BS is typically 120 credits and takes about four years to complete. (4 years of undergraduate studies; 4 years total)
Master of Arts (MA)
A Master of Arts is pursued after a student has completed his undergraduate BS or BA degree. There are several different types of majors for the MA program including: Biblical Studies, Apologetics, Church Planting & Revitalization, and many more. These degrees provide additional training in specific fields of theological studies and are typically seen as the minimum prerequisite for pastoral ministry. Because of the different majors, the MA program can range in terms of length--at minimum a student can expect 32 credits required for their degree, resulting at an addition year and a half or two years of study beyond the undergraduate level. For those taking different majors, the MA could be as long as 66 credits and require three or four years to complete. (4 years of undergraduate studies and 1.5 to 4 years of graduate school; 5.5-9 years total)
Master of Divinity (MDiv)
Many pastoral students will opt to take the Master of Divinity and for many denominations this is the minimum degree for pastoral candidates. This is considered a professional degree with a broad range of topics being taught for the purpose of ministerial pursuits. Most MDivs require at least 76 to 90 credits (though some require more) and typically require studies in Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew, as well as classes to help students counsel congregants, teach effectively, and preach faithfully. In some seminaries the MDiv offers concentrations such as: chaplaincy, pastoral ministry, and Bible translation. The MDiv is taken after an undergraduate degree is completed and requires at least three and a half years and sometimes more. (4 years of undergraduate studies and 3.5 to 4 years of graduate school; 7.5-8 years total)
Master of Theology (ThM) and Master of Sacred Theology (STM)
The Master of Theology and Master of Sacred Theology is sometimes confusing for churches. Because they both utilize the Master term, most churches assume they are two year degrees taken right after a student finishes their undergraduate studies. The issue is that the term Master does not do these degrees justice because they require significantly more studies than a normal masters degree. the ThM and STM are both post-graduate degrees that pre-require a MDiv. In other words, with the exception of Dallas Theological Seminary's combined MDiv-ThM program, a ThM/STM cannot be pursued until after a student has finished a BA/BS and a MDiv. A ThM/STM is considered an academic research degree and is the minimum required degree by the Association of Theological Schools for someone to teach at the college level. These degrees require a student to choose a particular area of emphasis, such as: church history, biblical exposition, systematic theology, or apologetics with 22-30 credits and they require at least one and a half to three years to complete. (4 years of undergraduate studies and 3.5 to 4 years for an MDiv, and 1.5 to three years for the ThM/STM; 9-11 years total)
Doctor of Ministry (DMin)
The Doctor of Ministry is a professional degree for men that are already in ministry. The degree pre-requires a BA/BS and a MDiv as well as at least two years of full-time ministry experience. The DMin is geared for men in full-time ministry and requires that the person stay in ministry while pursuing the degree through a distance-learning format. Concentrations available to DMin students include: spiritual growth and formation, urban church leadership, rural church leadership, and Bible exposition. The DMin requires at least 32 credits of study which typically take three or more years to complete and requires a large project to implement in their current ministry setting in lieu of a thesis. (4 years of undergraduate studies and 3.5 to 4 years for an MDiv, two years of full-time ministry experience and 3-4 years for the DMin; 12.5-14 years total)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The Doctor of Philosophy is an academic degree that pre-requires a BA/BS, a research MA or MDiv or ThM/STM. Most PhD programs are residential in nature (though some seminaries offer the PhD in a modular format). At this point, the student will select a specific part of theology to specialize in with most schools offering PhDs in New Testament Interpretation, Old Testament Interpretation, Systematic Theology, or Biblical Exposition. Most PhD programs are at least 60 credits (though students with a ThM/STM usually only need 30 credits instead of 60), requires a lengthy dissertation and takes three to six years (2-3 with a ThM/STM). (4 years of undergraduate studies, 3.5 to 4 years for an MDiv, and 3-6 years for the PhD (1-3 years with a ThM/STM); 10.5-14 years total (10-14 years total with ThM/STM).
What theological degree should our church ask for?
This is the primary question that I wanted to get to, because I've worked with so many churches recently that are seeking pastoral candidates and they don't know what they should expect from a candidate. Let me start by saying that there are many churches (denominational in nature) that do not have a choice in how much education their pastors have. For example, the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) requires all of their pastors to have a MDiv. This is true for most mainline Christian denominations and some of those denominations require that the person receive their MDiv from their seminaries.
The only people that can really ask "what theological degree should our church ask for" are denominations that practice local church autonomy (the church controls itself) like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the Churches of God, General Conference (COGGC) or any church that is independent from any controlling body (IFB, non-affiliated Baptists, congregational churches, or non-denominational churches). In these cases, since the local congregation is in control of who they hire to be a pastor, they determine the requirements including the amount of education they think is necessary.
Because these churches are completely autonomous, they can hire pastors with no theological training and they can hire pastors with multiple doctorates if they so choose, but let me encourage those of you that are in the position of hiring a new pastor to be realistic about whom you choose. If I were on a pulpit committee, these would be my educational requirements (this is assuming that each candidate meets spiritual and biblical qualifications and this would be assuming that none of the candidates are extraordinarily gifted like Spurgeon).
For a smaller church (whether that church is in the inner city or rural), I would argue that these ought to be the minimum qualifications:
For a youth pastor, assistant pastor, or children's pastor (someone who is not the primary preacher/teacher for the church), I believe a BS or BA in a theological field is all that is necessary. My reasoning is that with a BS/BA, they've received enough training to interpret Scripture faithfully if they so choose and having a senior or lead pastor mentor them would provide them with enough education to be effective.
For a teaching pastor, senior pastor, or lead pastor (someone who is the primary preacher/teacher or someone who is directing the whole church), I believe at minimum they could have a BS/BA, but only if they're willing and able to continue their education. At the least, I think a pastor in charge of the entire ministry should have an MA or at least be pursuing an MA.
As the church grows, I would argue that the minimum qualifications ought to be increased:
For a youth pastor, assistant pastor, or children's pastor (someone who is not the primary preacher/teacher for the church), I believe a BS or BA is inadequate because the needs of the church increases and changes as the church grows. At the least, I think an MA is required because larger churches require interaction with more people from varying backgrounds and not having the theological training to help those people is unacceptable (that's not saying that someone without an MA couldn't help, but someone with an MA has more training to fall back on).
For a teaching pastor, senior pastor, or lead pastor (someone who is the primary preacher/teacher or someone who is directing the whole church), I believe the minimum for a large church is an MDiv. The additional training of an MDiv will help that pastor lead effectively and while someone without and MDiv may do just fine, with and MDiv they have more theological training to fall back on.
Now obviously, depending on the needs of the church, the education requirements would change. If the church averages 30 people, can only afford to pay someone $30,000 a year, and has no ability or expectation to grow, it would seem silly for them to ask for a pastor with 8-10 years of theological training. On the other hand, unless someone is extraordinarily gifted, a church of 1,000, with a salary of $100,000, that is constantly growing, would be silly to seek a pastor with no formal training.
Examples of poor job postings
My reasoning for writing this has to do with many job postings that I've seen over the years for churches. I originally wanted to find job postings to share, but I rethought that idea and prefer to just give a few examples of poor job postings that I've seen in the past:
This first example is in a small town with a small congregation. The issue that I have is the large amount of experience and education that they're expecting. Remember that a MDiv typically takes about 7-8 years of education.
First Baptist of _________ is seeking a pastor in a rural town of 10,000. Our average attendance is 30-50 and we have a parsonage for the pastor's use. Because we're smaller in size, we can only offer $10,000 a year in addition to the parsonage. We expect 10 years of ministry experience and a Master of Divinity for consideration.
This second example is also in a small town with a small congregation. The issue I have with it is the lack of education requirement.
___________ Community Church in ________ is seeking a pastor to lead our church of 100. We don't have a parsonage, but we're offering $45,000. We expect 5 years of experience and we would prefer someone with an MDiv, but if we think you're a good fit, we will consider anyone regardless of education.
This last example is in a large city with a growing congregation. The issue I have is with the lack of education.
First Church of Christ in _________ is seeking a pastor to lead our church of 1,500. We don't have housing, but we're offering $95,000. We expect 10-15 years of experience in a larger church.
My hope in this post is to help churches who are searching for pastors understand what they're actually asking for and readjust their requirements accordingly. Dr. Royce Short once told me that he thought that a smaller, rural church would do well to hire a man with a BA/BS in theology and maybe a year of seminary that is faithful to the Bible. I would tend to agree. Pastors of larger churches need to require more because they have a much larger and diverse congregation. Hopefully, seeing the time requirements for these degrees will help pulpit committees better understand what they're asking for.