Earning a master's degree in theology deepens your faith and prepares you to fulfill your calling to serve God and others. Equipped with a deeper knowledge of the Bible and God, a master's degree provides graduates with strategic ministry vision and opens a variety of career options, such as chaplaincy. Graduates also work as pastoral counselors, Bible school teachers, or as leaders of parachurch ministries or community service organizations. Additionally, this field is poised for rapid growth over the next decade; the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects faster than average growth rates in several theological fields.
A master's degree in theology prepares graduates to lead students and congregations into a deeper study of Scripture and to work for the alleviation of human suffering in communities around the world. This guide provides all the information you need to get started in an exciting and rewarding master's in theology program.
Should I Get a Master's in Theology?
A master's degree in theology prepares graduates for careers in the church or other ministry-related organizations, including teaching in Christian schools. With over two dozen specialization options available, this can be a terrific option for those wanting a deeper knowledge of the Bible alongside ministry training for their current career and life situations. Additionally, if you plan to work full time in the church or as a chaplain, this degree may be required to apply.
A theology master's degree sharpens your Bible study, theology, ministry, and critical-thinking skills in a supportive community of students and scholars. Many master's programs are available on campus or online. An online degree gives students a wealth of benefits, including the flexibility to complete coursework with minimal disruption to your family and professional life. However, in exchange for this flexibility, students need to exercise more self-discipline to complete the program than if they were on-campus and surrounded by others pursuing the same degree.
Students in online and on-campus programs build networks that sharpen their thinking and open doors to future ministry options. Most programs require students to participate in an internship or practicum, which can often lead to job opportunities upon graduation. Similarly, all schools offer job placement assistance through affiliated churches and related organizations.
What Can I Do With a Master's in Theology?
For those who desire deeper spiritual truths and want to help others apply that truth to their life, a theology master's degree will open doors of opportunity in a variety of contexts and capacities. Beyond the careers listed below, you can also find opportunities as a foreign missionary, private Christian school teacher, or even a Bible translator. Some of these jobs require strong scholarly discipline and motivation, while others expect selfless compassion and a servant heart. All of the positions require good communication skills.
- Philosophy and Religion Teacher
Universities, colleges, and religious organizations need qualified candidates to teach courses in philosophy, theology, and religious studies. While most colleges and universities require a doctorate for full professorship, those with a master's in theology can teach many undergraduate courses.
Median Annual Salary: $69,590*
Graduates with a master's in theology can provide pastoral care in churches, the military, hospitals, and related organizations. Military chaplains and pastors of medium or large churches usually hold a master's of theology (Th.M.) or a master's of divinity (M.Div.) degree and tend to receive notably larger salaries.
Median Annual Salary: $47,100*
- Pastoral Counselor
Pastoral counselors serve as marriage and family therapists, but emphasize spiritual and theological applications in their practices. Pastors and church staff may provide church-sponsored counselling without state licensure, however those who provide pastoral counseling in a clinical setting must be licensed.
Median Annual Salary: $48,790*
- Religious/Social/Community Service Manager
Many parachurch organizations need theologically grounded leadership at upper- and mid-level management. Graduates who hold at least a master of arts in theology are more prepared for management positions than their counterparts with only a bachelor's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $64,100*
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
How to Choose a Master's in Theology Program
There are numerous seminaries and graduate schools that offer a master's in theology, so consider which programs best fit your current situation and long-term goals. You should also research what specializations or concentrations you may need, and what kind of master's degree best suits your career goals. Most graduate degrees in theology fall into one of four categories: master of arts, master's of theological studies, master's of divinity, or master's of theology.
Once you settle on the right degree for you, closely review the course offerings and descriptions. Different schools offer courses with similar names, but the descriptions provide a better reflection of the course content. Additionally, examine the program requirements to determine whether a thesis or similar capstone project is required. Program cost also varies considerably by degree type and length of study, but it may not determine the final financial burden of the programs. Be sure to fully explore the financial aid options of the schools that interest you.
Because master's in theology programs are available both online and on-campus, students should also consider which method makes the most sense for them. On-campus programs offer a stronger sense of community among fellow students and staff, but they also may require you to move or quit working. Online programs, conversely, offer the flexibility to study at home without leaving your current work situation, though it requires more self-discipline and self-motivation. Plan ahead so you can weigh all your options carefully.
Programmatic Accreditation for Master's in Theology Programs
Pursuing a master's in theology program is an investment in your future, and you should make sure you're receiving the highest quality education. Fully explore your prospective school's accreditation, which is granted at both the institutional and programmatic level. Accreditation ensures that a school or program meets recognized standards in curricula, faculty, learning resources, and governance.
Seminaries and graduate schools of theology receive accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) in the United States and Canada. Both the United States Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognize ATS accreditation. Other ED and CHEA recognized accrediting bodies for graduate schools of theology include the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools Accreditation Commission and the Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation. To select a school or program without accreditation runs the risk of having your degree rejected by a potential employer or doctoral program, or you may be unable to transfer credits to a different institution.
Master's in Theology Program Admissions
Graduate schools select applicants who they believe demonstrate the potential to succeed at the graduate level. Given the proliferation of online delivery programs, most schools now use the same application procedures for both online and on-campus programs. Despite the fact that schools set their application deadlines four to six weeks in advance of the term for initial enrollment, you should start your application process six to nine months in advance of the deadline to fully research your options.
Applicants should apply to about five schools. Consider features such as a program's fit, financial support, and program flexibility. Currently, no universal application tools -- such as The Common Application -- have found wide acceptance among graduate schools. Give yourself plenty of time to apply to each school individually, and consider the following information in your efforts.
- Bachelor's Degree: Properly accredited seminaries and Bible colleges require all applicants to have a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited institution. This requirement ensures student success in graduate school.
- Professional Experience: You do not need any formal ministry experience to be admitted to a master's in theology program. However, applicants must submit references who can attest to your fit for the program.
- Minimum GPA: Most seminaries and Bible schools require applicants to have at least a 2.50 undergraduate GPA. More competitive schools may require a higher GPA.
- Application: Applications for graduate school take a considerable amount of time, especially to research which schools and programs best fit your career interests and goals. Start the process early -- preferably a year in advance of program start dates.
- Transcripts: You must supply an official copy of your undergraduate transcripts with any application to seminary or Bible college. Contact your registrar to request transcripts, and be prepared to pay a small processing fee.
- Letters of Recommendation: Schools require one or more letters of recommendation from nonrelatives who know you well. Usually, these letters must be sent directly from your references to the school.
- Test Scores: Many seminaries and Bible colleges require applicants to complete the GMAT or GRE exam to gain admission. Some schools waive the requirement if your undergraduate GPA is high enough, typically at least a 3.0 or better.
- Application Fee: Seminaries and Bible colleges vary in the cost of application fees. Some schools waive the application fee altogether, while others may charge up to $100.
What Else Can I Expect From a Master's in Theology Program?
Seminaries and Bible colleges offer a variety of concentrations to prepare graduates for ministry in a variety of cultural contexts. Concentrations may vary from school to school, and usually reflect the vision and values of the institution; the five listed below are some of the most common.
|Pastoral Ministry||Students gain an understanding of the distinct challenges and opportunities that arise in pastoral church leadership. Denominational schools emphasize their own theological principles.||Senior or associate pastor in churches, chaplaincy|
|Counseling||This concentration contains up to 30 credits in counseling principles and practices -- far more than the counseling basics that most pastors, missionaries, and chaplains need.||Counseling pastor, Christian counselor|
|International Development and Urban Studies||Courses in this concentration focus on elements of cultural and social anthropology to build an understanding of cross-cultural target audiences. Other courses address the strategic challenges of addressing the needs of the underserved, oppressed, and/or culturally isolated groups.||Missionary, relief worker|
|Youth, Family, and Culture||This concentration equips graduates to work with youth and their families based on theologically sound, research-based principles and practices. Courses cover the dynamics of age-related psychological development stages, in order to provide youth and their families with spiritual support.||Youth minister, associate pastor|
|Media Arts and Worship||Students in this program explore the traditions of the various arts used in worship and teaching. They explore the principles and applications of adapting music, film, dance, and other expressive arts to help people connect to timeless spiritual truths.||Worship pastor/leader|
Courses in a Master's in Theology Program
There are several common courses offered in most seminaries and Bible schools, while electives usually vary according to the field, concentration, or individual school. Denominational emphases can also influence the course offerings. However, most master's in theology degree programs offer courses similar to those listed below.
- Bible Study Methods and Interpretation
Sometimes called hermeneutics or biblical exposition, this course introduces students to the Bible as a collection of different types of literature written across a variety of historical and cultural contexts. Given these interpretive challenges, the course invites the following questions: What does it say? What did it mean to its original audience? What does it mean for us today?
- Elements of Greek
Since the Bible was originally penned in Hebrew and Greek, most theological schools require a basic overview of those original languages. Students in the four- or five-year Th.M. program may be required to take advanced coursework in these original languages.
- Theological Method
This course introduces the theory, principles, and practices of systematically deriving, describing, and analyzing various theological positions from Scripture. This course serves as the foundation for exploring the other topics in theology, such as bibliology, soteriology, and systematic theology.
- Pastoral Counseling
Most M.Div. and Th.M. programs -- along with master of arts programs in counseling -- offer one or more courses on general counseling principles and practices. Pastors, chaplains, and teachers of theology often find themselves in counseling situations, and they must be prepared to effectively help others. Students pursuing a clinical counseling practice take additional coursework to meet state licensing requirements.
- Preaching Methods
Most graduates of a master's in theology pursue careers that require skilled communication. M.Div. and Th.M. students often pursue work as pastors, missionaries, chaplains, and Bible teachers; this course grounds students in the principles of effective preaching and communication.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Theology?
Two major factors determine the time it takes to earn a master's in theology: specific degree type, and whether you pursue the program on a full- or part-time basis. Typically, a 48-credit MA in theology can be earned with about two years of full-time study, while some programs can be completed in as little as 18 months. An M.Div. can be earned in as little as two years, though often it takes four years of full-time study. The 120-credit Th.M. usually requires at least four to five years of full-time study.
Some schools allow students to accelerate their pace in order to complete their programs earlier than normal. Other schools may deliver their on-campus program through a cohort model of instruction. This allows students to move through the program together and can provide a clear networking advantage. However, it usually precludes students from accelerating their coursework.
How Much Is a Master's in Theology?
Given the variety of degrees and delivery options available to earn a theology master's degree, costs also vary. In general, the total credits influence the cost of a degree more than any other factor. A 48-credit master of arts in theology, for example, costs far less than a 92-credit master's of divinity; and if you prefer to earn a full master's of theology degree, then you'll need to account for another 30 to 36 credits beyond that of an M.Div. Credit totals for each of the degrees also vary among schools, as does the per credit cost of tuition. Some institutions charge rates as low as $225 per credit, while others charge more than $750 per credit.
In addition to tuition and fees, the delivery method of the program can also impact the final costs. On-campus programs may require you to move cities, leave your current employment, or find childcare. Alternatively, many online theology master's degrees can be earned entirely online, which allows you to pursue a degree while maintaining professional and personal responsibilities. This can possibly save you quite a bit of money.
Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Theology Prepares For
The fields of theology and ministry, unlike other professional fields, do not offer many specialized certifications awarded by state agencies or professional associations. However, a master's in theology does open doors for three general categories of ministry endorsements described below. Note that those pursuing teaching opportunities in theology or philosophy at the undergraduate level may not need any of the following endorsements.
- Ordained Minister
Many church denominations require clergy to be ordained. Specific requirements for ordination vary by denomination, but it is usually essential in order to conduct weddings, funerals, and services within a given tradition.
- Board Certified Chaplain
The Association of Professional Chaplains offers a certification for those entering some form of chaplaincy, although it is not always required. In addition to their general certification, they also offer specialty certifications, including a military specialty certification and a hospice and palliative care certification.
Resources for Theology Graduate Students
Providing free digital resources to theology students and practitioners, the Theological Book Network links users to many sites for theology, biblical studies, church history, and original Greek and Latin texts.
Published by the Evangelical Theological Society since 1958, this quarterly journal provides advanced, refereed theological articles and scholarly reviews from a conservative Christian worldview. The web-based archive allows the public to view all of the articles free of charge, except those from the most recent two years.
Published with a strong multicultural emphasis, the Journal of Pastoral Theology engages readers and contributors in the construction of sound theological principles to guide the cultivation of caring relationships in pastoral ministry.
The Ekklesia Project engages members in conversations to exercise responsible Christian living in all facets society worldwide. The organization sponsors an annual conference, a blog, and literature publication.
Founded in 1954, the Forum for Theological Exploration serves as a leadership incubator to inspire and equip young people to make a difference in the world through Christian communities. The organization provides conferences, networks, and resources such as grants and fellowships.
Professional Organizations in Theology
Open to students and professionals alike, professional theological organizations offer discussion forums, resources, and support networks to benefit those involved in theological practice. Most of these organizations sponsor a yearly conference, in which members come together to shape key issues and developments in their fields. Most organizations also publish a journal or newsletter to keep up with members during the year.