Frequently Asked Questions
(The following is adapted, with permission, from materials developed by the Office of the Chaplain at Davidson College)
What academic degree is necessary to become a minister?
In most mainline denominations, a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree is required for ordination. The course of study usually involves three to four years post baccalaureate. In addition to classroom study, the curriculum usually includes practical, supervised ministry experience, including both congregational or religiously affiliated agency settings and a pastoral care setting, such as a hospital or nursing home.
What's the difference between graduate study in religion and "theological education"?
Graduate study in religion is academically focused and similar to graduate study in other fields, such as English or Mathematics. Students may approach some of the materials being studied from their own particular religious perspective, but the educational institution doesn't consider that perspective as integral to the student's overall learning.
Theological education at a divinity school or seminary has an explicit faith context. Its emphasis is on preparing students for pastoral ministry or other forms of service to the church. Intellectual learning, practical ministry skills and spiritual development are emphasized.
What's the difference between seminary and divinity school?
A seminary is an independent theological institution. Their primary mission is that of training men and women for ordained ministry. Most, but not all, are affiliated with a denomination (e.g., Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran, or Methodist). Most seminaries welcome students regardless of their faith tradition.
A divinity school is a theological institution directly related to a university; it is not necessarily affiliated with a particular denomination. Many students at divinity school are preparing for careers others than ordained ministry, such as college level teaching. At a divinity school, students can take courses in other departments at the university.
If you're planning to apply to either seminary or divinity school, check with your denominational offices about your possible choices. Some denominations compile a listing of "approved" schools for members of their denomination or require that students who are considering ordination receive approval for a course of study at a non-affiliated seminary or divinity school. At the very least, many require that students who are considering ordained ministry take a minimum number of courses at a denominationally affiliated school.
Can you attend theological school without planning to be ordained?
Yes. Most seminaries and divinity schools offer a variety of degrees. These include:
- M.A. (Master of Arts) or M.T.S. (Master of Theological Studies): one to two years; sometimes in Christian Education, more generally in "religion" or a specially designed degree, such as one in religion and the arts
- M.Div. (Master of Divinity): three to four years; the professional degree required for ordination
- M.S.W. (Master of Social Work): two to three years; usually offered in conjunction with the M.Div.
- Th.M (Master of Theology) or S.T. M. (Master of Sacred Theology): a one year degree, offered post M. Div., that allows a person to further specialize in a particular area of interest
- Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy or Th. D. (Doctor of Theology): four to six years after the completion of a Master's degree
What should I study in undergraduate school to prepare for ministry?
Students come to theological schools and seminaries from variety of educational and employment backgrounds. Most theological schools seek applicants with a broad background in the Humanities; a major in Religious Studies, English, Philosophy, Psychology or History would be appropriate. Science majors are also welcomed in graduate theological schools. Strengths in written and oral communication and critical thinking are often more important than major, though a significant number of courses in religious studies will help you discover whether or not you enjoy the academic study of religion.
What is the minimum GPA required?
Theological schools have fairly high academic standards and expect students to engage in rigorous academic study and practical training. Theological schools also recognize that students are primarily interested in becoming well-educated pastors rather than academic scholars working in specialized fields. Thus, while a solid academic background is essential, the stellar grades necessary for highly competitive graduate programs in other fields is not as critical. In addition, the ability to articulate of one's sense of call and recommendations from professors and clergy are given strong consideration in an application.
Is it necessary to take the GRE's?
This varies. Some schools require the GRE (Graduate Record Exam), but many do not require standardized test scores. Check the admissions criteria in the catalogs of the schools you are considering.
Is it better to go to theological school right after graduation or wait several years before applying?
That depends on the individual and your denomination's requirements. Some college seniors have a strong sense of calling to ministry and feel ready to go directly on to theological education. Others may take a year or two away from study so they will have some experience in the "work world" that the church members come from. Still others may use that time to do a service or ministry-oriented internship or find a non-ordained position in a church setting to get experience or test their sense of call more fully.
Many people entering seminary and theological school are "second career" students who have worked for a decade or more and now feel called to ministry. If you attend theological school directly after graduation, you can count on being in class with many people who are older than you are. Many discover that the interaction between generations makes for a rich educational experience.
Is financial aid available for theological studies?
Many theological schools subsidize their students' educational expenses, so the costs tend to be lower than for many other professional graduate school programs. Most also offer merit-based and need-based financial aid packages. Each institution varies, so make sure to do adequate research on the assistance offered by the schools that interest you. In addition, many denominations will offer some financial support for their candidates for ministry. Check with your pastor or denominational office to see what resources exist.
What is required for Presbyterians?
The Presbyterian Church (USA) requires candidates for ministry to first register as an "Inquirer" and then to become a "Candidate" for ministry. More on this multi-year process is available from your pastor, Presbytery office and the denominational web site. Students may chose to start the process during the college years.