Your Complete Guide to Christian Master’s Degrees: MDiv, and Master’s in Religious Studies, Pastoral Ministry, Theology and More

Students praying while pursuing christian master's degrees

According to the Census Bureau, only around 13 percent of Americans hold a graduate-level college degree. You may be used to imagining those people as doctors, lawyers, economists, or other high-paid professionals who spend long days in office buildings dealing with tough, technical problems in modern society.

You might be surprised to learn that most ordained pastors you have ever met have also earned a master’s degree or higher on their path to the ministry.

Education and the ministry have long gone hand-in-hand. Some of the first colleges were created exclusively for the training of ministers, and for centuries it was common for the only person in a village who could read and write to be the Christian parish leader. Even in more recent times, many Christian denominations have embraced Christ’s admonition to teach and spread the gospel through devotion to education.

Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.

~ 1 Timothy 4:13

If you are called to the ministry, then it’s your turn to step up and get the kind of advanced education you will need to grapple with some of the hardest philosophical and moral problems the modern world can throw at you.

Christian Master’s Degrees Come in Many Options, All of Which Dive Deep Into Themes of Spirituality and Worship

Although we often use the term master’s degree in pastoral ministry, or master’s degree in Christian ministry, to describe these programs, as soon as you start looking around, you’ll see that they have dozens of different names and a score or more different focuses in various aspects of ministry. A few examples include:

You will also see that many of these degrees are offered with concentration options that can include those focus areas: a Master of Arts in Religious Studies with a concentration in Pastoral Ministry, for example, or a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry with a Youth Ministry concentration. There aren’t any strong standards for what a degree title stands for; you’ll need to check the specific curriculum offered through the school you’re interested in attending to see exactly what themes and subjects are emphasized.

Although it may seem a little confusing at first, the fact that there are many different types of Christian master’s programs should come as good news—it means that you will almost always be able to find a school offering exactly the combination of coursework and preparation you will need to follow your calling wherever it leads you.

These types of degrees typically take two to three years to complete. Many denominations will accept them as fulfilling the education requirements to become an ordained pastor or minister. You may also use them as a way to prepare yourself to take on an even more challenging doctoral degree in Christian studies.

But first, you will want to make sure you are getting yourself into a program that fits your calling and your needs. 

Study for the Sake of Scriptural Knowledge or to Prepare for a Career in Ministry

Skill, knowledge, training, abilityIf the array of different titles you find for religious and pastoral studies degrees are already throwing you for a loop, brace yourself: you will find programs that go by the same title at different schools that are actually completely different types of degrees.

That’s because some schools treat subjects like religious studies or theology as purely academic matters rather than as seminary school designed to train members of clergy. Those programs are research-oriented degrees. They study the same subjects of Scripture and spirituality, but they do so to catalog the facts and explore the mysteries of religion from a purely academic perspective.

That’s in contrast to the professional degree approach, which other schools adopt for master’s in theology or religious studies programs. That approach treats the program as a course of preparation for the everyday tasks you will face as a minister, and the tough moral and ethical standards you must follow on that path.

The good news is that it’s usually easy to tell at a glance what type of program you are dealing with. Religious or theological studies programs offered at public schools are almost always purely academic in nature, and may not deliver the kind of education you need to qualify as an ordained minister in your denomination. But the ones offered through private Christian schools are more likely to include the concentration and coursework you need to qualify you for ordination as a minister.

Finding the Right School for Your Christian Master’s Degree

Seminary building from the outsideEarning a master’s degree in pastoral studies isn’t about just checking a box on a job application—it’s a profound, meaningful step on your path to ordination, one that will involve not only education and training, but also real spiritual development and an evolution in your relationship with Christ.

That means finding the right school to pursue your studies at is critical. With so many different kinds of degrees on the table, you’ll have to dig deep to find the right fit for your talents, your inspiration, and your calling.

Is the doctrine in line with your denomination’s teachings?

One of the first things you’ll want to evaluate when considering Christian master’s programs is the doctrine that the coursework will teach. Not all denominations have compatible interpretations of Scripture—that’s what makes them denominations—and if your plan is to become ordained in your own denomination, you’ll need to make sure the church authorities will accept the training you receive from a particular degree program.

Some schools are run by particular denominations and naturally align with the precepts and teachings of those faiths. Others are non-denominational, which may mean they offer a more general perspective on Christian teachings—you’ll still need to make sure it is compatible with your own faith and denomination, however.

Almost all schools offering graduate degrees in Christian ministry or pastoral studies are private Christian universities, but not all of them teach the same doctrine.

Most schools publish Statements of Faith that lay out their beliefs and doctrine. You can evaluate that yourself, or consult your pastor or church authorities to determine how compatible it will be.

Does the program support your calling?

You might find a program that meets all the criteria to be counted among the best MDiv degrees in the country. But whether or not the school has a program that matches your calling might be the most important thing to nail down. If you feel your calling is to pursue opportunities in children’s ministry, but the school doesn’t offer a degree or concentration in that subject, then you should probably keep looking.

But inspiration is about more than just subject matter. You will want to find a school that has the right kind of service opportunities and community relationships to provide you with valuableexperience on the path you are following. Affiliations with other faith-based organizations can be crucial for this kind of experience. Following the example of someone called to children’s ministry, for instance, picking a university with strong connections with local Christian schools or youth outreach organizations will foster your development much better than colleges without those connections.

Are the instructors first-rate educators of faith?

Any kind of education, whether temporal or divine, rests mostly in the hands of the teachers.  With classes that span both of those realms, you’ll want to find a college that has high standards for instructors both in terms of their faith and expertise in their subject matter.

On top of that high bar, you’ll want those qualities combined with some others:

In most Christian master’s programs, particular those designed for pastoral preparation, you can get an easy win in finding instructors who have those qualities by looking for schools who primarily employ professors who have been ordained or have genuine pastoral experience in the field. The same things that make a good minister make a good educator.

For expertise, you’re better off looking to the traditional markers of excellence:

Is the program fully accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education?

You already know that accreditation is important from having picked out your bachelor’s program. Institutional accrediting agencies look at all the details of what makes an American college education the most respected degree in the world and validate them so you don’t have to. That includes everything from:

That type of basic institutional accreditation is a standard part of doing business for American colleges and universities, so all reputable schools will most certainly hold it. In fact, in order to be eligible to receive tuition payments through Title IV federal grants and loans, schools are required to hold this type of standard accreditation. Since most students receive some federal financial aid, it would be hard for any school to keep its doors open without being accredited.

The right graduate school for you will probably insist that you have a bachelor’s from an accredited institution, and you should insist that the grad school is likewise accredited. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education each keep lists of accreditors who meet the high standards for evaluating these colleges.

There is also an additional layer of program-specific accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Programmatic accreditation of this sort is granted to Christian degree programs from any school that wants to go through the voluntary process of applying for it. Offered through just three agencies, this type of accreditation deals primarily with the specifics of individual degree programs rather than the institution as a whole, and offers an additional layer of quality assurance:

Faith and Diligence Are Rewarded When Applying to a Christian Master’s Program

Outside seminary on a snowy winter dayJust finding the right program doesn’t guarantee you will get in, of course. Private Christian universities offering these kinds of degrees are often selective, and for good reason—as a primary qualification for ordination, master’s degrees in pastoral and Christian ministry have high academic, moral, and spiritual standards for students pursuing them.

To even be considered for admission to most such programs, you’ll have to meet qualifications including:

Admissions are competitive, so it’s also a good idea to have a track record of volunteer or missionary work behind you that you can point to when you apply. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in a related field and from a well-respected school will also count heavily in your favor.

Christian Master’s Programs Give You the Toolset to Become a Successful and Trusted Pastor

A master’s degree in pastoral ministry doesn’t have as many classes as a bachelor’s program, but they are both more intense and more in-depth than what you studied at the undergraduate level. Where your bachelor’s program will have included many general studies subjects such as literature, math, and science, your master’s will offer a narrow focus on matters of Christian ministry.

Pastoral work in the modern world presents enormous challenges that call for an advanced education.

With the great variety of different specializations and types of degrees at the master’s level, you can expect the coursework to vary considerably from program to program. Even similar types of degrees might have very different coursework depending on the denomination and pedagogical philosophy followed by different schools.

Bible study class in full classroom of studentsBut this is also an advantage. The sheer variety gives you the opportunity to find a program that is fine-tuned to your calling and aspirations.

Many of your courses will revolve around your degree type or specialization, of course. But there are general categories that you can expect most of your coursework to fall into:

Scriptural studies – The ministry flows from the Word of God, and the sole record of that Word is the Bible. Every advanced degree in Christian ministry will have, at a minimum, Bible studies courses on Old and New Testament books. Some programs will go much further, drilling down into specific prophets or books for in-depth investigations of their teachings, interpretation, and literary importance.

Theology – Theology unpacks the nature of God and religious belief. Coursework that falls into this area can include the foundations of Christian ministry, the history of Christianity and the church, and religious philosophy in general as it embraces both Christian faiths and the broader spiritual impulse found in all religions. These courses give you the broad perspective on your role as a pastor and on the function of the ministry and faith in the lives of humans everywhere.

Ministry – Ministry itself is a big focus in advanced degrees in pastoral study, giving you the specific tools and knowledge you need to work in the specific areas of ministry you have chosen to focus on. You may have specific coursework in areas such as children’s ministry or chaplaincy ministry, but this category also covers classes in subjects such as:

  • Worship and Liturgy – Pastors must preach! Writing and delivering a sermon or evangelizing to a new audience aren’t natural talents, but must be taught. The process and mechanisms of either denominational or ecumenical liturgy are important skills for you to master as a pastor, and most pastoral ministry programs offer one or more classes in this key area.
  • Counseling – Pastors are also counselors, providing wisdom, guidance, or even just a compassionate ear for congregants to share their pain, concerns, or challenges with. Conflict resolution, youth counseling, and even general pastoral care coursework fall into this category.
  • Church administration/planning – Leading a church or ministry is a spiritual process, but it is work conducted by a temporal organization, with all the nuts and bolts details of budget, oversight, and management those require. You’ll have the opportunity to take classes in the real-world considerations required whenmanaging and growing a church.

Spiritual Formation – Individual, theological reflection on your beliefs and relationship with God is an important part of almost any Christian master’s program. These courses are designed to foster your personal growth as well as your pastoral skills by offering the opportunity for you to intentionally examine and strengthen your ties with God. While sometimes this happens through a single, comprehensive course, you’ll also find programs that break it down into individual classes in:

  • Prayer and spirituality
  • Discipleship
  • Spiritual leadership

Master’s in religious studies and master’s in theology degrees will usually offer a greater focus on general Biblical and spiritual knowledge, while those in ministry will offer greater liturgical and evangelical support. It’s a matter of emphasis, however. Either kind of degree can be appropriate preparation depending on how you feel called to serve. All that elementary religious knowledge can be of great use in Christian education, for example, while more training in counseling and administration could be better training for a member of clergy in a small church or regional parish.

Comparing Religions as a Student of Religious Studies Can Drive a Deeper Understanding of Your Own Faith

Woman reading the Holy Bible aloneAnother difference found in master’s degrees in theology and religious studies is a broader perspective on expressions of the spiritual impulse as found in all humans in every era. Religious studies degrees don’t restrict themselves to exploring Christianity. Instead, you’ll get a big picture of major global religions, from Islam to Judaism to Hinduism.

In exploring the differences and similarities between those different faiths, you will have a richer experience in which to base your own faith. In the lessons taught by all kinds of prophets, you’ll see fundamental truths in the human experience. In the strength of belief and the power of faith on display, you’ll come to understand the reality and the goodness in the human soul.

Exploring other religions is a powerful way to identify what it is in Christianity that resonates with you, and to better understand the unique forgiveness and love offered through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Taking those lessons and applying them in your ministry will make you a better and more effective evangelist in your community.

Practicum and Mentorship Offer Guidance Along Your Path to a Earning a Christian Master’s Degree

A master’s program is also a place to get real-world experience in your chosen area of the ministry. Most schools offer internship or practicum placements in their pastoral studies graduate programs, which put you out in the thick of actual pastoral work, dealing with real congregants or the community.

This kind of contextual ministry work can be key to getting your feet wet in field ministry work while still participating in an educational program. The mistakes you make can be quickly corrected and turned into learning opportunities by instructors or professional ministers you work with. You also get the chance to put into practice many of the key skills you have picked up through your coursework, perfecting and understanding them in ways that theory alone can’t convey.

Research Into Spirit or Scripture Helps Hone Your Intellectual Experience of Religion

Woman reading and praying over the bibleAlthough master’s programs in Christian ministry are generally offered as professional, rather than purely academic, degrees, you will still be expected to take on some projects that involve considerable research and analysis. Master’s degrees in theology and religious studies go even further, usually requiring a thesis that will articulate your original thoughts on a carefully selected subject in the field. As much as half of the total program might go toward studying, designing, and writing your thesis project.

You come out the other side of that rigorous process with an incredible knowledge of Christianity and its purpose and place in world religions.

These courses give you the tools and methods that are used by Biblical scholars and thinkers and challenge you to develop original ideas and analysis of ancient writings and concepts in Christian study. Although this sort of deep research isn’t a regular feature in all pastoral work, it can equip you for answering hard questions of ethics and morality that come up on the job. It’s also considered important preparation for any minister who eventually plans to go on to earn a doctoral degree in ministry.

Electives let You Custom Tailor Your Christian Master’s Program to Make it Unique

Young woman student making choicesYou may only take ten or a dozen separate classes during your graduate studies, many of them covering required coursework. But there will usually be the option to choose from a handful of different elective classes to complete your credit requirements. This is where you really get the opportunity to learn about topics that interest you the most, and tailor your degree to your individual spirituality.

Every different type of ministry you can think of probably has specific classes available to study some specific detail that you might never have even thought about until you saw it in the course catalog. Some areas may include:

  • Music Ministry
  • Global evangelism
  • Church administration and finance
  • Advanced preaching
  • Pastoral counseling in areas such as individual, marriage, and family, or youth
  • Stewardship and fundraising
  • Biblical history
  • World religions
  • Group dynamics
  • Principles of church planting

You will often be free to mix and match these courses to round out your master’s program. You can take advantage of that flexibility to build yourself a course of study that is perfectly aligned with your calling.

Master’s Degrees in Christian Ministry Online Offer a More Convenient Path to the Ministry

Praying at computer while taking ministry classes onlineSomething you’ll learn during your master’s studies is that Christianity has always had great success in adapting to the times. God’s Word and Christ’s love are eternal, but the temporal institutions they pass through evolve with the course of history.

That means that today you can find plenty of options for earning a Christian master’s degree online.

Should you consider an online master’s program? That will depend on your personality and learning style. But there are some big advantages that come with online study that open up the ministry to students who otherwise might never be able to pursue an advanced degree:

Fitting education into your busy life

Online studies are perfect for people who have busy personal lives or other professional obligations to fulfill during their master’s studies. If you have a family, a job you can’t afford to quit, or any other reason that traditional, regular, in-person courses just don’t fit your schedule, an online bachelor’s program helps you fit it all together.

With classes that are time-shifted, you can review lectures or other content any time of day or night. And you can do it from your bedroom, the lunchroom at your office, or a coffee shop—anywhere with internet access and room for your laptop or tablet.

More options for finding the right program

With traditional school attendance, you’re limited to choices within commuting range, or faced with the hard choice of packing up and moving to some random corner of the country that has a college that meets your needs.

Online schools get rid of those restrictions, offering you more choices in more areas of study than you could ever find in any limited geographic area. Once upon a time, finding the perfect match for your calling at a school located across the country would have severely testing your faith and resources. Today, it may be just as accessible as a university right down the block.

Keeping costs down

That kind of location independence has another big impact on your college experience: you can attend a school in a high demand, high cost-of-living area while living in a more inexpensive part of the country. Room and board can be huge factors in the total cost of college attendance, amounting to almost half the expenses that most graduate students face.

If you can keep those expenses low by staying at home, or studying at a top-flight urban school from a low-cost rural or suburban area, then you are well ahead of the expenses game by the time you graduate.

What Does a Christian Master’s Degree Cost?

A master’s degree in any subject is an expensive proposition. Although you will only spend a couple of years in your studies, you will be investing tens of thousands of dollars in your pastoral education.

According to 2020 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average annual cost of graduate tuition and fees in American universities was $19,792 per year.

Averages are a tricky business when considering master’s programs in Christian ministry, however. The overall NCES average includes a big chunk of public institutions, which are subsidized by state budgets and often have significantly lower in-state tuition rates than private institutions. Pastoral graduate programs, however, are almost exclusively offered at private Christian universities.

NCES lists a much higher average among private schools for graduate program costs, coming to $26,500 per year. For two or three years of study, then, tuition alone becomes a significant expense.

For a typical three-year master’s program in Christian ministry, the total tuition cost averages out to about $80,000.

That’s a lot of money for any kind of professional degree, but for people spending it to get into careers like law or accounting, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what their eventual earnings will be.

Money isn’t what your calling is about, but you can’t ignore it, either. If you have your sights set on a Master of Divinity, it’s well worth considering the most affordable MDiv programs in the country.

Scholarships and Loans Offer a Path To Paying for Your Christian Master’s Degree

For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.

~ Psalms 84:11

You already know that the Lord will provide, because the Bible tells you so. But you will also have to do your part, and that means doing the legwork to find some of the loans and grants for your education that Providence has put there for you to find.

In many cases, scholarships, which you don’t need to pay back, are offered by the schools themselves to help students in need pay for their programs. You will usually have to meet certain attendance and grade point average requirements to keep these going, but a serious and moral student will already be holding themself to those standards.

You may also find scholarships through your church or other faith-based organizations, sometimes directly linked to the type of ministry you are pursuing. In most cases, you’ll be eligible for multiple awards. That’s good because no single grant will cover all your costs.

Loans are the way that most graduate students bridge the gap between their own resources and the scholarships they find.

Student loans are offered by the federal government with generous repayment terms and with low interest rates. They do, however, come with lifetime borrowing limits, so by the time you get to graduate school, you may be close to tapped out. Private institutions will also be happy to lend you tuition money, but you’ll have to be careful about their repayment terms to make sure you’ll be able to meet them on a minister’s salary.

Performing God’s Work Outside the Ministry with the Skills a Master’s Degree Delivers

Of course, the major reason that most people pursue an advanced degree in Christian ministry is that they are called to serve in that ministry.

But a master’s degree in pastoral studies doesn’t commit you to that path, either. And it may not be the end point of your Christian studies.

Becoming Ordained as a Minister to Shepherd Your Own Flock

Minister praying with parishioner from homeBecoming an ordained pastor is one of the most important things you can do with your life, and it’s one of the most common choices that pastoral studies graduate students make. You have both the credentials and qualifications to apply for ordination in most denominations after completing a master’s degree in pastoral studies, and probably some practical experience through mentorship or internship placements.

Coursework in counseling and evangelism will have prepared you for ministering to believers and non-believers alike, and the confidence and skills to prepare and deliver sermons. Becoming a pastor means entering a life of service, but it’s also a life of fulfillment.

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

~ 1 Timothy 5:17

A Christian Master’s Can Lead You to a Doctoral Degree that Unlocks Even Higher Levels of Pastoral Learning

Once you’ve started down the path of learning about the mysteries of spirituality and unlocking the secrets of transformative Christian faith, it can be hard to stop. And in fact, every graduate of these programs is on a lifelong journey of growth and transformation, no matter how they apply themselves afterward.

A master’s degree in religious studies just happens to be the best possible preparation for pursing a doctorate in divinity, pastoral ministry, or Christian theology.

So, you might find yourself heading back to college sooner or later. And with the research skills, the foundational knowledge of Scripture, and the theoretical understanding of the spiritual impulse a master’s degree gives you, you’ll be set up for success in the most advanced degree you can get in Christian ministry.

Be a Leader in Faith-Based Organizations that are Making a Difference in the Temporal World

It’s also likely that you can develop a fulfilling, sustainable career in other faith-based initiatives with a graduate education behind you.

The ministry can extend out beyond the traditional areas of church and missionary work. Many Christian organizations have other missions:

All of these are also a part of God’s work, but they take plenty of very human elbow grease to keep running. A master’s level education gives you a set of capabilities and talents that go beyond the spiritual, equipping you with both temporal and ecumenical problem-solving, critical-thinking, and leadership skills that can be put to good use in any not-for-profit Christian organization.

Only you can know where your calling is taking you. A master’s degree in pastoral ministry can get you a lot further, a lot faster, and on far more paths to the ministry than only a bachelor’s degree.