A Complete Guide to Ministry Degrees at the Undergraduate and Graduate Levels

Earning christian degree online

No matter what your beliefs, entering the ministry is a major step in your life and a major commitment to your faith.

Pastors occupy a special place in Christian worship, and standards are high for those called to become Christian leaders.

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

~ Ephesians 4:11-12

Depending on the denomination you belong to, becoming a pastor or minister can be a dramatic transition from a life of individual worship to a new system of accountability and public leadership. You can expect to be front and center in the lives of congregants, sharing the joys of new births and weddings, the bitterness of death and loss, the growing pains oftransitions at various stages of life.

Even those working in Christian jobs outside the ministry, find their obligations and commitments have more weight in His service. Whether it’s work for a local charity or a job with a multinational faith-based aid organization, you’ll feel driven to work harder, to be better, and to do more every day.

A degree in ministry or similar major is a tool to help you achieve all those things.

Whether in the Church or the Secular World, Christian Ministry Degrees Prepare Students to Work in the Service of the Lord

Christian ministry degree programs are mostly aimed at offering preparation to fulfill a calling to become a pastor or fill other roles in Christian leadership for churches of any denomination.

Although there are many different types of Christian jobs you may pursue in His service, degrees in pastoral studies, ministry, theology, Bible studies, and other areas of Christian leadership are focused on the unique roles of spiritual leaders in or outside of the church.

A church needs musicians, accountants, legal advisors, and many other types of professionals to operate in the modern world. But each of those professions is well-served by its own course of college studies.

A ministry degree, however, combines many different areas of study that come together to provide professional preparation for pastors and other members of clergy to serve as trusted and capable leaders in worship and service

The church has always supported higher education.

Take firm hold of instruction, do not let go; Keep her for she is your life.

~ Proverbs 4:13

In fact, the modern system of higher education largely rests on the pillars the church created for the education of ministers.

And today, education also supports the church. Today’s ministry degrees come in many types, but all of them offer you skills and tools to serve your faith effectively.

Understanding Your Options When Selecting a  Ministry Degree

Some ministry degrees are non-denominational, taking the broadest common denominator as their doctrinal path and staying out of the various divisions found between the major Christian religions. Others hew closely to the standards and precepts of a single faith. And, of course, there are degrees in Christian ministry offered at every different level – from two-year associate programs to elite doctorates. Each has its own purpose and point. 

Is It Better To Get an Arts or Sciences Degree in Ministry?

As you’re looking at schools, you are probably noticing that some of them offer a master of arts degree in Christian ministry, while others say they award a master of science in Christian ministry. Some schools even offer both at the same time! What’s the difference?

Traditionally, there are certain differences in arts and sciences degrees:

An Arts Degree…

A Sciences Degree…

Of course, in ministry studies, you aren’t expected to study a lot of math and science no matter what it says on the degree. In these cases, a bachelor of science degree is generally expected to include more specific preparation for a role in the ministry, with less emphasis on traditional arts and sciences coursework.

But the reality is that bachelor’s degrees in pastoral studies are already so variable from school to school that the differences between an arts and sciences degree will probably fade into the background by comparison. In both cases, you’ll have a solid foundation for entry-level work in the ministry or a foundation to pursue an advanced degree in divinity to become an ordained minister.

Your choice of degree will probably revolve around whether or not your church requires a specific doctrinal education or whether it will accept a more general education. This might also determine whether or not you pursue a dedicated Christian ministry degree or instead consider a course of study in theology, Christian studies, or other more general study of religions.

What is the Real Difference Between a Degree in Theology or Religious Studies vs a Ministry Degree?

Different people praying in multicolor backgroundChristian degrees come with many titles and focus areas. But in general, there is a broad divide between degrees in theology and religious studies and those in divinity or pastoral studies.

Religious studies and theology offer a scholarly, theoretical approach to studies of faith. They may focus on Christian beliefs and ecumenical practices, but may also be broader, taking in world religions and using comparative and common belief systems to better understand the spiritual impulse and faith. They generally prepare graduates for further studies or research in religion, with less focus on practical skills for the ministry.

Ministry and pastoral studies develop not just basic Scriptural and doctrinal knowledge of Christianity, but also deliver practical preparation for many of the skills required of Christian leaders. Coursework will cover subjects such as conducting worship services, performing ceremonial rights such as marriage and baptism, and delivering Christian counseling services.

Graduates with theology degrees may still be able to become pastors, and those with pastoral studies degrees can also pursue academic careers. Particularly at lower levels of study, these degrees can offer a path in either direction as preparation for further studies more focused on your calling.

Still, understanding the purpose of the degree program you will pursue is important to best fulfill your purpose doing God’s work.

From Undergrads to Graduate Students, Ministry Degrees are Available for Students at Every Level

Even within the broad scope of ministry degree programs, what you will study and what you can achieve will depend a lot on the level of education you pursue.

Associate Degrees in Ministry

In only two years, a Christian associate degree will lay the basic foundation you’ll need for further education, but you’ll need considerably more schooling to become a pastor or take on other roles in Christian leadership.

Still, associate programs have a very relevant role in your path to the ministry. By combining basic general educational coursework in communication, social studies, and math and science with more religious instruction, you get a well-rounded grounding in all the basics needed to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

In fact, many associate programs are designed to be transferable to four-year colleges, serving as the first two years of a bachelor’s degree in ministry or pastoral studies. As long as both schools offer similar coursework, or have a transfer agreement, you can save money and begin your training and career more quickly than with any other degree.

Bachelor's Degrees in Ministry

Ministry degrees at the bachelor’s level open up a whole new world of educational and career options. For starters, a bachelor’s program is a requirement to enroll in master’s programs in the ministry or divinity, which are required by most denominations for every ordained minister.

But the four years of study you will devote to earn a bachelor’s brings with it a broad scope of training in both practical pastoral skills and theoretical theological study. It also requires mastery of a variety of basic liberal arts skills, ranging from written communication to basic science and economics, to history and geography. A well-rounded bachelor’s graduate qualifies for many Christian jobs, as well as developing the basic skills of the ministry.

Master's Degrees in Ministry

Master’s degrees in ministry or divinity are the final step to a career as a pastor or an educator in Christian studies. Requiring between two and three years to complete, they are much more focused than bachelor’s programs on specific areas of interest in the ministry. Almost all your coursework at this level will be devoted to religious studies, whether diving into the intricacies of Biblical hermeneutics or exploring liturgical practices.

These degrees can be oriented toward training practicing ministers or aimed at scholars who will pursue more research and academic studies of Christianity. Your path will depend on the type of service you are being called to.

A Master of Divinity Is a Giant Among Christian Degrees

Studying alone in the libraryAlthough different denominations have different specific qualifications required for ordination as a pastor, most Christian churches in the United States overwhelming prefer or require candidates for roles in Christian leadership to hold master’s degrees in divinity.

A Master of Divinity, or MDiv, is considered to be the first professional degree for ordained ministers in the United States. While other master’s degrees in Christian ministry can apply toward other roles or as preparation for more academic pursuits, the MDiv covers for essential categories of training considered most important for serving pastors:

  • Religious Heritage
  • Cultural Context
  • Personal and Spiritual Formation
  • Capacity for Ministerial and Public Leadership

That extra level of job-specific preparation sets MDiv degrees apart. It also requires more dedication and more commitment: an MDiv will typically run a year longer than other master’s degree programs in Christian ministry, religious studies, or theology.

But for those called to service as ordained ministers, there are few substitutes to match the quality and practical knowledge that come with a Master of Divinity.

Doctoral Degrees in Ministry

Christian Doctoral programs take an additional three to four years of study, but they offer an unparalleled opportunity to expand your knowledge of Christian theology and the ministry.

Almost all doctoral-level programs in Christian ministry or theology are highly focused on some specific subject within the field, such as Scriptural studies or church leadership. The nature of doctoral programs is such that you can focus them even further, drilling down into exactly the type of knowledge you wish to master by selecting the right advisor, the right research projects, and the right dissertation topic.

Although this flexibility offers you the option of choosing doctoral studies that hone and perfect your pastoral skills, the most common path for doctors in ministry is academic. It’s a degree very focused on preparing researchers or scholars to advance the state of religious thought and Christian philosophy.

Certificate Programs in Ministry

Although not technically a degree, many Christian certificate programs are also offered by Christian colleges. A certificate program is separate from a degree largely because of the relatively less time spent in class, and the narrower nature of the coursework that is offered.

You can also find certificates at different levels of study. A certificate might basically replicate the specific religious coursework of an associate degree, for example, skipping over the general studies requirements that make those degrees transferable.

Or certificates can be post-degree or even post-graduate courses that let you focus on a particular area of expertise that your previous degree program didn’t cover. Certificates can be used to fine-tune your skills and understanding in aspects of the ministry you didn’t even originally know you needed to study. They can be a valuable addition to ministry degrees at any level.

Online Ministry Degrees Are Available Across the Country at Every Level of Study

Female student working on laptop in classroom

Online ministry degree programs were starting to become more common at Christian schools even before COVID-19 came along and forced everyone to rethink what a remote college education might look like.

The pandemic did one clear thing to boost online Christian ministry degree programs: it finally answered the question of whether or not they would prove to be just as good a preparation as traditional on campus courses. Graduates with any kind of degree from online ministry programs have proven to be just as well-trained, just as knowledgeable, and just as capable as any other seminary graduates.

Online programs offer big benefits for many students on top of the basic quality of education they get, though. In fact, for some students, an online program may offer the only opportunity they have to follow their calling.

That’s because online education opens up options at schools you might otherwise never be able to consider. You can find the perfect fit for your needs at a school halfway across the country even if your circumstances don’t allow you to move that far.

You also get a lot more flexibility in your academic life in general. Classes can be shuffled around to different times on different days of the week to fit your schedule. You can communicate with professors or fellow students by email or messaging, at any time of day. It’s a style of learning that adapts to your needs, not when classrooms are available.

The Wide Range of Curriculums Offered in Ministry Degree Programs Support Every Kind of Calling

There are such a wide variety of ministry degree programs offered today that it’s nearly impossible to lay out all the different kinds of coursework you might encounter. The course content you get will vary depending on:

In general, however, almost all courses of study in ministry include some coursework in certain areas.

Bible Studies – There’s exactly one source for the acknowledged and recorded Word of the Almighty: the Christian Bible. But there are different versions even of that font of knowledge, and around 800,000 divinely inspired words to be read, contemplated, and understood. Biblical hermeneutics, or the study of the translation and interpretation of Scripture, is therefore a key part of almost every kind of ministry degree program. Depending on the degree itself and the level of study, that can include learning Greek and Hebrew to form your own understanding in the original languages in which it was written.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

~ 2 Timothy 3:16

Christian History – The church today is not the church of fifty years ago, or two centuries ago, or of Christ’s time. The processes and understanding of Christian religions have undergone enormous changes since He walked the shores of Galilee, and to understand how Christianity is practiced today requires exploring those changes. The effect of the secular world and vice versa on religion and religious practice are also key concepts studied in these courses.

Theology – Good ministers are empowered by their understanding not just of the Word of God but also the relationship of culture and humanity with Christianity. The philosophy of religion gives you the tools to think through complex

Worship and Liturgical Studies – Ministry degrees teach, to a greater or lesser degree, how to minister. The processes and mechanics of conducting liturgical ceremonies aren’t outlined in the Bible and differ from denomination to denomination. Your studies will include plenty of practical instruction in how a pastor actually ministers to their flock, from writing and preaching a sermon to offering counsel to the bereaved.

Spiritual Formation – Your own inner beliefs and relationship with God are a full and equal part of your larger understanding of ministry studies. Even in programs that are more focused on theological and comparative religious studies, your philosophical understanding of the Holy Spirit and your personal experience of the divine are important to your education. So you will have courses that help you dive into your own thoughts and spiritual experiences to clarify and guide your explorations of religion.

Sizing Up Your Options for Christian Colleges Offering Ministry Degrees

Outside Catholic seminaryWith the exception of some programs in religious studies or theology, all Christian degrees are offer through private Christian universities or seminaries.

That fact will affect everything from your social life and responsibilities to the cost of tuition and fees. But it’s vital to receive your religious training from a college that shares your beliefs and supports your faith.

In some cases, it’s important that those exactly match your denomination.

Ordination will be all but impossible if you earn your master’s degree from a school that teaches a doctrine not recognized by your denomination’s authorities.

In other cases, and more often with lower level degrees, certain ecumenical approaches may be perfectly acceptable. It’s up to you to consult your elders and consider the school’s Statement of Faith to make sure it aligns with your own beliefs.

Accreditation Puts Quality First for Ministry Degree Programs

Regardless of the denominations a school supports, you deserve to get the full quality of education that American’s think of and expect out of a college degree. To do that, you’ll need to make sure that the school holds an accreditation from an agency recognized by other the Department of Education, or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Both of those organizations track accreditors who make it their business to evaluate the quality of education a college can offer. The accreditors dive into the details so you don’t have to:

A properly accredited Christian college means your degree is likely to serve the purpose you are pursuing it for, whether it’s as a path to a higher degree or as a qualification for a Christian job.

The Cost of Earning a Degree that Will Prepare You for a Role in Christian Leadership

Bible at the altar in churchWhile it’s a plus that private schools can teach from the Christian faith, the downside is that they do not receive the subsidies that public universities accept from their respective states. And that makes them more expensive, credit for credit, than a corresponding degree program from a public school.

The costs will vary according to the level of the degree you pursue. But the National Center for Education Statistics tracks the average costs of tuition and fees for private universities. For 2020, the annual average at the different level of studies for ministry programs came to:

With those kinds of costs, most ministry students seek out scholarships or loans. Fortunately, many schools, and many churches, offer grants for such training. And both government and private lenders can supply loans to help you through your schooling. Financial aid offices at every school should be able to help you locate the best options for your circumstances.

Your Path in the Ministry Rests on the Right Degree Level and Specialization

As with any kind of job in America today, your chances of getting hired, getting promoted, and getting a raise in Christian jobs are improved by holding any sort of college degree versus having only a high school education.

But it’s impossible to say exactly what sort of jobs you will be qualified for without diving into the details of your degree. With so many different specialties, and all the different levels of study, the variety of jobs that can be had with a Christian ministry degree are almost endless.

Ministry Degrees Offer Many Different Kinds of Specializations

The kinds of courses you will take will also depend on whether you choose to pursue a particular concentration in your degree. These focus areas will vary depending on the college you choose, but offer a more intensive and concentrated course of instruction in one specific type of ministry or field of study.

Examples include:

Not all of those specialties will be available at every level. In general, those that are available and taught at higher levels will offer more depth, a more narrow focus, and offer better preparation for a career in the ministry.

Associate Degrees in Ministry Unlock the Door to Entry-Level Christian Jobs

In general, an associate degree will qualify you for the most entry-level positions. That includes volunteering as a lay preacher, taking on Sunday School teaching or daycare helper responsibilities, or even working in a general office job at the church.

Most importantly and most commonly, though, an associate degree in ministry is the preparation you need to vault up to the next level of college, where new vistas of Christian positions await: a bachelor’s degree.

A Bachelor’s Degree in Ministry is Foundational for a Career in Christian Leadership and Beyond

A Christian bachelor’s degree trains you up in far more than just theological and pastoral duties. Any bachelor’s program from an accredited university gives you a whole range of basic life and professional skills that are considered qualification for all kinds of jobs in all sorts of industries.

In the ministry, some denominations will accept this as qualification enough for assistant pastors. You are also likely to find plenty of highly responsible ministry jobs that do not require ordination on the plate:

And, of course, a bachelor’s degree is an important necessity should you eventually decide to pursue ordination by earning a master’s degree.

A Master’s Degree is Often a Key Requirement for Ordination

To become a fully ordained minister, the Master of Divinity degree is far and away the most common degree requirement. But some denominations will accept master’s degrees in other pastoral ministries.

Either way, a master’s degree offers a high level of expertise in your field of study. Many master’s-qualified graduates go on to positions in education, teaching others what they have demonstrated mastery of.

That mastery extends past strictly religious work, however. Many Christian master’s degrees serve as managers in major non-profits, or start their own outreach efforts. They have the skills and communication abilities to evangelize, but also to coordinate with the secular world, providing important services and touching the lives of thousands.

We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

~ Romans 8:28

Doctoral Degrees in Ministry Foster Knowledge and Contemplation

The unique thing about doctoral programs in ministry is that they rarely serve as qualification for any particular job in the field. In fact, you probably already will have started off on a healthy and interesting career before you ever opt to pursue a doctorate.

These degrees are more aimed at enhancing your abilities in your existing position. A doctorate is where you turn when you have advanced through a master’s program, become ordained, served for years as a practicing minister, and yet still find yourself with a thirst for Biblical knowledge. They offer the opportunity to immerse yourself in the philosophy and study that are most useful and satisfying.

It’s true, though, that many doctoral degree holders go on to teach in their fields. As a repository of wisdom and knowledge, passing it along is the natural and Christian thing to do.

You do not have to become ordained to perform the Lord’s work, and you certainly don’t need a degree to do good work either. But one thing is for sure, an education will always offer you more options and better ways to spread the Word.