Master's degree programs in divinity prepare graduates for the ministry, and many programs are offered online. However, these programs may not be available totally through distance learning; some hybrid programs have courses that are only offered on campus, and many programs require students to complete internships or practicums.
Most programs are affiliated with a particular Christian denomination's beliefs, and students should make sure the program they choose will prepare them for ordination in the faith of their choosing. Some schools, however, offer general studies not linked to a specific church organization.
It takes about two to three years to complete a master's degree program in divinity. Students need a bachelor's degree in theology, although some programs will accept students with other majors if they complete courses in theology. Courses may include preaching, Bible history, family counseling and business management for a church. A practicum at a church is usually a requirement, and many programs call for a thesis or research project.
Master's Degree in Pastoral Studies
Liberal arts colleges and divinity schools offer degrees in several areas of theology. Bachelor's degrees are typically general in nature, with majors in theology, biblical history or church leadership, and a few online programs are available. Study includes ancient languages, comparative religions and ethics. A bachelor's degree generally doesn't qualify graduates for ordination as a priest or minister, so it is often a precursor to an advanced degree in theology or divinity.
At the master's degree level, students are freer to specialize in areas such as sacred theology, church music, religious education, counseling and pastoral studies. A Master of Theological Studies or Master of Arts in a pastoral theological discipline is generally deemed academic in nature; these do not traditionally lead to holy orders or a life behind the pulpit. Candidates prepare for ordination and church leadership by pursuing a Master of Divinity. Because different faiths have their own views and requirements, this degree distinction may vary and should be confirmed by potential students prior to enrollment.
Institutions offering online pastoral studies degrees typically have a specific Christian affiliation that guides their theological coursework, and some schools require that theology students adhere to school beliefs. However, a few programs teach a generic approach to the techniques and responsibilities of leading a congregation without regard to a particular doctrine.
Information and Requirements
Applicants to online master's degree programs in theology must have a bachelor's degree, preferably in theology. Graduates with other majors are usually considered, but may need to take or test out of prerequisite courses. Classes are generally available online, but if desired electives are not offered online, students may wish to make on-site or credit-transfer arrangements. Course loads of 36-48 semester credits may take full-time students 24-36 months to complete.
Students need computers with multimedia capabilities and access to the Internet in order to attend virtual lectures, submit assignments, complete examinations and communicate with faculty and program peers. Schools generally make technical staff available to counsel students with hardware or software difficulties.
Some master's degree programs require the submission of a thesis or research paper. Others may require a practicum in the ministry; in this case, the school generally helps the student find an organization and supervisor near their home with which to affiliate. Courses could include:
History of Ancient Israel
This course compares the events of secular history in the Middle East with passages in the Old Testament to provide greater context for Biblical events. As an exercise, students are asked to construct and fill in a timeline of ancient history through the duration of the course.
Students analyze the books of the Bible, significant passages and many important figures. They learn the relative merits of various Bible translations, external sources and concordances.
Counseling the Family
Pastors need preparation in psychiatry, sociology and group dynamics in order to counsel family members within their congregations. This course reviews many family issues and presents strategies for offering counsel.
Church Leadership and Management
This class examines the application of Christian principles to the issues of small business management. Students learn leadership theory and examine their own leadership styles in context of church teachings.
Many graduates of an online master's degree in pastoral studies program continue with their own faith's requirements for ordination or acceptance into the clergy. They may help fill the administrative ranks of churches, church-supported hospitals and colleges. Or they may begin counseling, teaching, psychiatric and social service careers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for clergy, which includes pastors, ministers, priests and other related workers, were projected to grow from 2014 to 2024 at the rate of 5.6%. In 2015, the BLS reported that the current median annual wage for the clergy was $44,250 (www.bls.gov).
Online master's degree programs in pastoral studies allow students to specialize in particular areas of theology and are usually tied to a certain denomination. Programs are available fully online or in a hybrid format. Graduates may work towards requirements into the clergy after developing skills in biblical studies, counseling and church leadership through the program.