Dennis Bickers is a church consultant and author. He served previously as the bivocational pastor of an American Baptist church. In a recent blog, he writes about “7 Changes the Future Holds for Local Churches.” Although I agree with a number of his observations, I have some questions about this one:
"Growing numbers of seminary students will earn their degrees online. Persons going into pastoral ministry will often pursue degrees other than the traditional master of divinity. They will want more practical master of arts degrees offering courses that will speak more to the needs of pastors. Look for the master of divinity degree to be the degree of choice for those planning to earn a doctorate."
In response, I would make these comments:
First, I agree with his statement that “growing numbers of seminary students” will pursue their theological education either through online study or in hybrid situations that combine in person and virtual learning. In fact, many already do. For example, Central Baptist Theological Seminary (affiliated with American Baptists), already provides an online Master of Divinity degree that is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. A student can complete the degree without ever attending classes at the main campus in Shawnee, Kansas, or one of the seminary’s satellite campuses.
Second, I question what type of “practical master of arts degrees” will offer training “that will speak more to the needs of pastors.” Many seminaries offer Master of Arts degrees in specialized areas that would benefit a minister in a local congregation. For example, Central offers a Master of Arts (Theological Studies) in an online format that prepares a student for academic research or for professional development. Someone involved in a teaching or Christian formation ministry in a local congregation would benefit more from this theologically based degree than a masters’ level program in education from a secular university. Of course, a person with a theological degree might supplement their studies with a secular degree such as counseling or organizational development, but the place to start is with a seminary degree.
Third, many Master of Divinity curricula have been redesigned to address the specific needs of pastors in local congregations, helping them to develop the competencies needed for effective ministry. This is what the churches have requested and schools like Central have responded with creative new curricula.
Fourth, Bickers does not address the need to provide theological training for those without a baccalaureate degree. Seminaries have created certificate and diploma programs for those without an undergraduate degree who serve local congregations. Central provides these programs for both English-speaking and Korean-speaking leaders.
Fifth, given the options available that are affordable and accessible, any person called to ministry has the opportunity to pursue a theological education that addressed the needs of pastors. New times call for new responses and theological educators are providing what the churches and their leaders need.