Is the M.Div. too much?

I didn’t get a Ph.D. because I didn’t want one. I got an M.Div. because everyone said I needed one to follow my call — which I hear differently now; it isn’t extinguished — into the ministry.

Looking around at the talented people I know — who have between them a knack for making connections, self-directed learning and cutting out hallowed anachronisms — I definitely have buyer’s remorse for the M.Div.

There has to be a better way to prepare people for ministry, especially when the costs are so high and the professional prospects few and low-paying.

Articles like this — “Is a GED More Valuable Than a PhD?” by Kai Ma (The Daily Beast) — touch a nerve.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. My grandfather did have his doctorate – but left the ministry during ww2 to see if he could do something to support his family. I suspect the doctorate was a hindrance in getting a job – including ministry (i suspect many congregations would think of it as making the minister more expensive).
    There is something to be said for the old fashion Universalist tradition of apprentice ministers – you do your day job and you train under a minister on the weekends until that minister and the state convention thought you were ready to be ordained.

  2. Long time reader, first time post-er. I recently completed an MDiv at a university-based seminary in New England, and immediately found the soft skills I’d developed next-to-useless in a rapidly shrinking job market. I wasn’t looking to be ordained, and wasn’t necessarily looking to work in parish-based ministry either, but many of those friends who were looking for a pulpit still find themselves jobless or temping in secretarial positions. I think it’s a different job market and it’s a different world, and I suspect and fear that the model of ministertial education currently in operation is outdated.

  3. My M.Div. has been good for me. But I question if it is the only effective path to quality ministry. What about less academic programs of mentoring? What about certificate programs which do not assume that a graduate level education is always an absolute requirement? Are there cases where congregations see gifts, nurture those gifts, and raise up their own lay-pastor?

    The Ohio Universalist Convention had 2 credentials: ordained minister, and licensed to preach. MANY of their pre-WW2 ministers were school teachers with a license to preach in specific congregations. That model certainly makes affordable the bi-vocational ministry which small congregations need. Are we over-professionalizing the vocation of minister?

  4. Perhaps we need a pathway for folks who want to be ministers that doesn’t require the expense of the M.Div degree?

    I wonder if the credentialing model used for religious educators could be adapted for ministerial professional development.

    Of course, this would suggest that we would have differing “levels” of “minister” with differing levels of education — e.g. no degree ministers, undergraduate degree ministers, and graduate degree ministers.

    But this would allow someone to see if a ministerial calling is a good fit without thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

  5. Too much what? Money, time, pedantry….. ?

    It’s not just the M.Div … see here and here for a take on how inefficient, and cruelly unfair, our system of credentialing can be. Credentialed does not equal qualified, and too often the requirements to earn the credential are only distantly related to the skills required to do the job.

    Of course you can always start your own church.

  6. I suppose that part of the question is: What is education for? I am terrified when I learn that there’s now a whole educational system built around hotel management. It’s not that I have anything against hotel management. My question is, rather, what the heck could you learn in studying for a BA in hotel management that you couldn’t learn on the job?

    I like education and enjoyed my schooling. I think that my M.Div. does make me a better minister. I gained skills through the degree program that I might not have gained elsewhere. As importantly, I had time to study and reflect in seminary that I haven’t had since. I regularly draw upon that study and reflection in my ongoing ministerial work.

    There are other ways I have learned about the ministry too. I learned a lot from my union work and I continue to learn a lot by studying and engaging with my senior colleagues and peers.

    Perhaps the notion that there should be multiple tracks to the ministry isn’t a bad one. If the issue is demonstrating competency and fluency in the tradition then institutions like the fellowship committee aren’t bad ideas.

    Before I close this rather rambling response I should note that in the Ohio Meadville District of UUA we still have something called the Commissioned Lay Leader program. The program trains people for leadership roles within a congregational context. Many CLLs serve small historically Universalist congregations. Others serve as sort of assistant ministers with specific portfolios in larger congregations. My congregation has one and she is a major asset to the community. Like me she is called by the congregation and has a letter of agreement. She is not salaried but does receive some fees for services.

  7. It all depends on how you look at the degree, and the process. If it is all about a means to an end – yeah, just about any degree past a batchelors is probably too much unless you actually manage to land (and forever stay in) a job that requires it. I have a Ph.D. that I used for 10 years (I was an academic), but I certainly don’t need it now. But it has served me well (it’s amazing what the discipline of writing a dissertation teaches you.)

    I didn’t stay for my M.Div. in seminary, I left after getting a Certificate in Theological Studies. The price tag on that certificate that I will never use was very high (2 years of lost income and momentum in a career, plus tuition and expenses), but I have no buyer’s remorse. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

    And, um, you can start a church and be a pastor whenever you want, without any credentials, as long as you are willing to be non-affiliated, or affiliated with a denomination that doesn’t require an M.Div.

  8. I couldn’t help but notice that in all of your discussion none of you referred to what scripture has to say about the matter. If one were to rely on what the Bible has to say about the gifts of the spirit and ministry of the Church then they wouldn’t be wasting time jumping through MDiv and other man-made hoops but rather would be busy doing the Father’s work. Spending tens of thousands of dollars (usually funded with student loans) to establish oneself as a “superclass Christian” is simply worldly. I can read the same books an MDiv does and learn by the revelation of the Spirit of God, and do so without expecting a local Church to take me on as a salaried minister just because the worldly authorities have issued me a special piece of paper.

    Why not work in a field you are skilled at (like Paul did with his tent making) and serve the Lord with the fruit of your labour? There is no shame in that

  9. Well, I can just see Jesus handing out those fancy parchment degree’s to the uneducated fisherman that became his and was charged to preached the gospel. I’m sure that mdiv degree had lofty words from a Harvard or Vanderbilt university or a some man made PHD theology wording they just couldn’t understand. Oh and there’s those student loans at interest is being paid into some special university coffer to keep the doors open and keep the business going. It’s all man made better than you bull. I am sure that Jesus when he comes back is gonna ask. Mmm well what type of degree did you get? No. He’s gonna look to see if you align with his standards. Training is wonderful don’t get me wrong. But, we have made a business out of it and I believe that is. How can something freely given turn into a man made business.

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