What Is the Best Degree for Becoming a Pastor?

Training for pastoral ministry is as varied as the many denominations that employ clergy. Each group places emphasis on distinctive areas of theology and scripture interpretation. Beyond doctrinal differences, churches have divergent definitions of the pastor’s role. Bearing these sometimes conflicting visions in mind, the interested ministerial candidate can nonetheless draw a general conclusion about the optimal course of study that will lead to ordination and installation as a pastor. This curriculum will best be found in a theological seminary that offers the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree. This post-baccalaureate degree provides comprehensive training to the prospective pastor.

Scripture Exegesis

While other master-level degrees can be pursued at seminary, the M.Div. is geared toward pastoral ministry. As the spiritual leader of a church or religious congregation, the pastor should have a strong grounding in biblical studies as well as in theological issues. The M.Div. program requires competence in the two major biblical languages: Hebrew and Greek. Once comprehended sufficiently, these languages are then applied to the task of exegesis, i.e. interpreting the various books of the Bible and discerning the meaning conveyed by the authors. This knowledge lays the foundation for the study of theology.

Theology and Church History

Theology courses are intertwined with studies in church history. The early writings of Tertullian and Augustine, and later treatises of Luther, Calvin, Knox and Buber, are better understood within the context of the period in which they were recorded. Papal encyclicals and Protestant responses are examined for their application of theology to moral issues and politics. The aim here is to instill in students a sense of how religious truth claims affect people’s lives, indeed on how they have lived for centuries. As a preacher, the pastor needs to recognize the timelessness of spiritual struggles among the flock. Theology and church history inform students on exactly that point.

Practical Ministry

Beyond rigorous scholarship in scripture and theology, the Master of Divinity program conveys needed practical knowledge in the nuts and bolts of ministry. Preaching, or homiletics, is a staple subject in every M.Div. program. The Candler School of Theology at Emory University, for example, offers over a dozen courses in preaching, some required while others are elective. As counseling goes to the heart of a pastor’s role, most programs include classes in pastoral care and psychology. These cover a wide range of topics, from marriage to illness to vocational guidance to grief. Other practical requirements focus on church administration, music, liturgies and interfaith dialogue.

Field Education

Theological schools that offer a M.Div. degree almost invariably provide some form of internship or field education. The Association of Theological Schools – an accrediting body for seminaries – requires supervised ministry practice as a criterion for approval of M.Div. programs. Such programs get ministerial candidates out of the classroom and into church settings where they can but their academic knowledge to use. Supervising pastors, approved by the seminary, will observe and evaluate the student when interacting with parishioners and participating in worship. Together with the training received at school, this opportunity rounds out the comprehensive education obtained by a prospective pastor.

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