This fall, I will begin an MDiv at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The following three part series will explore how I came to decide on both the degree type and the school. Part one will explore why I chose to pursue an MDiv. The second part will explain my thought process when considering which schools would receive my application. The final part will explain why I decided to attend Southeastern. I should say, by way of a disclaimer, that at no point does this series attempt to provide anything like a survey of the state of theological education today, or provide an analysis of the innumerable options available to the aspiring teacher or preacher. I am writing about the way things seem to me now, or the way they seemed at the time I was making my decision. Your experience may, and almost certainly will, differ.
When I first decided to continue my education in Christian studies beyond the undergraduate level, my vocational aspirations were entirely academic. I intended to find the most efficient path to a reputable, fully funded PhD program, and begin a career in the academy. This is not to say that my career goals were somehow disconnected from my faith. On the contrary, I felt called to scholarship in the broad field of New Testament and Early Christianity. Nevertheless, I did not feel led to local church ministry, so I researched and planned my future training with only the best academic preparation in mind.
Doctoral programs in Religious Studies in general, and Christian specialties in particular, usually require, either by practice or rule, an intermediate graduate degree for entrance. University PhD programs are populated mostly by those who hold academic degrees such as the MA, MAR, or MTS, or professional degrees such as the MDiv (I recognize that at some schools, the MAR and MTS are much closer to an abbreviated MDiv than to an MA). My time as an undergraduate at a research university with a top notch, fully funded graduate program revealed a distinct pattern: Those with academic degrees were preferred to those with the MDiv, and those from research universities and their divinity schools were preferred to those from seminaries generally, and Evangelical seminaries in particular. The normative path to my school’s graduate program included an MA type degree obtained at a highly regarded university. There are always exceptions. This year, the one person accepted to the concentration in Judaism and Christianity in antiquity took his degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. By and large, however, those faculty members who evaluate applications have confirmed to me their preference for applicants to have demonstrated success in a university setting.
I took this general trend as my guiding principle. As I worked out my educational game plan with my advisor, a clear path emerged: Complete my undergraduate degree with distinction, attend a top school such as Duke or Yale for a two year master’s, then gain admission into a funded PhD program. I worked diligently toward that end. I researched my various degree options carefully. What courses did each degree require? What languages? What funding was available? In what subjects were the faculty most interested? What areas were lacking? I sorted through these questions to produce a short list of programs, then began to gather application materials.
Last summer, my plan changed. This change had nothing to do with my academic aspirations. Those remain intact. Rather, in my day to day interactions with the Christians of my church, I began to care very deeply for their encouragement and growth in the Faith. Or, to put it differently, while I had always loved my brothers and sisters in Christ, I now wanted to use whatever abilities God had given me for their edification. This rapidly grew into a conviction that my call was not only to scholarship, but to relate that academic work to God’s people. It was now clear that local church ministry would be an integral part of this call to scholarship in the service of the Church, whatever that service might end up looking like.
I am now left with a more complicated educational objective. As I have stated, my scholarly aspirations have not changed to this day. Ultimately, I still require the highest quality in my academic preparation. Nevertheless, I must make sure that, whatever path I choose, I am adequately prepared to serve the Church. This raises several complications. I am a Baptist. In my particular corner of Christianity, there is no formal requirement that a pastor earn an MDiv, or any degree for that matter. This flexibility actually makes things more difficult for someone like me. Whereas in some denominations there is a clear requirement (one might have to earn an MDiv, with clearly defined course requirements, from a certain denominational seminary), my educational career is left very much up to my best judgment. I could earn any degree, or none, from any school, or none, or I could continue down my previously determined educational path, all without hampering my call to the local church.
As the title of this post indicates, I chose to apply to MDiv programs. I did so even though it meant at least an extra year in school, possibly more if a ThM is required before doctoral work. I did so knowing that, in many ways, I was stepping back from my strict focus on the academic. I did so, even though many whose advice I take seriously tried to dissuade me from altering my educational course. Why?
It occurs to me that in my study of Christianity within an academic context, especially a secular one, I am doing something fundamentally different from the practice of the Christian Faith. While there are certainly many common points of interest, the historical work that I do could be done, and indeed is done, by those who are not Christian at all. In some ways, it is very much like the academic study of any subject. Naturally, my deep commitment to Christ is a foundational influence on the perspective that I bring to my studies. Nevertheless, a gulf still exists between belief and the scholarly study of belief, even when such study is conducted faithfully by believers. So, then, while I have no doubt that a strictly and rigorously academic program would provide me a knowledge base from which to teach the Church, I am not sure that is enough. At least, I am not sure that it is enough in my case. I feel the need to intentionally prepare for faithful ministry to the people of God, the very purpose for which the MDiv is designed. In other words, if my calling comprises both academic and pastoral purposes, then I need to train for both, rather than rely on purely academic training to provide tangential preparation for the Christian ministry.
In sum, were my professional intentions only academic in nature, then I would not seek an MDiv. The MDiv is not designed to train scholars, but pastors. Precisely for that reason, the development in my sense of calling led me to seek an MDiv. If I want to be a pastor, I should take the time to become grounded in the appropriate disciplines, even if it means taking a break from strictly academic preparation. So, while I expect to gain much that will ready me for future doctoral work over the next three or so years, especially when it comes to biblical languages, I consider the primary purpose of my next educational step to be preparation for the Gospel ministry, and I will give my best effort toward that end.