What Is a Master of Divinity (MDiv) Degree?

And Why Do I Need One?

by Darcy Hansen, DMin, and Ken Van Vliet, DMin

In an era marked by shifts in religious practices and an evolving spiritual landscape, the master of divinity degree remains a cornerstone of Christian theological education.

Its significance transcends traditional ministry roles, extending its reach to address the pressing needs of a diverse and rapidly changing world.

In this article, we will explore the degree, who can benefit from it, and why it remains a vital choice in addressing the challenges of modern society.

What Is a Master of Divinity Degree?

First, let’s clarify what an MDiv (pronounced EM-div) is. A master of divinity is a graduate-level degree offered by institutions of theological study and is a foundational degree for many ministry positions.

MDiv degrees require a median of 90 semester credits, according to a 2016 survey by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) of its member schools. However, there is a wide range in required credits that is dependent on specific denominational degree requirements. Completing the requirements for a master of divinity program usually takes three to four years.

The median tuition and fees for one year of an MDiv program are $13,930, based on the 2022-23 ATS Annual Data Tables (Table 1.2).

Program format varies by institution, including:

Who Is an MDiv For?

Historically, those who pursued an MDiv did so as part of their ordination process within mainline Protestant denominations. An MDiv is also required for individuals who pursue some branches of chaplaincy as a career. And, for a number of theological doctoral programs, it’s required or strongly preferred.

That said, you do not need to earn a master of divinity (MDiv) degree for all pastor positions. Many non-denominational and evangelical leaders are not required to have one. However, many pastors and ministry leaders are discovering they are poorly equipped to effectively tackle the challenges the American Christian church is experiencing (see next section below).

Because of this, seminaries have seen increased interest from leaders from diverse professional contexts who want additional theological and ministry training.

Individuals who serve in the public sector, nonprofit organizations, parachurch/mission-based ministries, and in third-space ministries, such as counseling or spiritual direction, are also sensing the need for additional education to effectively care for individuals and communities within their care. Pursuing an MDiv degree enables them to mature in their faith, broaden their ministry capacity, supplement their knowledge base, strengthen their leadership skills, and connect with a supportive community.

The Demanding Work of a Pastor Requires Rigorous Preparation

While deeply rewarding, being a pastor is equally demanding. One moment, you’ll be studying Scripture as you prepare for a sermon or Bible study. Next, you’ll find yourself counseling a middle-aged couple who are both ready to give up on their marriage. The following day brings staff and volunteer meetings where you must equip and envision your team for kingdom work. You’ll encounter congregants whose different church backgrounds require you to help them understand that their tradition, while wonderful, is not the only one around. You’ll be asked to mediate conflict, clarify theology, and help the organization stay financially fit. And you will do all of this by Thursday afternoon, all the while trying to keep yourself and your family spiritually and emotionally healthy.

Experience is a great and necessary teacher; there is no denying that. However, women and men who enter pastoral leadership without the proper training usually gain their experience at the expense of the people they have committed to lead. There are countless stories of hurt and disillusionment at the hand of an ill-equipped, under-trained leader, and they are heartbreaking. That’s why an MDiv program is worth both the time and the money. More than any other degree, it lays a solid theological, biblical and historical foundation while giving you the practical tools to care for and develop yourself and the people God has called you to shepherd.

Related: Why Go to Seminary?

A cohort chats around a table

What Will I Study in an MDiv program?

As an MDiv student, you’ll engage in courses in theology, church history, biblical studies, biblical language resources, and spiritual formation. Classes are designed to give you a deeper understanding of the church, scripture, and the ways theology impacts your daily interactions.

Courses in pastoral care and counseling, personal formation, preaching and worship, leadership, and vocational development opportunities provide practical tools and spiritually formative experiences so ministry leaders are equipped to meet contemporary challenges within their ministry context.

Ultimately, it lays a solid theological, biblical and historical foundation while giving you the practical tools to care for and develop yourself and the people God has called you to shepherd.

Why Earn an MDiv Now?  

Opportunities for MDiv students are a result of a growing need in American culture. In 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General published an advisory declaring an epidemic of loneliness in America, reflecting increasing declines in religious identification, church participation, and social connection in general.

Loneliness is a complex reality for many people. Even if a person is surrounded by people who love and care for them, a person can still feel alone. Loneliness occurs when a person perceives their social connections lack quality and depth. Fostering meaningful connections takes time and intention, both of which are in short supply in our fast-paced society.

The U.S. Surgeon General laid out a comprehensive plan for tackling the loneliness epidemic. For each of the six foundational pillars, thoughtful and empathetic leaders are needed to critically examine, initiate, and facilitate connections between people.

As a part of their robust academic and ministerial training, MDiv and chaplaincy graduates have gone through a personal journey of inner healing and deep self-awareness and have a more nuanced understanding of the complexities people face within society. This preparation enables them to serve others with a non-anxious presence that invites individuals and communities into authentic and meaningful relationships with one another, which counters the effects of loneliness.

Though Americans report less contact with houses of worship and their clergy, one in four Americans report having been served by a chaplain. Because of that, America’s institutions are searching for ministers who know how to proactively meet and care for the needs of an increasingly isolated culture with love and respect.

Earn an MDiv Online at Portland Seminary  

In Portland Seminary’s hybrid-online MDiv program, students engage with one another through a cohort-based learning model. Students from diverse denominational backgrounds gather in-person and virtually to learn from an equally diverse faculty and grow in engaging environments. In those spaces of learning, they are encouraged to think with clarity, live with integrity, and serve with the heart of God in their ever-changing, wide-ranging environments. 

Upon graduating, they are equipped to lead in the church, chaplaincy, education, global mission, and more. 

At Portland Seminary, your MDiv degree is infused with Christ-centered spiritual formation, which means you will gain both the competencies and the character needed to pastor well, and to do so for the long haul.

seminary logo of a flame

Learn more about Portland Seminary’s hybrid-online MDiv