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How to: Master of Divinity Program

January 17, 2022

by Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University and President, Sioux Falls Seminary; David Williams, President of Taylor Seminary; and Tim Valentino, and Tim Valentino, Instructor of Biblical Studies and Applied Theology at Evangelical Seminary

 

Our topic of conversation today is the Master of Divinity (MDiv) program. Our recent focus has been on sharing a bit about each degree program as part of a larger collection of articles entitled “help and how to.”

The goal is, over time, to provide a glimpse into some of the various aspects of Kairos in order to help students, mentors, partners, and others better engage in Kairos. We are starting by taking a look at each program in order to create a kind of “common” understanding of what can be expected within each program. We have found it helpful to share that information by talking about why someone might enroll in a given program, what they can expect during their educational journey, and then how it is working for a few particular students.

A Brief Historical Note…

Before we jump into a discussion of why people enroll in a Master of Divinity program, it might be helpful to give a bit of background on the Master of Divinity degree. Beginning in the early 1950s, the Master of Divinity became the “standard” degree that people pursue on their way to becoming an ordained leader in a congregational setting. Often denominations required the degree as part of the ordination process, and the degree was designed to help students gain an understanding of what was required to lead one of the congregations in a given denomination. In the early 1980s, that landscape began to change dramatically.

In 2021, less than 50% of students who graduated with a Master of Divinity from an Association of Theological Schools (ATS) accredited seminary last year planned to engage in congregational ministry following graduation. While the Master of Divinity is often still an important part of an ordination process in many denominations, the reality is that almost every denomination has a way to become ordained or pursue a call to congregational leadership without completing the MDiv. Indeed, the MDiv is no longer the default or even the “standard” educational pathway for “pastors.” In fact, the majority of people who plan to engage in congregational leadership do not begin that journey by pursuing a Master of Divinity degree. They often begin by doing the work, that is by engaging in some sort of congregational leadership role.

So, if the MDiv isn’t the “default” degree program people pursue in order to engage in congregational leadership, why do people enroll?

Why Do People Enroll in the Master of Divinity?

While the Master of Divinity is no longer the only way for people to pursue a call to congregational ministry, the fact is that many people choose the MDiv because their denomination or tradition still requires the MDiv as part of the standard ordination process. However, if that is the only reason someone enrolls, meaning that if a person enrolls in the MDiv only because they feel someone else is “making” them do it as part of a series of “hoops” they need to jump through in order to engage in congregational ministry, they tend to struggle in the program. (In fact, that could be said of most degree programs within Kairos.) Kairos is not a “quick-fix” institution. In fact, we might say that Kairos raises the bar of personal responsibility for one’s educational journey.

Those who flourish in the program tend to be responding to an inner sense of “I must do this.” This could be a desire to go deeper in their faith or to expand their capability to faithfully engage in their vocation. In this way, people who enroll in the MDiv are often responding to a sense that they know there is more to Scripture or following Jesus than they have discovered thus far. Some of our faculty refer to this as “faith seeking understanding.” In plain terms, students who flourish are those who know they need to grow, who recognize that the Master of Divinity is more about who they are becoming than who they have become.

This inner sense means that students who flourish tend to embrace the idea that they will be different when they finish the program. That’s how discipleship works. We follow Jesus for the purpose of becoming like Jesus – a journey that is never complete. To put it simply, if you don’t want to change, grow, or develop then you probably don’t want to enroll in the MDiv program with Kairos.

In addition to the internal motivation to follow Jesus more faithfully, students enroll in the Master of Divinity for several particular reasons but, in every case, it is because they want to be more effective in their vocation. It could be because they want to be a better Bible study leader, pastor, missionary, church planter, or priest. Others may want to become more effective financial advisors, real estate agents, doctors, firefighters, business executives, or fighter pilots and see a Master of Divinity as an opportunity to learn how to work with others, see God’s hand at work in their day-to-day lives, and to integrate their faith and their vocation. Still, others want to prepare for further education in doctoral programs.

Finally, many people enroll in the Master of Divinity because of the breadth, depth, and flexibility of the program. Given the outcome-based nature of the program and the opportunity to customize the educational journey, many see the MDiv as a wonderful way to gain a broad understanding of the Christian faith while, simultaneously, becoming more effective in their vocation, whatever that vocation may be. Some students have focused their studies in the area of preaching, biblical studies, leadership, spiritual formation, church planting, or intercultural studies while others have grown in their expertise related to nonprofit management, organizational development, chaplaincy, software development, and much more.

The Aspects of the Journey

Like the Master of Arts program, the journey through the Master of Divinity can be humbling, exciting, and transformational (all at the same time)! It is truly an adventure with all of the potential joys and low points. As students move through a Master of Divinity in Kairos, there tend to be three primary stages: Preparing for the Journey, Walking with Others, and Looking Ahead.

Preparing for the Journey
As students begin their program, they are invited to engage in an outcome-level course called Starting Well. Here they learn more about the program, discern and express their hopes for the journey, build a mentor team, and discover some of the resources available to them.

Following the completion of Starting Well, students begin to work with their mentor teams to consider the path they will take through the program. Often, it is helpful for them to pick one of the outcome-level courses that touches one of their passions or seems stimulating. If none of the outcomes seem stimulating, it is often helpful to begin with Christian Spirituality in order to discern why they are in the program and where God might be calling them to go next. It is in this stage of the program that students and mentors should develop a rhythm for communication, a tentative plan for how they will work through outcomes, and a foundation on which the ongoing relationship can be built. In this stage, we often see students seeking to emulate what they have seen thus far in education. That could mean asking questions like “what courses do I need to take” or “what do I need to do in order to learn how to be more like…[insert the name of another person here].” As students continue in the program, it is important for new questions to emerge.

Walking With Others
After completing Starting Well and making some progress on the first outcome-level course or two, students begin to settle into a rhythm. The rhythm is as unique as the student. One of the best ways to develop that rhythm is to ask questions like, How will this work for me? How will I integrate learning across outcomes? Are there scheduled learning experiences that I might enjoy? It is in this stage where students begin to realize the value (and necessity) of taking ownership of their learning journey. They discover a desire to go deeper and then structure the educational trajectory accordingly.

The reality is that it takes some time for students to find a good rhythm and to discover their own best practices. During this stage, it is important for students and mentors to interact with each on a regular, consistent, and substantive manner. These interactions are important opportunities for students to allow mentors to speak into their lives and for mentors to learn more about students and how best to support, encourage, and evaluate them. Often, one of the best ways to engage in this work is through the master assessment review process. While that process is required at the completion of each outcome-level course, it can also be a helpful tool at the beginning or middle of an outcome in order to help guide and direct learning.

Looking Ahead
Toward the end of the program, students often complete two outcome-level courses, Mentored Life and Continuing Well, that are designed to help them reflect on their journey, articulate how they will continue to learn, and identify some of the people, experiences, and resources they will use along the way. By engaging in these processes, students prepare themselves for further learning. Remember, every program within Kairos is, first and foremost, a journey of discipleship. That means we are never finished. Graduation is simply the end of a specific season in one’s walk with Christ, not the culmination of it.

How Has the Program Served Students?

Marissa’s Story
I was a bit skeptical at first when one of my friends told me about Kairos. Honestly, I thought it was a scam; how could something be that affordable and accessible but still of high quality and relevant? But then I started looking into the program and speaking with other students and staff and fell in love. I transferred into Kairos because even though I was excelling academically at my current seminary, there was something missing that made me feel like I wasn’t thriving. That missing thing was discipleship or as I like to call it, apprenticeship. Kairos has opened the door for that to be an important aspect of the educational process.

With the integration of mentors, cohorts of students, gatherings, case studies, and various learning experiences, I have been able to build a learning pathway that fits my learning style. I can take what I learn and immediately apply it in my context or use projects and experiences within my context to make progress. This program put me in the driver’s seat and allowed me the flexibility I needed to flourish in my vocation while also preparing for future doctoral studies!

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