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Do You Need a Degree?
A Master of Divinity is the degree of choice for people going into pastoral ministry. While many churches employ people who do not have this degree, the majority of senior pastors or priests--the people who do most of the speaking during worship services--have this degree or their denomination's equivalent. Seminarians generally study the Bible, Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek, various aspects of church history, theology, philosophy and other related topics. Different tracks put more or less focus on public speaking, pastoral counseling and other practical hands-on skills.
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Making the Right Choice
Many seminaries offer a Master of Divinity online, allowing students to stay in their current ministry positions while pursuing higher education. Local ministry experience is considered invaluable, and often incorporated into the seminary's curriculum. Choosing a seminary, however, can be a bit more complicated than choosing other graduate schools, whether it's a brick-and-mortar school or an online program. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when searching for an online seminary.
The Internet is full of unaccredited "seminaries," some of them scams, some of them educational programs offered by well-intentioned people, and some of them legitimate branches of well-recognized denominations. Unless you are unshakably certain that you want to minister in a particular church or denomination offering degrees that are not recognized by Council for Higher Education, steer clear of these. Look for a seminary that is accredited by the Council for Higher Education AND the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).
When choosing an online seminary, consider what sort of church you want to work in eventually. While few churches demand that their pastors graduated from a seminary affiliated with their denomination, they may be skeptical about hiring graduates of a school that is on the opposite end of the theological spectrum from them. A Greek Orthodox congregation will probably not be anxious to hire someone educated at an Assemblies of God school. Similarly, try to avoid secular schools with a "tacked-on" seminary. Most churches prefer degrees from Christian schools.
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Is Your Future a Little Uncertain?
If you are not sure what sort of church you want to work at, aim toward the middle of the theological spectrum. Graduates of an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) seminary, for instance, will feel at home in a wide cross-section of American churches, from high-church Episcopalian congregations to the tiny Baptist church around the corner. Luther Seminary offers a fully accredited Master of Divinity online.
Or choose a school with a sterling reputation. Many nationally acclaimed seminaries offer classes online, sometimes requiring short campus residencies to earn a degree, sometimes not. If you already work for a church and want to continue your education, check if your denomination has a program to help you accomplish this. They may have partnerships with particular schools to make it easier to earn your degree.
Happy seminary hunting, and best of luck!