It might surprise some to learn that you need a degree to go into ministry. In our imagination, we picture priests and pastors as people who have a calling from God. They feel the need to work in the church, so they get up and go.
It’s not actually that simple. Even within the single religion of Christianity, there are hundreds of practices and traditions. And because we’re dealing with big important questions about the meaning of life, students need to put in extra study.
In fact, that’s why most of the oldest and most respected universities in the world got their start as seminaries!
That said, the most straightforward degree for those who want to work in the church is a master of divinity degree (M.Div.). Students studying for an M.Div. learn not only the theological roots of their tradition but also several practical skills related to leadership and public speaking.
With an M.Div. degree, students can go on to become ordained by their church, they can become lay leaders, or they can get involved in government organizations, acting as a chaplain or a social service worker.
Because so many of the oldest schools in the nation began as seminaries, divinity students have plenty of options. To be sure, finding the best choice for you requires a lot of thought and soul searching, but you’ve made an excellent first step by reading this list.
Here are our picks for 10 of the best masters in divinity programs in the U.S.!
Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Theology (Dallas, TX)
The M.Div. program at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology involves everything you’d expect from a top-level divinity school. Working under experienced and inquisitive faculty members, students explore the history of Christianity and a number of theological traditions.
SMU stands out among these great schools thanks to its thorough internship program. After completing the necessary prerequisite work, students are placed in either full-time or part-time internships in member Methodist churches. These internships allow students to put their learning into practice, teaching laypeople in their churches and performing denomination rites.
After completing the program, students can continue their academic studies by pursuing a doctoral degree, or they can be ordained by the United Methodist Church. Those choosing the latter option enjoy the full support of SMU’s program, which puts students into contact with experienced leaders and aids in job placement.
University of Chicago Divinity School (Chicago, IL)
The Divinity School at the University of Chicago emphasizes communal learning and worship among its M.Div. students. Candidates work together as part of a cohort, who take together the 27 required courses in the program.
With this focus, students have the opportunity to test their knowledge with one another and learn how to practice their faith together.
Moreover, U Chicago allows students to pair their degree with a secondary emphasis, partnering with other schools at the University.
These dual degree offerings include an M.Div. & Master of Public Policy, an M.Div. & Juris Doctor (JD), and an M.Div. & Master of Arts in Social Work and Social Welfare. These dual degrees let students take a practical approach to their religious training.
All the programs are supported by U Chicago’s vibrant academic community. The institution houses the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion, which fosters interfaith communication.
Through the Marty Center, students can engage in initiatives such as The Biggest Questions podcast, which invites scholars and religious leaders to participate in accessible conversations.
Duke Divinity School (Durham, NC)
The Duke Divinity School recognizes the complexity of studying religion. More than just a mere matter of faith, pursuing an M.Div. requires not only professors who bring challenging questions, but support as learners struggle to find answers.
At Duke Divinity, that support begins with the school’s faculty. Teachers include Sarah Jean Barton, Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy and Theological Ethics. A faculty member in both the Divinity School and the Duke University Medical Center, Professor Barton takes a practical and scientific approach to her theological beliefs.
Thanks to its embrace of the complexities of faith, Duke Divinity trains students who take their faith across disciplinary boundaries. For example, 2013 M.Div. graduate Alma Tinoco Ruiz has gone on to become the director of the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.
Emory University Candler School of Theology (Bozeman, MT)
In the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, the M.Div. is a professional degree for those who plan to become ministers, church leaders, or social service workers. To that end, students learn the practical skills necessary for their profession, including leadership practices, critical thinking, best practices, and more.
But this focus on the day-to-day activities of ministry does not distract from its theological grounding. Emory U immerses students in the texts of the Christian tradition, reading the founding theologians and the most exciting contemporary minds.
Emory’s contextual education method pulls together both the academic and practical aspects of the degree. Students practice their faith by serving in hospitals, social service organizations, and elsewhere.
From these experiences, students can choose from several concentrations. From chaplaincy to religion to theology and the arts, Emory trains its students to make their faith real in their professional lives.
Wake Forest University School of Divinity (Winston-Salem, NC)
Community learning is the focus of the M.Div. degree at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Students work together as they develop their theological perspective and gain leadership skills, learning to contrast their religious ideas through a variety of views.
At the center of the degree is Wake Divinity’s Art of Ministry program, which helps students discover their ministerial identity.
Training involves thinking about God through social demands, interrogating ideas about justice and compassion. More than just an intellectual exercise, the Art of Ministry program emphasizes practice, giving students opportunities to act out their faith.
To that end, the school features a cross-cultural connection emphasis, giving students space to compare religious ideas from across the world. Students can travel out of the country to experience spiritual experiences from outside of their culture.
Vanderbilt University Divinity School (Nashville, TN)
Designed to be completed in 3 years, the M. Div. degree offered by the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University prepares future ministers with the tools of their trade.
The degree takes a student-first approach, letting learners customize their studies according to their vocational plans, and features immersion experiences, in which students put their studies into practice.
For the degree capstone, students focus on a ministry question or issue of their choice. Working closely with faculty mentors, students find unique and practical ways of addressing that issue or question. In every aspect, the school encourages students to find connections between their faith and the pressing issues of our time.
Vanderbilt Divinity takes its role as a home for public intellectuals and faith leaders seriously. We see this principle at work with the school’s VDS Voices blog, in which students and faculty members post essays about theological approaches to current events.
Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (Cambridge, MA)
Anyone who wants to enter the priesthood or become a full-time lay minister should consider the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. BC’s M.Div. degree puts students through three years of rigorous training, equipping them with the theological basis and leadership skills they’ll need for work in the church.
BC builds its M.Div. degree around three central concepts: spiritual formation, cohort community, and supervised ministry. With this focus, students learn how to evolve their religious thinking through a partnership with their fellow learners and relationships with faculty mentors.
As this description suggests, BC prioritizes the human and spiritual elements of its student body. With programs such as the Spiritual and Human Formation initiative, students learn to set personal goals and integrate their learning into every part of their lives. Faculty members support students as they follow the best paths for themselves.
Likewise, the supervised ministry initiative ensures that each student is placed within an internship. Working alongside experienced faculty mentors, students have the chance to apply their learning in a real-world setting.
Together, these pillars of the BC program graduates well-rounded faith leaders, ready to meet their calling.
Princeton Theological Seminary (Princeton, NJ)
Before they became the most prestigious academic institutions in the country, the Ivy League schools were seminaries created to train ministers. Princeton Theological Seminary carries on the founding traditions of its parent school.
That tradition is evident in PTS’s M.Div. degree, the foundational degree for ministry professionals.
The degree program exposes learners to a variety of ministerial challenges, preparing them to meet the demands of real-world church work. Combining classroom instruction with real-world service, PTS gives students the knowledge and skills they need to disciple their communities.
The program’s foundation is a curriculum that mixes classic theological texts with works from thinkers addressing critical contemporary questions. With this varied approach, students learn to see their faith as part of an ongoing conversation.
Harvard School of Divinity (Cambridge, MA)
As part of one of the best schools in the U.S. and the world, it should be no surprise that the Harvard School of Divinity sits near the top of this list. As with its secular counterparts at Harvard, the School of Divinity features some of the greatest minds in the field.
Faculty and researchers at Harvard Divinity are interrogating Christianity to ask some of the most challenging questions of the past 100 years. We see evidence of this work in the achievements enjoyed by faculty members, such as Dean of the Divinity School David N. Hempton.
Following the tradition of scholars such as Diana Eck and Steven Pinker, Dr. Hempton delivered the 2021 Gifford Lectures. These lectures reflect Dr. Hempton’s research in the networks of spreading Christianity from the 16thcentury.
As impressive as these achievements may be, they do not distract from the central purpose of the M.Div. degree: to train the next generation of ministers and lay leaders. In fact, this academic emphasis provides greater theological grounding to the M.Div.’s practical approach.
Yale School of Divinity (New Haven, CT)
Only a program as impressive as the M.Div. degree at the Yale School of Divinity could equal its Ivy sisters Harvard and Princeton.
Like all the other schools on this list, Yale divinity offers an M.Div. degree that mixes practical practice with the theological inquiry. But this program stands above the others thanks to Yale’s incomparable resources.
Those resources begin with a faculty body that consists of the best and most respected theological thinkers currently working. But it also includes the school’s innovative research centers and think tanks.
One of the most important is the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. This research network strives to establish a new academic discipline focused on the intersection between religious belief and ecological studies, bridging the divide between God and nature.
With these resources at their disposal, M. Div. students at Yale Divinity develop their minds and bodies to do the good work of serving in the church.