Masters in Religious Studies programs discuss the nature of religious belief and specific religious systems, thought, and practices. Students could look for an academic program in which to immerse themselves in the study of a certain faith community and their behavior. Or, focus their studies in a more professional direction and work to gain skills and insight into the activities of the ministry. A Master in Religious Studies could therefore be a unique degree that might appeal to the scholar and spiritually-minded individual.
written by Rana Waxman
Master's in Religious Studies programs could introduce students to an interdisciplinary and dynamic curriculum. Religious studies courses often draw content from the humanities and social sciences, and may include the study of one or more world religions. Often presented in seminar-style format, students might engage in reflective and analytic thought and conversation.
The types of courses one takes are often linked to a specific program focus. General religious studies courses could span elements of politics, sociology, psychology, philosophy and anthropology. Some examples are listed below.i
Most Masters in Religious Studies programs also allow students to shape their studies around personal goals and interests. However, some students might prefer to focus exclusively, and the following are some common areas of emphasis.
Essentially, if the above gets you to reflect that there are different paths to take, great. It is important to factor in personal and professional goals, and, learn some of the distinct qualities of the main Masters Degrees in Religious Studies.
When surveyed, 67% of Clergy reported they had earned a Master's degree.ii
Three of the major Masters in Religious Studies degrees are the (1) Master of Arts (MA), (2) Master of Divinity (MDiv), and (3) Master of Theology (THM). The way a university or seminary school presents these programs could vary. Also, each type of degree has basic differences in requirements and courses.
A Master of Divinity (MDiv) is a ‘professional’ Masters degree and primarily planned-out for those who want to pursue a ministry career.iii The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the body that accredits most seminaries in the US, defines the MDiv as a program that prepares “persons for ordained ministry and for general pastoral and religious leadership responsibilities in congregations and other settings.”iii Some students who enter the pastorate might stop with the MDIV, but it could also serve as a platform to a Doctor of Divinity program.
Most MDiv programs require at least three academic years of full-time study or the equivalent and could require between 70 and 100 credit hours. Aside from the academic required courses, students may study independently or through directed research to complete a capstone. Another requirement of a MDiv is a period of intense and supervised practice, which might enable students to gain some hands-on experience in the tasks of ministerial leadership.
Admission to a Master of Divinity could require students to have a Bachelors degree, minimum GPA, and personal and pastoral references. Applicants are often asked for a ministry statement of purpose, and usually need to show they are currently active in a ministry.
Master of Divinity program curriculum is often planned around four themes: (1) foundational courses, (2) praxis courses, (3) spiritual formation, and (4) electives. Actual course topics could vary between universities though, so read through program descriptions.
Foundational courses could help learners understand Christian religious heritage, cultural realities of the ministry, and the Bible as the Christian Scripture.
Praxis courses are those topics that might enable students to grasp the ins and outs of pastoral leadership, Christian worship, and congregational spiritual formation.
Courses in personal and spiritual formation aim to help create the opportunity for students to grow in “personal faith, emotional maturity, moral integrity and public witness” iii
A Master of Arts (MA) in Religious Studies degree programs may have a specific ministry or academic focus. Either path may require applicants to have a bachelors degree (or its equivalent) from a regionally accredited college or university. Refer to schools for more details.
Professional MA in Religious Studies may be organized in three broad areas of emphasis: (1) Religious Educational Leadership, (2) Specific Ministry, (3) Pastoral Studies. iii Broadly, religious education leadership could include programs in Christian Education. Specific ministry programs could include areas such as youth or senior ministry, counseling, social or ethnic ministries. Pastoral Studies typically focus on congregational/parish ministry or service with a general or specific focus.
Academic MA in Religious Studies programs are, by comparison, intended to help students explore the phenomenon of religion as well as religious traditions from around the world.
These programs might help students prepare for further graduate study or enhance other studies such as law, business or education. Students often have some freedom to choose the religious traditions they want to study more deeply – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism.
An MA in Religious Studies might take a full-time student up to two academic years to complete. Students might be required to complete between 30 and 60 credit hours. To complete their degree, students may be required to write a thesis, revise a major term paper as a publishable journal article, complete a special research project, or pass comprehensive exams.
Courses for a Master of Arts in Religious Studies often encourage breadth of knowledge though core courses and depth of knowledge through an area of emphasis (track). Some students may also apply credit hours to independent research for a thesis.
Areas of emphasis for an academic MA in Religious Studies could be distinct in each university so read below as examples.
Biblical Studies: A focus on Biblical Studies might immerse students in the study of texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the evolution of Christianity in the British Isles, or the role of the body in biblical religion. Topics of study might span introductory coursework on Judaism, Christianity, and/or Islam. Students might study to gain multiple points of view through courses from other university departments (e.g Anthropology, Art and Art History) as they focus on original texts.
World Religions: A focus on World Religions could enable students to learn about each of the world’s major religious traditions, as well as engage in the study of comparative religions. A comparative religion master's degree may enable students to expand their mindset through coursework abroad if offered by the university selected.
Sacred Texts: A focus in Sacred Texts might include studies of the texts of one specific religious tradition such as the Hebrew Bible, Christian Testament, Qu’ran etc. Or, students might opt for a comparative approach. It may be necessary for students to first acquire competency in the language(s) of the texts, so interested students may need to plan. That said, it could be a great way to hone language skills in Biblical Hebrew, Sanskrit or classical Chinese as you read ancient literary works.
Critical Theory and Religion: A focus in critical theory and religion could help students refine their grasp of theories of religion from a range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Courses might cover both the original discourses of "critical theory" as developed by the Frankfurt School and the "new critical theory," which focuses on such topics as race, class, gender, ethnicity, and globalization. Study to learn about political theology, Nietzsche, moral psychology and more.
Religion and International Studies: A focus in Religion and International Studies might include direct international experience though a study-abroad, as well as a chance to improve language fluency. Coursework might highlight the role of religion in the interplay of different religions and cultures within a global context. Specific attention may be given to certain regions such as the Americas, Asia, or the Middle East and students may need to take an extra course in one religious tradition beyond their core. Study to learn about native religions, religion in film, modern Hinduism or another dynamic topic.
Philosophy of Religion: A focus in the Philosophy of Religion might delve into the study of one or more philosophers from each of the two historical periods: ancient and modern (Plato to Kant), late modern, and postmodern (Hegel to the present). Study to learn about great thinkers such as Maimonides, Freud, Derrida or take a course in culture, psyche and religion.
Lived Religions: A focus in Lived Religions may require students to take courses in the historical, social, and cultural forms and practices of the world’s various religions. This might also include new, indigenous, or African religions. Coursework could discuss things such as ritual, pilgrimage, morality and more.
A Master of Theology (ThM) is often a one-year academic degree taken after a student has completed a three-year Master of Divinity program. It may involve about 30 credits, which often focus greatly on language studies such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Arabic and Aramaic.
The ATS considers a Master's degree in Theology the minimum required education to teach Bible or theology at an accredited Bible college. It may also serve other three other functions: (1) preparation for PhD in Theology, (2) enhance ministerial practice through scholarly study, and (3) provide disciplined reflection on a certain function in ministry.iii Students might therefore take classes in topics such as biblical and religious studies, ministry duties and divinity.
A Master of Theological Studies (MTS) is a graduate degree that may provide a holistic academic program for non-MDiv students who want to broaden their grasp of theology and focus more deeply in a theological discipline. Theological studies is essentially concerned with a critical study into the nature of the divine. A MTS program may therefore be taught as a scholarly (academic) discipline in universities, seminaries, and schools of divinity.
In some universities, applicants to a MTS program may need a completed Bachelor's degree in Theology or a related area. Some tracks within a Master of Theological Studies may require students to have a functional knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. Refer to individual schools for more details.
Master of Theology programs usually require students to complete two years of full-time study or its equivalent to earn the degree. A Masters thesis might consist of an individual research project, which could allow a student to investigate a topic of their choice. Coursework could cover four core disciplines of literary, historical, systematic and practical theology. Students might take classes in Greek and Hebrew, as well as the philosophy of religion.
In addition, students might need to choose an area of emphasis to help anchor their research.
History of Church and Theology: A focus on the History of Church might discuss Canon Law, the Roman Catholic Church, orthodoxy and heterodoxy throughout the ages.
Biblical Exegesis: A focus in Biblical Exegesis could cover the relationship between the Hebrew language, cultural cognition and the historical context of the ancient Near East as they relate to the Old Testament. Students might also study themes and central texts of the New Testament.
Practical Theology: A focus in Practical Theology could cover pastoral theology and the study and practice of mission in past and present.
Systematic Theology: A focus in Systematic Theology might discuss diverse concepts of faith in various cultural contexts as well as theological ethics.
Whether you are drawn to a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Religious Studies, or Master of Theology, some programs offer a choice in format. Online Master's in Religious Studies might help you work towards your degree from wherever you are, and on your own schedule. Campus programs, are of course, interactive and you could filter for schools in a preferred city, state or country. Either way, choose a program that could enrich your life and fulfill your academic aims. Easily compare paid programs in the category of your choice, then contact the schools right away through the on-page form!
[i] nces.ed.gov/ipeds/cipcode/cipdetail.aspx?y=55&cipid=88458 | | [ii] onetonline.org/link/summary/21-2011.00 | [iii] ats.edu/uploads/accrediting/documents/degree-program-standards.pdf |