Do I need a Master of Theology (Th.M.)?

One of the more common questions I run into as a Th.M. program director is, “Do I need a Th.M.?” That’s an understandable question. Before you spend that much time and money on a degree, you should be convinced that you really need one. And, I probably answered that question a dozen times this past summer. So, I thought I’d do my best to answer it here. Here’s my answer….No.

I realize that’s probably a surprising answer from someone who runs a Th.M. program, but the simple fact is that whether you are headed toward a doctoral program, local church ministry, or something else, I’m not aware of any Christian vocation that absolutely requires a Th.M. In virtually every sphere of life, the Th.M. is optional. So, do you need a Th.M.? Probably not. It used to be the case that many Ph.D. program required that M.Div. students get a Th.M. as an academic upgrade to their largely ministerial degree before beginning their doctoral work. That is generally not the case anymore.

But, if you don’t actually need a Th.M., why would you bother getting one? Ah, now that’s a different question. Whether you should proceed with a Th.M. is not so much a question of whether you need a Th.M., but whether you need a Th.M. The job that you’re headed toward may not require a Th.M., but there are a variety of situations in which a Th.M. can be of tremendous value anyway. Here are several reasons that you may want to pursue a Th.M. even though it’s not absolutely required.

  • Filling gaps in your training. Let’s face it, unless you are a truly unique individual, you probably did not have time to pursue everything that you needed to in your Master’s degree. There’s a good chance that you prepared really well in some areas and less well in others. Even if you intend to specialize in one area of biblical/theological studies, a Th.M. provides you the opportunity to develop some of your secondary interests and fill some gaps in your preparation. Some of our Th.M. students come in with only the basics in Greek, Hebrew, systematic theology, or church history. These students use the Th.M. to fill these holes in their training.
  • Broadening your training. Other students were able to lay a good foundation in all the biblical disciplines during their undergrad and graduate programs, but still feel the need for greater breadth in their preparation. I entered my Th.M. at least partially because I wasn’t ready yet for the kind of specialization that would be required in a doctoral program. Specifically, although I intended to focus my Ph.D. in systematic and historical theology, my Th.M. allowed me to spend considerable time on Hebrew and OT studies. These were areas that I did not develop adequately in my Master’s training, and I wanted a broad foundation that included significant time in all of these disciplines. Others are interested in using the Th.M. to prepare for local church ministry, seeing the Th.M. as an opportunity to broaden their biblical/theological training further than they were able in their Master’s programs.
  • Determining your specialization. One of the more common reasons for pursuing a Th.M. is that you want to continue on to a doctoral program, but you don’t yet know the specific specialization that you want to pursue. You may be interested in both systematic theology and church history, both NT and OT, or both the Gospels and the Pauline literature. Without a little more focus, it can become difficult (if not impossible) to select to right doctoral program for you. The Th.M. gives you a little more time to pursue various interests so that you can  make the right decision about what you want to focus on in your doctoral program. As a matter of fact, it was during my Th.M. that I was finally able to settle on systematic theology as the focus of my doctoral program rather than historical theology or NT studies. So, the Th.M. proved very helpful for me in this area.
  • Developing your specialization. Other students know what they want to specialize in during their Ph.D. program, but aren’t yet qualified to pursue that specialization at the doctoral level. If you fell in love with Greek during your Master’s program, but didn’t have enough electives to develop sufficiently in this discipline, the Th.M. allows you the time to lay a solid foundation for succeeding in your doctoral program.
  • Developing more teaching areas. Many schools are looking for people who can teach in more than one discipline. If you only have a specialization in Old Testament Law and its ancient near-eastern parallels, you may find it somewhat more challenging to find a teaching position than the person who is qualified to teach introductory classes in a couple of different disciplines. A Th.M. lets you develop some of those secondary teaching areas that can be very attractive to administrators.
  • Deepening your biblical/theological foundations for effective ministry. This is actually somewhat akin to “broadening your training,” but I wanted to make it more explicit that the Th.M. can be a great degree for ministry preparation. It’s not just a pre-Ph.D. degree. As Mark Stevens helpfully pointed out, the Th.M. can help add depth to your preaching/teaching ministry and give you a chance to develop (further) your understanding of pastoral theology. Around half of our Th.M. students use the degree to prepare for a doctoral program. The rest are in the program to deepen their preparation for effective ministry.
  • Setting you up for future success. All of these really add up to the same thing. Although the Th.M. is not absolutely required for anything, there are a variety of situations in which a Th.M. can be very helpful in setting you up for future success in your doctoral program or ministry setting.

So, as I often tell students, the Th.M. is the one degree program that no one actually needs. (That’s why they don’t let me work on marketing material.) But, the Th.M. can be very valuable for a lot of people in quite a few different circumstances. Whether you fit in any of those categories is something that you need to work out.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on September 6, 2010, in Th.M. Program and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Marc you answered this question extremely well. As a ThM student myself I would argue that every point you have raised as outcomes of the ThM has been my experience. As a minister it has certainly deepened my ministry.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks. I thought maybe I should have said even a little more about why I think the Th.M. is such a great degree for people preparing for ministry. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people seem to have the impression that it’s just a pre-PhD program.

  2. Marc and Mark,

    To avoid the confusion 😉 . . . Mark, I just read your bio at your site, and I find it interesting in re. to this post. Looking for a point of clarification from either Marc or Mark; my understanding was that an MTh (Mark’s program) is not parallel to the “American” ThM. In other words, I’m thinking in terms of prerequisites. In America, typically, the ThM is reserved for those who have finished, usually, the MDiv (or an equivalent degree, which I appreciate Western for, since you guys allow us MA guys to get right into the ThM vs. Multnomah which requires an MDiv or maybe two relevant MA’s [which then, what’s the point]). What I’m wondering about, as I read Mark’s bio, is how the European/Aussie MTh is really equivalent; since it looks like Mark’s previous study was actually a “Bachelors” degree (in the American system). To say that the Aussie BMin is equal to an undergrad version of the American MDiv doesn’t really make sense to me; since one is an undergrad degree and the other is a grad degree. To be consistent with this logic, I’m surmising, I could say that my BA degree in Bible/Theology is likewise equivalent to an MDiv which would make my MA superfluous . . . in other words, to follow the order of degrees as presented by Mark’s framing (or the Aussie framework), I could’ve skipped straight from my BA degree to a ThM degree. In short, it seems like the Aussie “ordo of degree makes the MTh equal to an American MA degree and not the actual ThM — which is different.

    Does any of my OCD on this make sense, Marc? Let me do it like this:

    Aussie order:

    1) BMin (undergrad) — > MTh (grad, 1st degree)

    American order:

    2) BA [Bible/Theology/Ministry] (undergrad) — > MA/MDiv (grad, 1st degree) — > ThM (grad, 2nd degree)

    Often to me, educational frameworks and degree programming, relative to particular countries, seem really arbitrary. What should be measured, or determinitive, is in fact the actual apptitude and “knowledge” set per each student’s personal qualifications (I’m thinking in terms of moving on to PhD work). In other words, if a student is able, and motivated, why not just move them on to a PhD program; avoiding some of the “in-between” degrees (Princeton actually allows for this, although I doubt many folks with Bachelors degrees actually are qualified to move right into the PhD). I’m rambling a bit now, but I’ve thought quite a bit about this; I don’t think “degrees” always capture what they are intended to symbolize . . . yet they are “required” for entry, usually, into professional education (maybe I’m just bitter 😉 ) .

  3. Bobby, I’m not sure I can really comment on this from the American perspective but from my own understanding of the Aussie system all I can say is until recently we never had MDiv degrees.

    It is quite common for ministers to undertake their first degree as a BMin or BTh where as, as I understand it, most Ministers in the states have a generic undergrad degree. Is this correct? And then they undertake a professional post grad degree in Ministry (MDiv).

    In my circumstance my BMin was my first undergrad degree. It took me three years to complete. My MTh is a two year full time degree which i could choose between a certain amount of coursework and certain amount of thesis work. For me I chose half and half.

    Now to make matters even more confusing the first year of my Mth is actually a Graduate Diploma Theology so technically my pathway is this

    BMin – Grad Dip – MTh

    Confused yet?

    In Australia I could not go from a Bmin to a Phd. I would have to have an MTh with a thesis. Therefore I don’t have a choice. I’m not sure at this stage that I want t Phd – I might opt for a good solid DMin…but I get a lot of eye rolls when I say that!

  4. Mark,

    Thanks. I would say that most Bachelor degrees (undergrad) in the states have two components to them; there is the “generic” as you note (which often is taken as an “AA” degree or “Associate of Arts” — “General Ed.” stuff). But then there is the “ungeneric” aspect to a Bachelors degree, which is fulfilled by acquiring either a major or minor[s] in particular fields (like engineering, teaching, under-water basket weaving ;-), Bible/Theology, etc. etc.). My BA degree was even more specific than many Bachelors degrees, since built into my degree, by default, you end up basically “double-majoring” in Bible-Theology; and then you can do another major (like in Pastoral ministry, Intercultural studies, etc.) or minor (like I did) in NT Greek, or some other area. In short, then, the undergrad degree in America is not generic (if indeed it is the full 4yr Bachelors degree).

    Moving onto seminary (grad) then. Where I went, it is typical for a student, who does an MA track, to do two more years; the first year, like the Aussie or UK track earns that student a “grad certificate” (or your Grad Dip) [at least this is how it was/is done at my alma mater, Multnomah]; the second year (if that student does the MA in Biblical Studies that I did) requires further completion of course work with the writing and defense of a thesis. So, to me, then, as I look at the equivalency, the Aussie MTh = the American MA (those that require a thesis) and not the American ThM. I’m not trying to marginalize what you’re doing; but I think there is probably some equivocation between what Marc is describing, and what you’re working on in regards to your MTh (which again would be an American MA degree).

    Yes Piled higher and Deeper 😉 .

  5. i did a th m because it was a useful degree beyond the simple mdiv, which i felt was not specialized enough. in doing a th m i was able to focus my attention entirely on a topic which then, and now, interested me immensely- the old testament in the new.

    it also allowed me time to consider doctoral options. it was then – during that period – that my perception that the process of higher education was more and more becoming corrupt. which is why i then pursued a non-traditional doctoral route.

    so for me, the th m was a valuable interim between mdiv and th d. if i had to do it over again i wouldnt change a single thing about the path i chose.

  6. I do wonder if some people are in too much of a hurry to get to PHD work…

  7. Bobby, it’s actually even a little more complicated than that (international comparisons usually are). Since the ThM was originally intended to provide the academic training that was (and often still is) largely lacking in an MDiv, the ThM is still somewhat parallel to the MTh. They’re both relatively short academic degrees. But, of course, so is the MA in the US. In many ways, then, all three are in the same category. The only real difference is that the ThM can assume that students have had some graduate-level biblical/theological training already, and can build on that foundation (and it often requires a longer thesis).

    Jim, I completely agree. Although I’m sure I could have gone on to a PhD program and done all right, I would not have done it any differently. My ThM gave me the chance to explore a much broader range of interests, and I think I got a lot more accomplished in my doctoral program because of it. And, because of my Th.M., I’ve been able to teach classes in Greek and Church History that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Since I like to work in different fields, that’s been very good for me.

    Mark, definitely. I regularly counsel people to focus more on what they need really to flourish in a PhD and set themselves up for a lifetime of success, rather than just focusing on what is necessary to get into a PhD. But, of course, the realities of life and money sometimes stipulate a path that we might not otherwise choose.

  8. Marc,

    Thank you! Yes, comparison is very hard; I would imagine even amongst American programs — i.e. one ThM or Masters degree can be so different from the other (given the particular school’s “culture,” faculty, expectations, etc.); which really was my point on the rather “arbitrary” nature of degree programs (which is why it makes sense that particular schools like Fuller, Princeton, etc might require that a prospective PhD candidate might need to do another MA at their school [or ThM] before entrance).

    • You’re absolutely right. Not all doctoral programs do this, but it’s not uncommon and I think that’s exactly why they do it.

  9. what you all are describing is exactly what I am looking for and why I am interested in a ThM program such as the one at Western Sem.

    Also I like how some programs mention how the ThM can be a good degree to shore up a DMin making for a great combo and one that really can open up opportunities for those who get those two (three) degrees: MDiv, ThM, DMin –

    Marc with this degree combo would it be fair to suggest if teaching is a goal that with the ThM the DMin grad cold still teach a Bible course now and again and not just always practical ministry courses such as preaching and such – so given a good relationship with the dean of a given school if one wanted to teach on the book of Jeremiah, the ThM would allow that?

    • Hey, I’m glad to hear that this sounds like what you’re looking for.

      With regard to your last question, if you were already connected to a school, the ThM would probably to teach an occasional Bible/theology class. I generally don’t recommend that people rely on the ThM alone for securing teaching opportunities, but once you’ve already developed a relationship with a school, the ThM can help open doors into other avenues of teaching.

      My bigger concern here would be with the idea of getting a Dmin in preparation for a teaching career. Most schools prefer the PhD from their core faculty. Dmin grads are more likely to be be ministry professionals who adjunct with schools or people who begin teaching after a number of years in ministry. If your plan is to go directly from your doctoral program into full-time teaching, the Dmin is probably not your best route. Of course, that’s unfortunate since Dmin programs tend to be more accessible from a distance, which I know is important to you.

  10. Well said, I am one of those who personally needed a Th.M. to realize my goals. It is a great degree program and I have no regrets in my decision to go into it!

  11. Thanks for the reply mark – I can see what you are saying – and was mainly basing it of what I have seen – one prof I know of at an AG school has the ThM/DMin combo and teaches both practical courses and Bible/theology courses, so I thought the flexibility was cool to see. But I agree completely that in prep for teaching certainly one needs to go the PhD route and can easily do the Ma/MDiv to PhD and bypass the ThM (which has typically been a terminal degree for pastors/ministers, not scholars per se. Thanks again.

  12. Hi I was wondering if you could give me some advice. I am debating between a thm and an ma. My hope is to eventually enter a phd or thd program. But I am unsure which would be a better preparatory degree. I currently have an mts. Thanks for your help.

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