M.Div. curriculum refresh aims to meet the needs of future church leaders through streamlined learning.
Luther Seminary is updating the curriculum for its Master of Divinity degree to better meet the evolving needs of the church.
This curriculum refresh—which was approved unanimously by the seminary’s faculty and Board of Directors—will streamline the M.Div. program, making it more accessible and affordable for students while maintaining rigorous academic standards.
The biggest change is that the number of courses needed for an M.Div. degree will be reduced from 30 to 25, starting this fall. However, while students will be taking fewer courses, the new curriculum will have a more prescribed sequence of required classes. This means M.Div. students will take most of their courses in a certain order, with fewer electives.
The 25-course curriculum is designed to provide the robust preparation future church leaders need, while getting them out serving faith communities sooner. It does not include course credits for internship and clinical pastoral education (CPE), but ELCA students will still complete those requirements for the church with significant support from the seminary.
“These changes are intended to remove barriers for people who previously might have felt unable to explore a call to ministry, whether that be due to the time commitment, financial burden, or other constraints,” said Professor Rolf Jacobson, dean of the faculty. “By increasing the flexibility and affordability of a Luther Seminary degree, we hope to meet qualified candidates where they are and make it easier to answer the call to Christian leadership.”
The curricular changes are largely a result of deep listening in conversations with church leaders, assessing student learning in courses, and analyzing the success of the seminary’s recent MDivX experiment, an accelerated program that allowed students to obtain an M.Div. in two years. Additionally, the changes align with Luther Seminary’s 2022–25 strategic plan, Jacobson said.
Our strategic plan goal No. 2 is to make our degree programs more sustainable for every qualified applicant,” he said. “Then you have the years of assessment data, plus the learnings from MDivX, plus all of our other evaluation—all of that resulted in us reducing the M.Div. from 30 to 25 classes.”
The refreshed curriculum also closely aligns with Luther Seminary’s mission and vision, aiming to faithfully innovate to continue educating Christian leaders.
Three paths, learning together
Ultimately, the new curriculum will offer three pathways to an M.Div. degree.
The first two options will be available this fall. “There will be a traditional pathway, which will be two-and-half to three years of coursework and then an internship at the end,” Jacobson said. “We’ll also have a part-time pathway, for students who are continuing to work their current job full time. That’s probably five to six years.”
The third pathway, which will not launch until 2024, will be an accelerated option similar to MDivX. It will allow students to complete their M.Div. in two years by working at a part- time internship while taking classes year-round.
Another focus of the new curriculum will be cohort learning, which will facilitate a deeper sense of community among students as they pursue their degrees. Because the new curriculum has a more prescribed sequence of required courses, students will be in many of the same classes together.
“With cohorts, you’re going to end up in classes with familiar students, and anytime you have coherence among cohorts, that really helps with retention because you get to know your community. It builds community,” said Professor Lois Malcolm, chair of the faculty concerns committee.
Insights from MDivX
The power of cohorts and sequenced courses was a key learning that came from the MDivX experiment, said Jacobson, who also served as the director of MDivX. With a transformative gift from investor Dean Buntrock, MDivX enrolled its first cohort of students in June 2019 and graduated its final cohort this year.
As Jacobson worked on designing an accelerated program for MDivX, he examined other non-seminary graduate schools. He realized that many of them had students learning in cohorts on prescribed pathways.
“I saw that every other professional master’s degree—nurse practitioner, physician assistant, occupational therapist, physical therapist—every other one where you’re being trained for a specific profession goes year-round, and they work in cohorts, and they support each other,” Jacobson said. “So, we did not reinvent the wheel for MDivX—we learned from our partners in higher education.”
Yet, even though the cohort-focused, year-round model proved to be successful through MDivX, Jacobson said the faculty knows that not all students can commit to an
accelerated two-year program, and not all students want to learn that way. That’s a big reason why the new M.Div. curriculum will offer the choice of three paths.
“What we’re trying to do is, as much as possible, have that cohort experience without having only one pathway,” Jacobson said.
MDivX alumni have affirmed the effectiveness of an accelerated M.Div. program with cohorts.
“The cohort model gave me relationships that helped carry me through the work,” said Peter Benedict ’22 M.Div., who serves as a pastor at River Heights Vineyard Church in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.
“MDivX leaders and students walked me through simultaneous seminary and pandemic, helping me stay faithful to the program and to my congregation. The spiritual support provided through group spiritual direction and frequent cohort connections combined to give me what I needed to graduate and serve,” he said.
Carlos Cortez ’23 M.Div. said the program’s set sequence of courses helped him succeed. “The accelerated program allowed me to get into a good learning rhythm,” he said. “Knowing ahead of time the classes that I was going to take for the next two years also allowed me to prepare mentally.”
The curriculum changes will affect most of the seminary’s incoming students due to the popularity of the M.Div. program, which included more than 60% of the student body in 2022. Although some changes will go into effect this
fall, current students will have the choice to opt out of the new curriculum and finish their M.Div. as originally planned.
It is noteworthy that both the faculty and the Board unanimously supported the curriculum refresh, reflecting the seminary’s strong commitment to continue providing a rigorous education while adapting to the changing needs of the church.
“In the past, curricular reform has always been associated with blood, sweat, and tears—with drama, with faculty conflict,” Malcolm said. “But this particular curricular refresh went by very smoothly. The new curriculum is much more focused; it’s much more attentive to student needs and costs, and it’s really trying to have a nimble, agile education. I’m very happy with it.”
This refresh involves fewer changes than most of the seminary’s past curriculum reforms did. “We used to do huge curricular revisions every 20 years,” Jacobson said. “But since 2013, we’ve had essentially two small, what we call ‘refreshes’ rather than revisions.”
Jacobson and Malcolm both said the seminary community can expect more of these iterative refreshes in the years to come, as the faculty continues working to innovate and find the best ways to educate students and support the church.
“Seminaries cannot just keep doing what they’ve done in the past,” Malcolm said. “We really have to rethink how we’re doing things. This particular curriculum refresh is a move in the right direction because it’s asking the right questions, and it’s attempting to address the contemporary problems that the church is facing right now.”
M.A. Curriculum Refresh
A refreshed Master of Arts curriculum will also launch at Luther Seminary this fall, with a focus on increasing affordability and access while maintaining rigor in both the academic and professional degree programs.
The M.A. curriculum will offer seven concentrations in which the number of required courses will be reduced from 16 to 14, with three courses shared by all degrees, nine particular to each concentration, and two open electives.
- Systematic theology
- History of Christianity
- Justice and reconciliation
- Children, youth, and family
- Leadership in innovation and ministry
- Christian ministry
The M.A. in Lutheran Ministries has been redesigned specifically for ELCA deacons and chaplains, with 16 required courses in addition to non-credit clinical pastoral education and internship requirements.
M.A. students will choose between a full-time, two-year pathway and a part-time, three-year pathway. These options will give students more flexibility forcompleting their degree while remaining in their home community.