Master of Arts Program Updates Offer Flexibility for Theological Education
by By Kelly O'Hara Dyer, Correspondent
With the start of the 2017-2018 school year, Luther Seminary has introduced a newly revised program for its master of arts (M.A.) degrees, designed to better serve students and provide more flexibility for theological education.
Changes include a shorter time frame to graduation, which could allow students to complete a degree in as little as a year; a tightened focus on classwork that provides multiple opportunities for future vocations, and a new push to make M.A. degrees more readily available through the seminary’s distributed learning (DL) program.
Craig Koester, academic dean and Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, says the changes have been made after extensive study and time spent listening to current and past M.A. students about how to best meet their needs.
“Our M.A. programs are designed to serve people with various kinds of vocational interests,” Koester says. “The largest portion are people who are looking at some kind of congregational ministry, but not as ordained pastors. They don’t see themselves preaching and leading worship in the traditional way, but they do want theological training to help them in various kinds of ministry. We also have some students who are on an academic M.A. track. They may not see themselves going into a congregational setting, but they do have an interest in theology. They may see themselves going in the direction of teaching or working in a nonprofit, and the academic track serves them better.”
Koester says making changes to the M.A. program advances two key goals for students in that it makes it easier to gain a degree more quickly, and, in turn, helps students save money.
“We’re aware that theological education is an investment of both time and money,” Koester says. “We want to be sensitive to giving students the most substantive education that we can, while also helping students complete the program more quickly.”
The new changes accommodate both students who intend to attend school full time, as well as those who are seeking a part-time option.
“Our M.A.s have been a two-year degree, and we previously required 18 or 20 semester-length credits for graduation,” Koester says. “Now it’s down to 16 for all M.A. programs. If somebody wanted to go full time over a full-year period, they could get through the program in that time. But for people who are already working adults, it’s very easy to adapt to a part-time schedule so they can continue their jobs, and that also works very well.”
Under the redesign, the seminary now offers three professional M.A. tracks, where students can pursue degrees in Children, Youth and Family; Leadership and Innovation for Ministry; or Christian Ministry.
“Children, Youth and Family ministry has been one of our most widely subscribed M.A. tracks,” Koester says. “The program was shortened a little bit, but otherwise it remains pretty much as it’s been. The second was formerly called Congregational Mission and Leadership, and it was designed for helping congregations focus on ‘What is your mission?’ But not everyone sees a traditional congregational setting as the focus of their ministry, so we’ve redesigned it and now call it ‘Leadership and Innovation for Ministry.’ We hear over and over again about the challenges people face in serving in various contexts where change is an ongoing reality, and this newly redesigned concentration really places emphasis on that innovative aspect. ‘What does the church look like in the next generation? And how does one lead through change in a community of any sort, whether you’re talking about a traditional congregation or something else?’”
The third track, formerly called Congregational and Community Care, is now simply Christian Ministry.
“People used to talk about this as ‘pastoral care,’ anything from working with people in a care center, families in crisis, marriage counseling, chemical dependency and so on,” Koester says. “We find people now want to go into Christian service but they may not be entirely sure what that will look like. The new focus provides a useful place for people to explore different dimensions of ministry, where it might lead to work with the chemically dependent or community outreach in a congregation. Or people might have a special passion for working with the elderly, and you can do all those things under that category of Christian Ministry. This also serves people well who come from a broader ecumenical group, because not all churches require a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) to become a pastor. For denominations or nondenominational groups that don’t expect a M.Div., this helps them. And the M.A. is also a very important degree program for our international students, who are often already involved in ministry in their home country.”
In addition to the three professional M.A. tracks, the seminary also has made changes to the academic track, where students can now choose concentrations spanning subjects including the Bible, History of Christianity, Justice and Reconciliation, and Systematic Theology. There also is an affiliated track for Studies in Lutheran Ministries, as well as a non-affiliated track in the same field.
“Most of our academic track M.A. students are headed toward Christian service,” Koester says. “The academic side became a way for people who might have a deep interest in one of the disciplines such as biblical studies or Christian history or theology to pursue that. We formerly had a whole variety of tracks that people could choose from, but it seemed people needed something that was simple in design and gave them the flexibility they needed to make it work. We streamlined that track as well, and it’s now just 16 credits. If they want to do Bible, that’s great and they can specialize in Old Testament, or New Testament if they wish. Or if we get people from nondenominational backgrounds who say, ‘I’m already involved in ministry, I just need to know the Bible more,’ they can sign up for that, and we’ll provide a good grounding in biblical studies that will serve them well.”
Another change to the seminary’s M.A. offerings is an increased focus on providing degrees through the seminary’s DL model, where students can take some or all of their classes online, with in-person intensive classes held regularly at the seminary.
“The DL program was initially designed for our M.Div. program. It’s a combination where students take some online courses and some courses as one-week intensives on campus,” Koester says. “That’s a very effective means of teaching, but we had never been as intentional in doing that for our M.A. students. We decided that M.A. students would really benefit from the same combination of online and intensive courses, and we really want to let people know that. The academic M.A. track is something that can even be done completely online,” Koester adds.
Viewed as a whole, Koester says the changes made to the seminary’s M.A. programs are designed to simplify them, increase their flexibility and make it even easier for students to pursue additional theological education.
“As we’re looking at the emerging trends within the churches and church life, and cultural trends as well, we
realize that it’s not a one-size-fits-all world,” he says. “Our M.A. degrees now have a lot of flexibility to them, where people can get theological training that could take them in any number of directions.”