This is for all those moments when your valiant attempts at casual conversation dead-end in awkward silences, blank stares and the classic default reaction—the apathetic smile and nod. Sadly enough, not everyone is familiar with seminary degrees. Sure, people understand what an English major is—those are the readers, the writers and the future high school literature teachers. The business majors are the CEOs, and the biology majors are the doctors in training. But seminary opens a new can of worms. As if explaining your faith isn’t complicated enough, try explaining why you continue to rack up student loans and spend your weekends in the library learning a language nobody in your neck of the woods speaks. All this so you can pick the good hymns and organize a jr. high lock in? After all, isn’t that all seminary offers: a permit to preach and a license to chill with the cool kids?
“It’s not that people don’t care. It’s just that they don’t know what all seminary entails—at least that’s what I tell myself. Sometimes I feel like seminaries should have a disclaimer: ‘X’ Seminary, a school for curious sinners or ‘Y’ Seminary, producing more than pulpit perching preachers,” says Gary Lewis, a self proclaimed experienced explainer of a complicated Master’s in Biblical Exegesis and Linguistics. It’s not that he doesn’t like to talk about his studies—he does. Like any other graduate student, he takes great pride in his degree program. The irony of it all is that he studies words, explanations and interpretations, yet he struggles explaining just what it is he does.
Lewis is not alone. Every hour another seminarian falls by the wayside into a frustrating conversation of never-ending explanations.
If only you had a dollar for every time you heard, “You have a master’s in what?”
M.A. IN THEOLOGY
Neville Kiser is getting his Master’s in Theology. In other words, he’s getting a M.A.T. But this isn’t just any old M.A.T. This M.A.T. has an emphasis on Film/Arts and Theology. Does this make him a F.A.T. M.A.T.?
“My major lets me talk about two of my favorite things: movies and Jesus.” You are probably thinking: Big deal—I watch movies every Friday night and talk about Jesus every Sunday morning, and I don’t have a master’s degree. Yeah, but when’s the last time you talked about movies and Jesus in the classroom … without getting the death stare?
“My major is all about interpreting why we love sitting in the dark, watching a story fill us up with light,” Kiser says. Christian or not, people are intrigued with Kiser’s studies. It is easy to see how Kiser can relate to movie junkies and Jesus lovers.
JR Rozko also has a Master of Arts in Theology. Of course a M.A.T. isn’t entertaining on its own, so like Kiser, Rozko has an emphasis. His emphasis is in missiology of Western culture, which is a fancy way of saying he spent his nights in the library dissecting the broken church and crafting clever ways to fix it. According to Rozko, there were two types of people in his classes: the bookworms, those who planned to spend the rest of their lives reading, writing and teaching like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. And then there were those who were so fed up with the Church, they willingly shirked involvement for a few years as they tried to figure out what the heck was wrong with it, and maybe even themselves. Rozko was a member of the latter.
That could be TMI for the average passerby who asks, “Hey, what are you learning at seminary?” Is it not enough to say you are studying God? Perhaps that simple of an answer leads to another question: Will you ever graduate? How can you master God?
M.A. IN BIBLICAL COUSELING
The M.A.B.C. program provides a graduate-level, biblically and theologically focused education for people who desire to enter a Christian counseling practice. Upon completion, students are able to apply for professional counselor licensure. You probably already knew that, but unfortunately not everybody is up to speed with their spiritual acronyms.
Jillissa Cherepon was waiting tables at a steakhouse in Texas, when a Jewish business man from New York City asked what she did. She told him she was in seminary working on her M.A. in Biblical Counseling. Before she could finish her explanation, he set his knife down, scoffed to himself and then asked, “And just what exactly does that mean?” He said he’d never heard of such a field, and then said if such an idea ever made its way out to the east coast, it would go belly up. Maybe he didn’t get the memo that there are seminaries east of the Mississippi River.
“Seminary is not what you think,” Cherepon says. “I’m not studying to be a nun or a pastor. They have other degree programs too—Media Arts and Communication, Cross-Cultural ministries and so on. It’s becoming more diverse with both men and women, as well as appealing to the younger demographic.”
No, this isn’t a math formula. The Master of Divinity is the basic graduate degree in theological education. It prepares students for various forms of ministry in the church. It is usually the prerequisite for ordination into priesthood or pastorship.
For four years,Sunny Brown Farley worked on his M.Div. at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. Once a week for those four years, he would go visit his grandmother and tell her about his studies. Upon graduation, she gave him a card that read, “Congratulations on your confirmation.” Seriously. Farley, could not even explain his degree over a span of 208 conversations. He now has a new approach. Tell the people what they want to hear. For some reason, the misery of reality is entertaining.
“A seminary education is what you need in order to attain a low-paying job in which you work every weekend and most holidays while being on call every day in order to have very little respect and tremendous debt from student loans,” Farley says with a smile.
When Farley told his brother-in-law he was going to seminary to study theology, homiletics, ethics and pastoral care, his response was, “Oh, you’re going to Bible school.” Confirmation or Bible school. Take your pick.
Kyle Roberson was sorting out old books to sell back to a local bookstore. His wife, Joy, saw multiple Bible-topic books in the give away stack and asked, “Why are we getting rid of these?” He replied, “I spent six years in seminary and got a Master’s in Divinity, and your parents still send me Quick facts about the Bible and Bible Stories 101 for my birthday.” Some things just never change.
MASTER OF THEOLOGICAL STUDIES
It’s all about the letters: M.T.S.
“The problem is that the degree is defined by the person, not really the institution,” says David Parks, who holds his M.T.S. from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
“Adding these three letters before or after your name gives you the ‘right’ to be arrogant, intellectual, anti-intellectual, humble, right and often wrong,” Parks explains.
Do these letters mean that people like Parks know Jesus more? Probably not. “Some Christians are often anti-intellectual and think these letters mean I do not love Jesus,” Parks says. “Far too often I was encouraged not to get these letters because I would lose my faith.” For Parks, his M.T.S. gives him permission to read, think and question. It’s also proof that he may know a thing or two about the historical movements and theologians of the Church.
“If I were telling a child about my Master’s in Theology, I would probably resort to buying them ice cream and avoiding the question altogether. If I had to try, I would probably simply tell them that I like to think about God a lot. I like to read books, and I like to live in La-La Land quite often, too.”
Meet James Abernathy. He is starting an M.T.S. at Vanderbilt’s Divinity School. He was just accepted and has already experienced the agony of explanation. “When I tell people I am going to graduate school to study theology, they automatically assume I am going to become a monk or an itinerant evangelical preacher. Vanderbilt is nonsectarian, and I hope to prepare myself for nonprofit management or a career in ecumenical ministry.”
How do you correct people without embarrassing or offending them, or worse—coming across as a pompous know-it-all?
The motion has been made to add Explaining Your Degree 101 to all theological curriculum. The class will define degrees in layman’s terms and equip students with adequate responses to the supposedly simple questions in life. Is there a second?