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.