Anyone who finds religion fascinating and who cares about the subject can pursue an academic degree in this area.
Enthusiastic disciples of either a well-known world religion such as Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Taoism or an arcane regional faith such as Santería often seek greater understanding of their beliefs, traditions and rituals. Some desire clarity about how their personal religious doctrines and customs compare to those of others. Devout individuals, whose major life decisions are guided by theology, frequently wish to gain divine enlightenment through exposure to inspiring preachers and a zealous search for guidance on how to be godly.
Meanwhile, secular individuals could feel curious about the doctrines and behaviors of religious people who are different from themselves, or they may want to investigate how religion influences society.
The study of religion at the collegiate or graduate level can be approached from an academic perspective, a faith-based point of view or a combination of the two.
“People think that you have to be religious to major in religious studies and that is so completely not true,” explains Jeanne Kilde, director of the religious studies program at the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts. “Most of our students, in fact, have very little religious background.”
How Divinity, Ministry and Theology Compare to Religious Studies
Individuals with religion-related advanced degrees say there is a clear and important distinction between the closely related academic disciplines of divinity, ministry and theology — each of which presumes some kind of religious conviction — and the field of religious studies, which neither assumes nor requires pious intent.
“For me as a religious studies scholar, I look at what religious people are doing and saying,” Vivian Asimos, a researcher with a Ph.D. degree in religious studies from Durham University in the United Kingdom, wrote in an email. “Whether their religious beliefs are ‘right’ or not isn’t really important to me — that doesn’t change what they’re doing and saying. So that’s what I focus on.”
Asimos, the main director of the academic website Alt-ac.uk and founder of the educational website IncidentalMythology.com, adds: “We tend to borrow from sociology and anthropology, but you can also see traces of history, literature, and other disciplines as well.”
In contrast, degrees in divinity, ministry or theology are often aimed at current or future preachers, missionaries and theologians who intend to provide spiritual instruction to others. M.A. and Ph.D. degrees relating to religion, such as those focusing on religious philosophies, generally involve assessing faith traditions from a neutral point of view, which does not favor one perspective over another.
According to the American Academy of Religion, a nonsectarian scholarly society focused on academic analysis and public understanding of religion, degrees relating to divinity, ministry or theology are usually professional degrees aimed at preparing someone for a religious vocation.
Religiously Affiliated Colleges vs. Theological Seminaries vs. Divinity Schools
Anyone who intends to study religion in college, graduate school or both should understand that many types of academic institutions provide this type of education. College hopefuls may want to attend a religiously affiliated undergraduate institution that reflects their values and upbringing. For evangelical Protestant Christians, that may mean looking at Bible colleges, whereas Catholics may wish to attend one of the world’s numerous Catholic universities.
Meanwhile, at the graduate level, prospective students may elect to attend a theological seminary associated with a specific faith, such as Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts, the Institute of Buddhist Studies in California or The Islamic Seminary of America in Texas. Alternatively, they can attend a university-affiliated school, like Harvard Divinity School in Massachusetts, that educates future faith leaders and trains objective scholars who provide insight into religious cultures.
Deepak Sarma, professor of Indian religions and philosophy at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, says someone who is religiously and academically oriented can benefit from attending a divinity school connected to a large university.
“You become part of a much larger kind of intellectual world, whereas if you were at a seminary, it’s really independent of any university at all, and it’s a very different sort of thing,” says Sarma, who earned a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Anyone enrolling at a pluralist divinity school should go in expecting to hear opinions from classmates and professors with divergent religious beliefs, Sarma says. “You have to be open to being exposed to lots of different religions and speaking on behalf of your own,” says Sarma, who identifies as Hindu American. “You have to become the spokesperson for your religion.”
There are challenges associated with being within a religious minority at a divinity school, and it can feel “isolating” at times, Sarma says. Yet he notes that he learned valuable lessons from peers and teachers whose backgrounds differed from his.
What a Career as a Religious Leader Is Like
Compensation varies widely within faith-related occupations, depending on the size of the congregation or organization where someone is based and the pay patterns within the religious denomination, according to experts. It is possible to combine a religious job with a secular one, which is common in remote areas where houses of worship tend to have a small number of congregants, experts say.
“It is also fairly common in church-planting roles, where a stable congregation or funding source does not yet exist,” Jaimie Eckert, a Seventh-day Adventist Church ministry leader, wrote in an email.
“In recent decades, faith organizations around the world have taken inspiration from the Apostle Paul, who engaged in bivocational ministry as a tentmaker and an evangelist. In some denominations, these bivocational ministers are called ‘tentmakers’ because they combine a traditional blue or white collar job with religious work — sometimes 50/50, or sometimes working five days per week and dedicating the weekend to ministry. Tentmaker ministry is sometimes a permanent career choice and sometimes a transitional one.”
How to Become a Faith Leader and Why
The standard training regimen for potential faith leaders depends on the religious group, though generally there must be some formal education in religion such as a theology degree, experts explain. The following steps are usually mandatory for a religious career.
Pursue higher education in religion.
“Religious education methods vary according to faith traditions and denominations or sects within each tradition,” explains Eckert, who is pursuing a doctorate in missiology, which is the study of missionary techniques and practices. “Within the Christian tradition, for example, the Catholic and Orthodox branches tend to emphasize Christian history and the writings of the Church Fathers; mainline Protestant traditions emphasize the Biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew) and Biblical exegesis; Evangelical or Charismatic traditions may emphasize pragmatic Christian witness, such as evangelism, deliverance ministries, community development, and the acts of the Holy Spirit.”
Eckert, who provides spiritual counseling through her website Scrupulosity.com, notes that the Seventh-day Adventist educational system in which she was trained tends to combine doctrinal lessons with hands-on service projects and jobs, many of which require manual labor.
“This educational system granted me two benefits: first of all, my body and brain were taxed equally throughout my academic years, helping me to avoid mental burnout,” she says. “Secondly, as a graduate I had an immense pragmatic edge over students from other universities. An educational system that combined theory with practice meant that I could enter upon a ministry role in any context– in the US or abroad — and be prepared to serve my community in any way needed. If necessary, I could grow food; I could cook and serve meals; I could write and edit fundraising newsletters; I could handle basic medical care; and I could preach the Word.”
Assess your reasons for joining the clergy and your character.
A generous disposition is necessary for a career as a religious leader, experts say.
“An individual who is interested in choosing the rabbinate must first and foremost be interested not in himself but in others,” Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky, who has a Ph.D. in social welfare and serves as dean of undergraduate Torah studies at Yeshiva University in New York City, explained in an email. “He should view his role as one who cares for the underprivileged and who can inspire others to greatness. A rabbi should exude kindness and overall be and act as a role model and mensch,” which is a person of honor and integrity.
Eckert emphasizes that cleverness and eloquence are not sufficient to make someone an excellent religious leader.
“Many people feel that the ability to exegete religious texts and preach a good homily is the qualifying feature of a religious worker,” she says. “However, many hiring entities are most interested in high-quality interpersonal skills — not only for interactions with parishioners, but also for the extended ministry team. Running a religious organization is similar to running a nonprofit — the team needs to be motivated through the heart, not through the pocketbook.”
She adds that arrogance and callousness are disqualifying traits for someone who intends to work at a religious organization.
“Most people who have been in ministry for any length of time — even those working in smaller houses of worship in contrast to larger ministry organizations — have nightmare stories they can tell about narcissistic, type-A leaders who can preach well but wreak havoc on every interpersonal relationship in the organization,” she says. “It is hard to weed these characters out of the lineup of resumes because they tend to present very impressive qualifications, are self-confident, and speak well. But the narcissistic type of faith leader is the worst possible fit for his role because of how he harms so many others who are trying to be a positive force for good in the world.”
Kindness, patience and emotional intelligence, Eckert emphasizes, are must-have qualities for religious leaders.
Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.
More from U.S. News
A Guide to Seminaries, Divinity Schools, Theology and Religious Studies originally appeared on usnews.com