North Park University encourages seminary students to pursue dual degrees
CHICAGO -- When Steve Hoden was making a career change, from high school science teacher to pastor for the Evangelical Covenant Church, he chose a seminary not only for its denominational affiliation but also for the training it could give him in business.
Hoden graduated in 2011 from North Park University with both a master’s in divinity and a master’s in nonprofit administration. Before long, he found himself as both pastor and sole employee at a church in Hector, Minn., a small town -- population 1,100 -- an hour's drive west of Minneapolis.
“In bigger churches there’s a lot more professionalizing of staff,” Hoden said. “Here it’s just me. I get to do everything."
Dual degrees for seminary students aren’t entirely new. For decades, some seminaries and their nearby or affiliated colleges have graduated students with masters’ degrees in both divinity and social work. The combination of a master’s degree in divinity with a master’s in business administration is newer, but growing, says Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, an accrediting body.
In the past five years, programs that combine master’s degrees in divinity with business credentials have sprung up, Aleshire says. He sees two reasons: leadership studies have become more common as an academic field, and Christian ministry has expanded beyond the church into nonprofit organizations and social entrepreneurship -- start-up businesses that try to serve a larger good.
But many joint business and divinity programs are intended for students who want to work for religious nonprofits, or for Christian students studying for professional degrees -- like business or law -- who want some theological background.
Seattle Pacific University’s School of Theology offers an M.B.A., but recommends it for students who want to “serve in the marketplace as a Christian grounded in the Scriptures and theology” or be a business manager for a church or religious nonprofit. Palmer Theological Seminary and Eastern University offer an M.B.A. for seminary students who want to work with the poor. Duke University has an option for students to pursue a seminary credential and a law degree.
In most cases, “they’re going to be using it in the broader ministries, where the work of the church and the broader culture intersect and the alternative to the divinity degree is an asset,” Aleshire says.
North Park, an evangelical college on the north side of Chicago, believes its seminary to be the first to encourage students who want to become pastors to study business.
The college is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, founded by Lutheran immigrants in the late 19th century; it’s a small denomination of Christianity, with fewer than 200,000 adherents in the United States. Although its seminary is the only one for Evangelical Covenant ministers in the United States, and also trains students from other Protestant denominations, just 41 students graduated this spring.
College administrators argue that for many church leaders, an academic background in business background is very helpful.
“You may really be leading a church and planning a budget and other financial matters,” said Kirsten Burdick, the seminary’s director of admissions. At a small church like Hoden’s, pastors are sometimes the only administrator in the building. At a larger church, a big staff and complicated finances can make training in accounting and management helpful.
Traditionally, much of that experience was learned on the job, Burdick said. But alumni have found their training is attractive to churches: “To have that ministry experience and training, but also to have the business-mindedness is really significant,” Burdick said.
Students can pursue a master’s in business administration or a master’s in nonprofit administration in conjunction with a master of divinity, a master of arts in Christian formation or a master of arts in Christian ministry.
The program’s enrollment has been small so far -- last year, six students graduated with dual degrees in ministry and business. But the seminary recently changed the curriculum for the dual degree, adding two classes intended to help students explore how the business principles they’re learning work with theological and Biblical topics. Beginning this fall, dual degree students will take two classes intended to integrate the two fields of study: one course on issues in leadership and ministry, and one on Biblical and theological principles in business.
Whether the dual degrees will catch on at more seminaries is unclear. One obstacle, Aleshire says, is that most require an additional year, or even two, of study to finish the M.B.A.. Given that the master’s of divinity is already a time-consuming, and often expensive, degree -- most programs are three years -- many students might balk at spending even more time in graduate study.
“I think it’s a smaller boutique area,” he said.
Not all parts of a business and ministry degree fit together seamlessly, Hoden said. Marketing skills are useful, but are different in a church context than for other businesses, for example. Still, he said he recommends the program to prospective students.
“There’s a lot more than just being a pastor on a Sunday morning,” he said. “So much of my job now is administrative.”