Mastering the Master’s Degree: Which Theological Master’s Degree is Right for Me?

Aug 20, 2019

Dr. Matthew Kuhner

One of my favorite things about being Academic Dean at a small theological graduate school is meeting with new students for the first time. Almost without fail, matriculating into a graduate degree program in theology is an important step not only in their professional lives, but in their spiritual journey as well. Much more than a business decision, their matriculation is the result of a profound discernment – a grappling with grace and nature in an effort to detect and follow the impulses of the Holy Spirit that draw the person into greater communion with God. These initial conversations usually linger in this powerful atmosphere of spiritual depth and profundity of thought. That is, until I bring up that rather pesky and less profound question: “So, which Master’s degree are you interested in?” Suddenly the conversation is plunged into secondary details, seemingly losing the forest for the trees. Often students do not know that St. Bernard’s offers more than one Master’s degree program, and the reasons for offering multiple degrees aren’t clear at first blush. After all, what are those reasons, and why are these differences an important part of a student’s discernment?

Whenever I find myself in a conversation with a student about this question, I make it clear that the differences between our degree programs are not simply the result of academic ‘insider baseball’ and accreditation principles that are inscrutable for the average person. Rather, I suggest that the differences among our degree programs are already implicit in the paths that students discern: often the differences between our degrees are already outlined in their mind and in their heart, by way of their intentions for studying theology in the first place!

The question that gets to the heart of matter is this: why do you wish to study theology at the graduate level? Ideally, the first answer to this question is, generally speaking, to know and to love God and his Church more deeply. May all theological schools, especially St. Bernard’s, always be a place where knowledge and love of God and his Church are fostered and enkindled! Second, however, there are the concrete circumstances of life that contextualize this desire for knowledge and love. These circumstances can vary immensely! Perhaps the student is studying in order to better equip them for a ministerial role, either as a lay ecclesial minister or a permanent deacon. Or perhaps the student is studying in order to receive general education and formation in their faith, irrespective of a particular application through paid or volunteer ministry. Or perhaps the student is looking to continue their graduate study of theology through a Ph.D. program or other terminal degree.

The different Master’s degrees in theology that we offer are built to accommodate these circumstances – and so many others! There is a distinction that can help explain how this is so: there are professional Master’s degrees and academic Master’s degrees. I often joke that these titles can be misleading: to be sure, the professional Master’s degree is also academic, and the academic Master’s degree is also quite professional! But there is a helpful ordering principle at work here:

  • A professional Master’s degree is typically ordered towards a professional role (volunteer or paid!) in ministry, whether this be in terms of parish leadership, catechetical leadership, social ministry leadership, or other particular areas. This degree equips the student with a broad-based theological formation while also attending to the specific formation and skills necessary to be an effective minister. At St. Bernard’s, the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS) and the Master of Divinity (MDiv) degrees are both professional degrees. A quick glance at the course requirements for these degrees will bear witness to the fact that these degrees include intensive theological and intensive ministerial/pastoral formation and preparation.
  • An academic Master’s degree is typically ordered towards a more complete theological formation in a theological discipline for the purposes of general education, further study, or teaching excellence. This degree provides the student with a broader and deeper education in theological studies, often specifying a particular field of interest or area of study. At St. Bernard’s, the Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) is an academic degree. The course requirements illustrate the type of theological depth that can be achieved through this degree! Our MATS features four areas of possible concentration: biblical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, and pastoral theology. Clearly, this depth of theological engagement is not only fitting for those looking to go on for further graduate study: catechists and teachers would benefit greatly from this degree as well.

Ultimately, these differences between degree programs in theology reinforce the truth about theological study in general: it is a particular call from God that requires deep discernment involving life’s circumstances and, most importantly, the unique mission that God has given to you. We take this vision very seriously at St. Bernard’s, and each member of our administration, faculty, and staff is committed to assisting the discernment of anyone considering a Master’s degree in theology. We are thankful for the excellence of our theological and ministerial formation across each and every degree program. The question remains, then: to which one are you called?

If you would like to learn more, or if you would like to have a conversation about where the Lord is calling you in terms of knowledge of him through theological study, we would be thrilled to speak with you! To begin such a conversation, feel free to contact Matthew Brown.

May the Lord lead us all into deeper communion with him through knowledge and love!

Dr. Matthew Kuhner is Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, NY. Dr. Kuhner earned his Masters in Theological Studies at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, DC and completed his Ph.D. in systematic theology at Ave Maria University in southwest Florida. Dr. Kuhner’s academic work has appeared in Harvard Theological Review, Nova et Vetera, Angelicum, the Journal of Theological Studies, Pro Ecclesia, and the Journal of Jesuit Studies, and his areas of research interest include Christology and the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Dr. Kuhner deeply loves teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and his favorite classes are Theology of the Body: Sexuality and the Sacred, and Faith, Fiction, and Film: The Drama of Belief. Dr. Kuhner is married to his college sweetheart, Michelle, and they have the joy of sharing their lives with their three-year-old daughter, Catherine Grace.