Guide to College Majors in Theology

My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.
--Albert Einstein

What Is Theology?

A major in theology involves gaining a deeper understanding of one particular religion, generally in the pursuit of being a leader within the religious community. A religious degree can follow one of two paths - the purely academic path (see religious studies) or the parochial, theological path that leads to a career in the clergy. This degree gives you some perspective of how your religion fits in with the rest of the world - now, in the past, and in the future.

Religious systems - such as Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam - provide significant influence in the lives of millions, and have played a fundamental role in the creation of communities and countries. Religions around the world seek to provide answers to the big questions about human existence and one's role in life; to provide strength and guidance for an individual, and to unite communities in shared beliefs and rituals which are passed down through the generations.

Each religion may have separate denominations with unique traditions and responsibilities assigned to its clergy. For example, Christianity has more than 70 denominations, while Judaism has four major branches, as well as groups within each branch, with diverse customs.

As a clergy member, your role is as a religious and spiritual leader, and as teacher and interpreter of your traditions and faith. You'll organize and lead regular religious services and officiate at special ceremonies, including confirmations, weddings, and funerals. You may lead worshipers in prayer, administer the sacraments, deliver sermons, and read from sacred texts such as the Bible, Torah, or Koran. Clergy visit the sick or bereaved to provide comfort, and counsel those seeking religious or moral guidance or who are troubled by personal problems. You may also work to expand the membership in the congregation and solicit donations to support religious activities and facilities.

As a religious leader you must display confidence and motivation, while remaining tolerant and able to listen to the needs of others. You should be capable of making difficult decisions, work well under pressure, and live up to the moral standards set by your faith and community.

Individuals considering a career in the clergy should realize they are choosing not only a career but also a way of life. Typically, you may work irregular hours and put in longer than average work days.

Degree Programs in Theology

A theology major is designed to provide graduates with a comprehensive understanding of how religion plays both a personal and a cultural role in the world. More than ever, individuals pursuing education for future religious work see themselves as agents of social change who want to make a significant difference in their world.

Educational requirements for entry into the clergy vary greatly. A Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts, religion, or theology may be required for future clergy members as preparation for graduate programs. A religious background is not required to begin studies in religion. About three out of four clergy members have completed a bachelor's degree program and many denominations require a master's degree in religious studies or theological study. Some denominations ordain students with various types of training from religious institutions colleges or liberal arts colleges. Consult your religious leaders to verify specific entrance requirements.

Most candidates for the Catholic priesthood have a four-year degree from an accredited college or university. They then earn either the Master of Divinity or the Master of Arts degree and attend theological seminaries or theologates. Many priests do graduate work in fields unrelated to theology. The Catholic Church stresses the benefits of continuing education for ordained priests in the social sciences, such as sociology and psychology.

Associate Degrees in Theology

Students have a wide variety of programs to choose from when looking at a college degree in religion. For example, an Associate of Arts in Religion gives Christian students a Biblical and academic foundation for effective ministry which can lead to careers as missionaries, youth pastors, laymen, evangelists, and pastors.

Bachelor's Degrees in Theology

A Bachelor of Science in Religion can further prepare you for a wide range of church ministry positions and foreign missionary careers, as well as advanced studies at the graduate or seminary level. Students can examine the variety of religious expressions within the Christian tradition, as well as Christianity's relationship to modern society.

Your courses may look at ancient or original texts of religious writings, with the expectation, in some cases, that you are fluent in the language, such as ancient Greek, Latin, or Hebrew. If you decide to pursue a formal clergy career, your studies at the bachelor's level can focus more on courses that round out your knowledge base, such as English, history, classics, arts, and philosophy. Further specialized knowledge, such as the work done at seminary school, will give you the training needed to teach, counsel, and preach according to your faith.

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What Can I Do With a College Major in Theology?

Members of the clergy can perform many roles in their communities. Teaching used to be done primarily through the church until a move in the 19th century to separate church from public, state-based education. Parochial or religion-based school systems, as well as extracurricular programs for children and adults, are still the domain of the clergy and church educators. Some larger congregations now have directors of religious education to deliver these programs. In 2002, almost 20% of full-time clergy worked 60 or more hours a week - over three times more than workers in professional occupations.

Leaders in the religious community can take on many different roles. The presence and significance of these roles vary with each of the three main branches of worship in North America.

The pastor (the word means 'good shepherd') serves as a counselor. In this role, you are expected to listen to the troubles of your parishioner and guide that individual in an unselfish, compassionate, confidential, non-judgmental, way consistent with the policies of your faith. As a priest or minister, you act as a go-between, connecting the laypeople with God. You maintain the sacredness of objects, rituals, and words. This role is responsible for delivering the messages intended to move the congregation closer to God. The role of prophet involves acting as a social commentator, analyzing the environment through clerical teachings and suggesting ways to change individual and group behavior to promote spiritual and community improvements.

Catholic Priests

Priests in the Catholic Church may be categorized as either diocesan or religious. The differences lie in their way of life, type of work, and the Church authority to which they are responsible. Diocesan priests generally work in parishes, schools, or other Catholic institutions as assigned by their bishop. Religious priests belong to a religious order, such as the Jesuits, Dominicans, or Franciscans. They take a vow of poverty and may become missionaries in developing countries. Other religious priests live a communal life in monasteries, where they devote their lives to prayer, study, and assigned work.

Both religious and diocesan priests hold teaching and administrative posts in Catholic seminaries, colleges and universities, and high schools. According to the Official Catholic Directory, there were approximately 45,000 priests in the US in 2002; about 30,000 were diocesan priests.

Men exclusively are ordained as Catholic priests, while women may serve in other non-ordained church positions. Preparation for the priesthood generally requires eight years of study beyond high school, usually including a college degree followed by four or more years of theology study at a seminary.

Due in many cases to longstanding behavioral strictures, the shortage of Roman Catholic priests is expected to continue, resulting in a very favorable job outlook through the year 2012. Seminary enrollments remain below the levels needed to overcome the current shortfall of priests. In response to the shortage, permanent deacons and teams of clergy and laity increasingly perform traditional functions within the Church such as baptisms, marriages, funerals, and religious teaching.

Salaries of diocesan priests vary. According to a survey of the National Federation of Priests' Council, low-end salaries averaged $15,291 per year in 2002; high-end salaries averaged $18,478 per year. In addition to a salary, diocesan priests receive benefits that may include a car allowance, room and board in the parish rectory, health insurance, and a retirement plan.

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Protestant Ministers

Protestant ministers lead congregations in worship and administer the various rites of their churches, such as baptism, confirmation, and Holy Communion and officiate at other occasions. The five largest Protestant bodies are Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian.

Ministers who serve large congregations may share specific aspects of the ministry with one or more associates or assistants, such as a minister of education or a minister of music. Some small churches employ part-time ministers who are seminary students, retired ministers, or holders of secular jobs. Protestant denominational theological schools only admit students who have received a bachelor's degree or its equivalent from an accredited college. After college, many denominations require a three-year course of professional study in an accredited school or seminary for the Master of Divinity degree.

Competition is keen for positions serving large, urban congregations. Ministers willing to work part-time or for small, rural congregations may have better entry opportunities. Newly ordained Protestant ministers who are unable to find parish positions can work in youth counseling, family relations, and social welfare organizations; teach in religious educational institutions; or serve as chaplains in the Armed Forces, hospitals, universities, and correctional institutions.

Salaries of Protestant clergy vary substantially, depending on experience, denomination, size and wealth of the congregation, and geographic location. Some denominations tie a minister's pay to the average pay of the congregation or the community, so salaries will be significantly higher in larger, wealthier congregations.

Rabbis

Rabbis preserve the substance of Jewish religious worship within Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated Jewish congregations.

The format of the worship service and, therefore, the ritual that the rabbi uses may vary even among congregations belonging to the same branch of Judaism. The role of the rabbi differs from other clergy because of the absence of a formal religious hierarchy in Judaism. They spend more time in collaborating with a board of trustees of their congregation, in administrative duties, and working with their staffs and committees.

Large congregations frequently have associate or assistant rabbis, who can serve as educational directors. Rabbis play a role in community relations such as serving on committees, alongside business and civic leaders, writing for religious and lay publications, working with social service or Jewish community agencies, and teaching in theological seminaries, colleges, and universities.

Ordination usually requires completion of a college degree followed by a four- to six-year program at a Jewish seminary in order to become eligible for ordination as a rabbi. Entrance requirements and the curriculum depend upon the branch of Judaism with which the seminary is associated. Most seminaries require applicants to be college graduates.

Newly ordained rabbis usually begin as spiritual leaders of small congregations, assistants to experienced rabbis, directors of Hillel Foundations on college campuses, teachers in educational institutions, or chaplains in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Rapidly expanding membership is expected to create employment opportunities for Reconstructionist rabbis. Conservative and Reform rabbis should have the most job opportunities serving congregations or in other settings because of the large size of these two branches of Judaism.

In addition to their annual salary, benefits for rabbis may include housing, health insurance, and retirement plans. Income varies widely, depending on the size and financial status of the congregation, as well as denominational branch and geographic location. Rabbis may earn additional income from officiating at ceremonies such as bar or bat mitzvahs and weddings.

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Certification, Licensure and Professional Associations

In the case of clergy, ordination through one's religious institution serves as certification. The ordination process, which varies by religion and denomination, separates the clergy from the layperson and enables them to officially provide religious services and lead congregations.

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