Why Is the D.Min. So Popular?

by Jackson W. Carroll

Dr. Carroll is director of research and professor of religion and society at Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Connecticut.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 3-10, 1988, p. 106. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The D. Min. is a kind of rite of passage for clergy as they move into their midcareers. Over and over again we heard from ministers that the D. Min. gave them a new sense of their efficacy and enhanced their confidence and sense of self-worth.

When the ATS authorized the awarding of the D. Min. in 1970, schools could offer both the "in-sequence" D.Min., awarded as a first seminary degree after four years of study, and the ‘in-ministry" degree, based on a continuing education program for clergy already in ministry. Many assumed that the former type would become the rule, and that the latter was merely an interim measure to give clergy with B.D. or M.Div. degrees the opportunity to secure the doctorate. However, the opposite proved to be the case; the in-sequence D.Min. did not become popular but the in-ministry degree did, and in a large way.

Why the popularity of the in-ministry D.Min.? What does its popularity say about the dynamics and issues of ordained ministry? There are some quick answers to these questions. Certainly the initial success of the degree was partly due to the broader continuing-education movement that gained momentum in the early 1970s among the professions in general. Without doubt the success of the D.Min. also reflects the importance Americans attach to credentials. Some cynics believe, too, that the D.Min. has provided one way in which clergy can try to bolster their status and enhance their careers.

But there are deeper reasons as well, reasons more directly related to the circumstances of ordained ministry. I want to explore some of those reasons that are suggested by a recent national study of the D.Min. which I undertook with Barbara G. Wheeler (A Study of Doctor of Ministry Programs [Hartford Seminary, 19871) Data came from the schools themselves (faculty, D.Min. program directors, presidents and deans) , from samples of D.Min. graduates and current students, and for comparative purposes, from a sample of non-D.Min. clergy in six denominations. We also conducted on-site case studies of selected D.Min. programs. For various reasons, we excluded from consideration specialized programs in pastoral counseling. Our interest was in who D.Min. participants are, why clergy are attracted to D.Min. programs, and what effect the programs have on participants.

One might argue that the D.Min’s popularity is restricted to a particular segment of the clergy. The data suggest that, especially in its early years, the D.Min. appealed primarily to white, male, mostly mainline Protestants in midcareer, whose congregations were slightly better educated than those of non-D.Min. clergy.

However, this profile appears to be changing. More clergywomen with the requisite ministry experience and an increasing number of Roman Catholics are entering programs (especially women religious and lay professionals) ; the number of blacks enrolled has grown slightly; and clergy from evangelical denominations are enrolling in much larger numbers, partly as a result of the growth in D.Min. programs at evangelical seminaries.

Second, the D.Min., as a professional degree, provides a way of gaining new knowledge and skills for the practice of ministry. Clergy in general recognize the need for knowledge and skills that they either did not or could not gain in their first-degree theological education.

External supports are a third aspect influencing entry into D. Min. programs. These supports include congregational and denominational expectations for continuing education, which seem to be slightly stronger in the case of those who study for the D.Min. than for other clergy: Further -- though we are not entirely certain whether these are causes or effects of seeking a D . Min. -- a bit more time and financial support are available for continuing education for those pursuing the D.Min. than for other clergy.

Thus, the degree attracts clergy who are looking for a structured program that will allow them to grow in the practice of ministry, and whose denominational and ministry settings support such an endeavor.

What about the anticipation of enhanced status or upward mobility by virtue of having a doctorate? We would be wrong if we did not say that our data reveal these to be aspects of the decision to enter D. Min. studies. And the data also show that these hopes are not entirely in vain. However, status-enhancement and aspirations for upward mobility are not the primary or decisive motives of most D. Min. students.

Further clues to the attractiveness of the D.Min. can be found in some of the effects of the programs. Here, in most instances, we must refer to perceived effects, either by seminary personnel or by participants themselves, rather than to measures of actual effects.

The results of receiving a D.Min. are mostly regarded as positive. Perhaps the chief negative effect is the difficulty students encounter in balancing the time demands of studies with those of ministry. The positive effects most regularly mentioned in interviews and questionnaires refer to participants’ raised morale and self-esteem, increased enthusiasm about ordained ministry, and renewed commitment to their current jobs. Over and over again we heard from ministers that the D.Min. gave them a new sense of their efficacy and enhanced their confidence and sense of self-worth. Morale-building is obviously not a sufficient justification for a doctoral program, but it is undeniably important both for D.Min. graduates and for students during their years of enrollment.

D.Min. participation also has salutary effects in increasing participants’ professional competence. Respondents report increased abilities in the practice of ministry, especially in organizational leadership. Programs that emphasize particular content or a specific method -- case-study, organizational development or church growth, for example -- seem particularly strong in their impact on professional competence. Such programs expose students to areas of theory and method that are difficult if not impossible to teach at the M. Div. level. While some of these programs are too narrowly focused to qualify as being at the doctoral level, they do contribute to participants’ sense of professional competence.

D. Min. graduates also report that the programs have improved their capacity for critical theological thinking, another dimension of professional competence. However, faculty, while not discounting the possibility of this type of growth in their students, are less inclined to believe that it occurs -- perhaps because their standards are somewhat higher. Our reading of a large number of D.Min. projects leads us to agree with the faculty; the level of critical theological reflection in many of these projects is not high.

Generally, however, graduates do demonstrate growth in professional competence. Whether they do so sufficiently well to reflect the "advanced level of competence" called for in accreditation standards is debatable. For example, faculty members surveyed believe that, on the average, more than four out of ten D.Min. students in their schools do not achieve an advanced level of competence. Given the importance of this admittedly vague objective in accreditation standards, we believe that this admission by faculty members is a matter of considerable concern, and we have addressed this issue elsewhere in our research report. Nevertheless, it still seems to be the case that the degree’s benefit outweighs its problems.

Besides leading to improved morale and professional competence, D.Min. graduates are more likely than other ministers to have made a recent job move and to be serving somewhat larger churches in larger communities with more highly educated members. Furthermore, they reach a higher salary level than that of comparable non-D.Min. clergy. Thus our findings show that the D.Min. has rewards other than educational ones or heightened morale.

Has the success of the D.Min. been something of a historical accident then? I think not. Rather, the degree at its best offers clergy an educational experience not possible in the M. Div. program as it is now conceived. Unless the M. Div. were to be extended to a substantially longer program than its current three years, with something analogous to a residency of several years and with settings that function as practice ministry locales (analogous to medical residency in a teaching hospital) -- neither of which development is likely -- then clergy need something like the in-ministry D.Min.

The in-ministry D.Min., coming as it frequently does as one approaches midcareer, provides a significant oc

casion for disciplined research and reflection on the experience that one has gained in ministry. In such research and reflection, many of the foundations laid in earlier educational experiences can take on new depth and significance. Additionally, the D.Min. provides an occasion for clergy to address issues of ministry that they could not have addressed realistically during their previous schooling because of the absence of firsthand experience.

As I noted, underlying the popularity of the D. Min. is the structure and discipline its preparation offers. My colleagues and I have come to view that structure and discipline as a kind of rite of passage for clergy as they move into their midcareers. Rites of passage arise around various transition points in the life cycle that, if unaddressed, may lead to crises for individuals and the group of which they are a part. Birth, puberty, marriage and death, for example, have all given rise to rites of passage that function to integrate both individuals and groups. It does not stretch the point too much to say that clergy experience a transition point in their careers that calls for a rite to prepare them for a new career stage. And completing an advanced degree, almost irrespective of what the student learns, seems to be a test of clergy identity and a bridge to renewal and recommitment.

Does the D.Min. ‘s considerable popularity and success mean that its educational programs have no problems? This is not our conclusion. In the full report, we raise a number of concerns. For example, the identity of the degree as a professional doctorate is in considerable need of clarification, and its somewhat unclear identity may seriously affect its future. We are also concerned that the program has not fulfilled its considerable potential to generate significant research on the practice of ministry. Addressing these issues is critical to the future of the degree.

But the appeal of the D.Min., for which we have tried to account, is considerable, and we acknowledge and applaud its contributions to ordained ministry.