References from religious leaders are one part of the admissions process. Each learning institution offering an M.Div. has specific admission requirements. For some schools, they ask for at least one reference from a pastor or denominational leader. Also, you need to submit two references from academia or a professional. The graduate program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, stipulates these three references.
Similarly, Duke Divinity School, founded in 1926, is one of 13 seminaries supported by the United Methodist Church. Their program attracts students from around the world, all of whom must supply three letters of recommendation with your online application. The letters must be one from someone who knows you in academia, such as a professor, one from a church leader, and one personal reference addressing your character. The latter can be from someone in academia or the church.
Interestingly, the different master’s programs at Duke vary slightly in the recommendation requirements. The Master of Arts in Christian Practice has the same three application requirements as the M.Div. In comparison, the Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) requires two academic and one personal reference. The same applies to the Master of Theology (Th.M.).
The two examples above emphasize the need to plan for the inevitable requirement for letters of recommendation. Acceptance into a divinity program goes beyond stellar grades, GPA, charitable activities, and devout Christian morals. Admissions for divinity programs use the letters to provide insight into your character. They are a substitute for the opportunity to display your personality in a face-to-face meeting, such as a job interview.
It would help if you started thinking about possible sources for references no later than your junior years. These relationships with college/university advisors and professors may begin during year one. Therefore, how well you relate to these professionals will set the stage for a future recommendation. Professors who perceive you as argumentative or undisciplined as a student might be unwilling to write a recommendation letter.
The Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in La Mirada, California, offers various religion-oriented Master of Arts degrees, including a Master of Divinity in six concentrations. One of these is in Messianic Jewish Studies for those who have experience in ministry. The coursework prepares graduates for positions as a Messianic rabbi, pastor, missionary, and congregational leader.
In addition to GPA scores, transcripts, and education, Talbot requires two references: one pastoral and a character reference from someone in a leadership role.
The recurrence of needing letters of recommendation or references reinforces the necessity to be judicious in your selections. For character references, someone in a position of prestige, such as a military officer, physician, lawyer, or business executive, could be influential. Family members do not qualify. Friends and acquaintances, regardless of how long they’ve known you are not good choices. Therefore, if you aspire to enter an M.Div. program, the choices you make for reference sources may decide acceptance or rejection.
Another recurring theme is the recommendation letter from someone in the church or pastoral leadership. Again, this is one of the four references required by the Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and Florida. Undoubtedly, you will need to become involved in church activities over time to develop a rapport with any of the leaders. Attending weekly services will not be sufficient for the minister, rabbi, or priest to assess your character and create mutual respect. You may have to devote more hours to establishing this relationship than the academic or character references, and waiting until your junior year might be too late.
Those searching for M.Div. will find select schools that are silent on the recommendation letters’ need. Grand Canyon Theological Seminary states that all applicants to the College of Theology must agree (by signature) to their:
- Doctrinal and Ethical Positions Statements
- Dispositional and Behavioral Standards
Is religion different?
Apply for a graduate school of business, for example, a Master of Science in Finance. The school may ask for your GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) or GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) scores and undergraduate transcripts. An interview via Skype or similar means might be needed. However, there is less focus on letters of recommendation, particularly testament to one’s character and religious experiences. In most other graduate degrees, the result expands your knowledge and skills for a specific job, profession, or occupation. Ministry is a vocation (from the Latin vocare, meaning to call – hence, the religious life is a calling. It is a commitment to serve God. And a passion for spreading the word of God. In this endeavor, you are an advisor, counselor, therapist, listener, and consoler for all who seek your services. These are some of the reasons why divinity programs want assurance that your life exemplifies devotion to the calling.