Guidelines for assessing equivalency to the Master of Divinity Degree -- by Al Henager

20 Sep 2017 8:49 PM | Perry Miller, Editor (Administrator)

The College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy has always recognized the need for flexibility in our certifying process including educational requirements for our certification categories.  The standard for Board Certified Clinical Chaplain, certified Pastoral Counselor, and all Diplomates is that each candidate is to hold a Master of Divinity, or equivalent, from an accredited seminary or theological school.  In addition, over time, considerable confusion and debate has emerged as to just what M.Div. “equivalency” means. For a long time a common standard did not exist to guide assessment of equivalency, much less an equitable and consistent application of assessment. Therefore, CPSP has established a task force to help set guidelines and procedures for assessing determining equivalency of the M.Div. degree. 

After much research and deliberation, we on the Equivalency Committee have decided to propose two sets of guidelines for evaluating M.Div. equivalency.  The first would be for those from Western faith traditions who have something other than an M.Div. that might be considered equivalent to the M.Div.  The second would be for non-Western traditions that emphasize a “mentored transmission” of the learning and formation needed to achieve the level of competency within those traditions to act independently as ministers of their traditions in public ministry (as opposed to private devotion).  I will discuss both of these sets of guidelines in turn, and later we will post the proposed guideline documents for review and discussion from the CPSP community.

Regarding  Western faith traditions, I will discuss what we mean by that term, what we mean by M.Div. equivalent, what the proposed basic evaluation guidelines are, and how these guidelines would be applied.  I will then briefly describe the process for evaluating “equivalent” or “commensurate” theological training for those in “mentored” faith traditions, most of which are of Eastern origin.  Last, I will address why it is imperative that continue to require some type of theological education for those seeking board certification. 

By “Western” religious traditions, we mean those from such faith group as most Christian and many Jewish traditions.  Most of these traditions recognize the Master of Divinity as the definitive course of academic training for their ministers.  While some may not require the M.Div. for ordination, even most of those faith groups still tend to regard the M.Div. as the desired or preferred level of academic achievement.  The Master of Divinity degree is the “gold standard” by which academic preparation and education for ministry is measured in the broader Western religious world. It is also the standard required for certification by the other pastoral care cognate groups.

Given that, what does “M.Div. equivalent” really mean?  That question has been a source of much confusing on the part of chapters and candidates seeking certification.  I have spoken to one chapter convener who insists that any master’s degree from an accredited institution of higher learning is what is required and nothing else.  By that meaning, if a person has a Master of Science in engineering from a CHEA accredited university, then that serves as the equivalent.  Another convener advocates that the M.Div. equivalency means a person has earned a D.Min., Ph.D., or Th.D., but never took the M.Div. along the way.  For another perspective, as I was serving as the outside consultant to one chapter’s certification committee, a candidate for BCCC was adamant that he had the equivalent of the M.Div. because he served as an associate pastor to “Bro. ____” for ten years and that he had read a slew of religious books are articles.

Others have objected to the word “equivalent” itself.  I tend to agree with that objection.  After all, one Master of Divinity from a certain school really is not “equivalent” to a Master of Divinity degree from a different school or seminary, even if both institutions are CHEA accredited.  Therefore, how can an educational experience that does not earn the M.Div. itself be in reality “equivalent” to the M.Div.?  I actually prefer the term “commensurate” with the M.Div., or even the term “comparable.”  However, “equivalent” seems to be the standard operative term used by most all of the pastoral/spiritual cognate groups.  The main consideration, though, at this time, is that the current set of CPSP standards read “equivalent.” Therefore, unless and until we change the standards, our committee is forced to stay with the term “equivalent” or “equivalency.”

Bear in mind that an equivalency of a Master of Divinity is a serious, graduate level status supported by graduate level education that the committee can evaluate as being on the par with the graduate M.Div. degree.  Sunday school classes, lay training events, continuing education credits, undergraduate courses, and the like do not count toward the equivalency.  Only graduate level work will be considered, as the M.Div. is a graduate level degree.

So, how do we determine what educational experience is equivalent to the Master of Divinity degree?  The Equivalency Committee has answered that question in this way:  In the case of those from Western faith traditions, “equivalent” to the M.Div. means:

  1. A master’s degree, other than the M.Div., from accredited college or university in religious, theological, or spiritual studies consisting of 72 semester-hours minimum. OR
  2. A master’s degree, other than an M.Div., from accredited college or university in religious, theological or spiritual studies consisting of less than 72 semester-hours minimum, but with additional graduate theological semester-hours that bring the total to a minimum of 72 semester hours. OR
  3. A minimum of 72 graduate theological semester credits or 108 quarter credits, in religious, theological, or spiritual studies from an accredited college or university.

In light of that, how do we evaluate if a candidate’s educational experience is “equivalent” to the M.Div.?  Well, as we keep in mind in any of the three cases above, we would evaluate M.Div. equivalency based on the specific criteria.  Therefore, the 72 semester hours of graduate theological work should include the following:

  1.  Twenty-four (24) graduate semester credits in theological, religious, or spiritual studies (with certain categorical requirements spelled out further in the guidelines).
  2. Twenty-four (24) graduate semester credits in chaplaincy, religious or spiritual care, counseling, and/or practice (again with specific categorical requirements further defined).
  3. The additional twenty-four (24) graduate semester credits may be from any area listed in 1. or 2. above or any accredited graduate level study or degree program appropriate to chaplaincy or supervisory clinical pastoral education (e.g., education, counseling, etc.)

The committee for equivalency had developed a work chart for evaluating a candidate’s courses according to the above guidelines. The candidate needs to assume the responsibility to use his or her transcripts and complete the work chart by placing each course in the proper section.  The candidate should then send the work chart along with working copies of transcripts to the chair of the Equivalency Committee.  The candidate also should have official transcripts sent directly from each institution to the committee chair as well. No equivalency will be considered until the candidate submits a complete work chart and all transcripts.

The above definition and set of guidelines is substantially comparable to what other pastoral/spiritual care cognate groups recognize as being “equivalent” to the Master of Divinity. This is important, not only for cognate group parity, but also for considerations by agencies such as the Department of Education.

The second process for “equivalency” is set forth for those in non-Western traditions that emphasize a “mentored transmission” of the learning and formation needed to achieve the level of competency within those traditions to act independently and publicly as ministers of their traditions.  That last phrase is the key.  Some traditions may call that “ordination” while others may not.  Some traditions may also use the term ordination to mean something above and beyond that.  The key concept, as we understand it, is the preparation and mentoring necessary to be acknowledged by the faith tradition as someone who can “minister to the public in an independent manner” (i.e. without direct supervision of their ministry) in their particular faith tradition. 

It is important to note that most frequently, vocational education and formation within what might be called “Eastern religious traditions” takes place within the format of mentored, disciplic transmission over a number of years. Because this training takes place outside of the model of the contemporary western university or seminary (as reflected in most accredited theological institutions), it is rare for candidates to be able to produce transcripts for verification of examination of their theological preparation. None-the-less, noting the importance of all candidates for CPSP certification (at all levels) to be able to interact on a peer level in collegiality, in both chapter and career life with other CPSP credentialed professionals, a method for examining and vetting equivalency in depth, and breadth, as well as duration of theological preparation, remains essential.

Generally speaking, within most (Eastern) mentored spiritual traditions, in lieu of receiving an academic degree or diploma, the verification of having completed a terminal course of theological preparation will be ordination, initiation, or empowerment to the fullness of ministry. That is, admission to the clerical level wherein the candidate is duly authorized by their faith tradition to independently practice their ministry and represent their faith tradition to the public at large. In a sense, it is this qualification that delineates the aforementioned peer status in a multi-faith community of pastoral professionals.

However, evidence of appropriate ordination, initiation, or empowerment alone does not satisfy requirements for evaluating theological preparedness in pursuit of CPSP certification. Therefore, candidates for certification will be required to submit a comprehensive portfolio (in place of academic transcripts), detailing the duration, depth, and breadth of their theological preparation, as appropriate to their spiritual tradition.  In the guidelines for assessing equivalency to the M.Div. for those from Eastern mentored traditions, the committee has outlined the details of how that portfolio is to be compiled is outlined.

Finally, why do we want to continue to require theological preparation for those who present themselves for certification?  Some have argued that perhaps it is time to consider doing away with the requirement for any type of theological education at all.  Some advocate simply saying we accept any master’s degree in a “related” field, such as a Master of Science in Counseling, a Master of Psychology, a Master of Social Work, a Master of Divinity, a Master of Arts in Theology, a Master of Education, etc. The argument goes that any of these degrees prepare one for much of the work that we do. Therefore, let us lay aside the theological requirement and embrace these other degrees as adequate preparation for chaplaincy, pastoral counseling, pastoral supervision, or pastoral psychotherapy.

In answer, I would refer the reader to the article “Increasing Trend to Secularize Chaplaincy” written by George Hull and published June 29, 2016, on Pastoral Report. In it, Hull argues that this movement to the more secular idea of “spiritual” as opposed to “religious” or “pastoral” diminishes chaplaincy to a “generic practice.”  Hull contends, “The promotion of spirituality results in diminishing the role of the hospital chaplain as a religious professional in favor of that of a generic approach which in the end a social worker or nurse can provide.”  We agree.

Now, let us recall the first paragraph of the CPSP Covenant which reads:

"We, the CPSP members see ourselves as spiritual pilgrims seeking a truly collegial professional community. Our calling and commitments are, therefore, first and last theological. We covenant to address one another and to be addressed by one another in a profound theological sense.” 

We are “spiritual pilgrims” to be sure.  However, we are “first and last theological.”  If we move away from requiring our candidates for certification to have significant theological education, then we will have ceased living out who we are and who we are called to be.

Candidates wishing to be considered for equivalency should contact the chair of the Equivalency Committee, Al Henager, with questions, a copy of the requirements, clarifications of the process, a copy of the equivalency work chart, etc. at: