Completing an online theology degree at the bachelor's level allows graduates to take on roles within the church or other religious settings, depending on their interests and calling. Some students may decide to pursue pastoral positions, while others may continue into advanced education to take up leadership or teaching roles. Regardless of your chosen path, this guide provides insight on the course of study, skills acquired in a program, potential careers, average salaries, and professional organizations. This guide also covers why attending an accredited school helps ensure the outcome of a degree.
Overview of Theology Degrees
Before committing to an online theology degree, prospective learners should be sure they understand what the degree entails. According to the Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, theology refers to the study of God's word. While the curriculum covers topics such as Christian ethics, hermeneutics, and spiritual formation, theology degrees exist to help students better understand the Bible. Students learn about the Old Testament and New Testament, including language lessons in Hebrew and Koine Greek, and how to exegete verses and better understand the original context.
Most online theology degree paths do not require students to visit campus, but learners should check with individual programs before enrolling. If schools do require visits, these usually entail weekend intensives or trips to campus at the start or end of each semester.
Students who pursue theology degrees typically aspire to work in the church, church-related roles, research, or in an academic position. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, clergy positions are projected to grow by 1.8% between 2016 and 2026, with 2017 median annual wages sitting at $47,100. As more religious leaders retire or leave the ministry, churches and other religious organizations need educated individuals to fill empty roles.
To ensure the preparedness of prospective distance learners, admissions panels of online theology degree paths require students to complete a comprehensive application. Students begin by providing basic contact information, such as name, address, intended major, and high school attended. They must also ask their high school, and any other schools attended, to provide official, sealed transcripts that include their GPAs. Students who do not hold a high school diploma must provide their GED diploma. To demonstrate their breadth of learning, students take either the ACT or SAT and send their scores to prospective schools.
Programs may ask applicants to write a personal essay to get a sense of the student's personality and goals. The personal essay typically answers questions about why they want to study theology and why they feel that particular school fits their needs best. Students must also provide 2-3 letters of recommendation from supervisors, professors, mentors, or other individuals who can attest to the student's readiness for college. Lastly, students must pay an application fee. These typically range from $50-$125 dollars and are nonrefundable, regardless of whether the student receives an acceptance letter.
What Will I Learn?
Online theology degrees introduce learners to foundational topics within religious studies and prepare them to apply this training in their prospective careers. In addition to gaining a general understanding of biblical content and spiritual concepts, students acquaint themselves with modern topics such as church planting, organizational administration, and missions work.
Many programs require four years of full-time study and comprise 120 credits. The first half, or 60 credits, typically focuses on general education courses. Students then use 30-35 credits to focus on core topics within the major. The final 25-30 credits allow students to complete electives. For distance learners hoping to concentrate their knowledge in a particular area, such as Christian formation, homiletics, restorative justice, or youth ministry, using electives wisely can help graduates stand out from other job applicants who followed a more general plan of study. Even without defined concentrations, students can focus their studies through electives.
Understanding Scripture in a Modern World
Students in this course review scripture from a historical context before considering how the meaning of different verses, chapters, and books should be interpreted in the current day and age. Professors place special emphasis on helping students gain the necessary skills to interpret biblical text within these confines.
This class helps students develop knowledge of the various denominations within the Christian church. Learners discover theological differences in common denominations such as Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Pentecostal faiths.
The Doctrine of Salvation
Since individual faith traditions view the path to salvation differently, students planning to work in spiritual counseling and formation should understand the nuances. Students consider biblical text alongside interpretations throughout the ages.
With a central focus on the idea that Christians should be in the world but not of it, Christian ethics helps students reflect on biblical morality and what that looks like in the modern era. Students consider concepts such as politics, business, relationships, the environment, and ambition within the context of ethical behavior.
Designed for degree seekers who want to work in music ministry, this class looks at how tools, such as liturgy and ritual, make up the worship arts of most Anglican traditions, while the introduction of modern instruments and music play a more central role in evangelical settings.
This course provides an examination of the first five books of the Old Testament – also known as the Pentateuch -- and how these books set the stage for biblical interpretation. Students consider the various authors and how their messages contributed to early writings within the Christian tradition.
What Can I Do with an Online Bachelor's Degree in Theology?
The best online theology degrees instill in learners the competencies and knowledge needed to bring the gospel to diverse populations in myriad spiritual and professional settings. Since the degree offers diverse paths, students do not need to worry about restricting themselves to one single career. Prospective learners considering this path should review the following sections or talk to individuals working in the field if they want more details.
While many courses focus on historical context and biblical uses, learners gain several valuable skills in online theology degree paths. Students learn early on how to identify key issues and themes, as the coursework centers on understanding the meaning and background of biblical text. These skills also aid them in effective communication as they work to understand the meaning of others' words.
Given the service nature of many careers surrounding this degree, learners come to understand the value of serving others. These skills prove particularly helpful in pastoral leadership and support roles. Teamwork also plays into these skills, as most churches and religious organizations require a team of dedicated staff to ensure they can adequately serve members. From an administrative perspective, students learn the value of managing money wisely, creating sound budgets, and seeking funding from foundations and other religious, money-granting institutions that can help create new programs or fund mission trips. When reviewing prospective careers in the following section, think about how these skills translate to real-world positions.
Potential Careers and Salaries
Though many individuals may initially think that the best online theology degree paths only qualify graduates for positions within the church, this versatile degree translates to many different religious and faith-based positions. Positions exist in various nonprofit organizations, healthcare companies, business settings, and the military. Students who decide to complete further education can also pursue roles in K-12 or postsecondary schools.
Graduates should carefully consider their options before committing to a career path; some students may find that administrative positions or counseling roles best suit their skills. Review the positions highlighted below, but conduct additional research to find a role that fits your talents and interests.
Annual Median Salary: $35,533
Youth ministers focus their efforts on providing biblical training and spiritual development to teenagers and young adults within a church setting. They arrange youth trips, oversee mission outreach, create events throughout the year, and supervise other youth ministry staff.
Annual Median Salary: $48,683
Whether overseeing a small church plant or a large, multi-campus outreach, pastors serve as leaders of their congregations. They prepare weekly sermons, manage church staff, offer counseling to members, serve as spiritual mentors, and provide guidance on Christian living.
Annual Median Salary: $48,879
Chaplains can be found in a variety of settings. Some work for the military, while others serve in large healthcare facilities or airports. Regardless of setting, these spiritual leaders provide comfort and counseling to the people they encounter.
Annual Median Salary: $40,323
While pastors oversee the spiritual health of their congregations, ministry directors manage the day-to-day administrative functions of churches and other religious organizations. They handle payroll, budgeting, marketing, human resources, and other functions of the church and frequently lead other staff.
Program Coordinator, Nonprofit Organization
Annual Median Salary: $41,365
Program coordinators fulfill their duties by managing programming at charitable organizations that work to enhance the public good. They develop and run programs, maintain budgets, train staff, collect data on effectiveness, apply for grant funding, and make changes to the program as needed.
Will I Need a Graduate Degree for a Career in Theology?
After graduating from a theology degree online at the bachelor's level, some distance learners may wonder if they should complete additional schooling. This degree prepares graduates for myriad entry-level roles -- many of which allow individuals to work their way up by gaining experience. Even some pastoral roles do not require an advanced degree, although some students may feel they can better achieve this position with a master's or doctoral diploma. When reviewing average salaries for various positions, candidates should remember that factors such as experience, education level, employer, and cost of living all contribute to the final number.
Church and pastoral settings typically do not require students to possess advanced degrees; however, academic or research roles often require a master's and some positions may necessitate a doctoral degree.
Accreditation for Theology Bachelor's Programs
Students should ensure they attend a properly accredited program when reviewing online theology degrees. By doing so, degree seekers can guarantee their ability to transfer credits, compete for jobs, and seek licensure and/or accreditation. Institutional accreditation plays a key role in helping students launch their careers. This type of accreditation typically falls into two categories: regional and national. Four-year colleges often seek out regional accreditation, typically seen as the more rigorous of the two, while trade schools and vocational schools opt for national accreditation.
Additionally, many religious institutions and bible colleges seek out specialized accreditation. Associations that offer these specialized accreditations include the Association for Biblical Higher Education, the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, and the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. Students can review the U.S. Department of Education's Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs to find a list of accredited schools.
Theology Professional Organizations
In addition to benefiting professionals in the business world, many theological associations exist to help students further their career objectives. Associations may focus on students who work in pastoral roles, academics, nonprofits, or other church-based professions. These organizations also provide networking opportunities and help members find jobs, stay up-to-date with industry publications, and participate in meaningful annual conferences.
American Academy of Religion
The AAR serves members by providing regional meetings throughout the year, an annual conference, career services, an active job board, and a series of in-house publications. The group also posts regular blogs and updates about members' accomplishments in ministry.
Association of Youth Ministry Educators
With a focus on continuing education and support for youth pastors, AYME serves members by providing an awards series, quarterly journal, annual conference, and member directory. This nonprofit also offers continuing education and ongoing networking opportunities.
The Evangelical Theological Society
This professional society exists for theologians and biblical scholars who want to take advantage of regional meetings, an annual conference, career connections, member publications, a directory, and continuing education opportunities.