Best Master’s in Religious Studies Online Programs

Learn how you can expand your spiritual and secular knowledge and launch your professional career in the field of religion by earning a master’s in religious studies online from a top college or seminary.

When your heart calls you to serve others and your brain tells you to get the best education possible, you may find yourself investigating online master’s degrees in religious studies. An online master’s in religious studies online is a great way to prepare for a career in a wide range of non-ministerial service positions with churches and other religious organizations. A religious studies master’s from a top college, university, or seminary also acts as a solid credential for further graduate studies leading to a career in the ministry.

Keep reading to get a comprehensive look at online religious studies master’s programs: what you’ll learn, how to succeed in your studies, how to pay for your program, how to combine your studies with your other work and family commitments, and much more. You’ll find the program for you among the very best master’s in religious studies online programs listed here.

College Spotlights: 2021’s Best Master’s in Religious Studies Online Programs

Finding an excellent master’s in religious studies program online isn’t hard. But choosing the one that’s best for you is a challenge. To help in your search, the three “best-in-class” online master’s degrees in religious studies programs below will give you an idea of what you should expect from the program you ultimately select. Consider important elements such as affordability, accreditation, study convenience and flexibility, curriculum comprehensiveness, and support service availability. These spotlights are a preview of the full program rankings for master’s in religious studies online coming later in 2021, so be sure to check back.

Chicago Theological Seminary

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The Master of Arts (Religious Studies) (MARL) degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary is designed for lay leaders and church members working in nonordained roles, students seeking foundational theological study in preparation for service in another field, and those interested in studying religion and theology but not aiming to enter professional ministry. This online master’s in religion also prepares graduates intending to continue their academic studies on the doctoral level. The 48-credit program includes foundational courses in Christian and Jewish thought, interpreting the Hebrew Bible, interpreting the Gospels, systematic theology, and Christian ethics. Students have the option of choosing one of two specializations (Islamic Studies or Interreligious Studies) with alternate course requirements. The program culminates with writing a master’s thesis.

The MARL curriculum can be completed entirely online, but students may opt to participate in some courses and degree-related activities on campus. The entire program can be completed in two years, though students may take up to five years to finish all requirements. The current per course cost is $2,586 plus online course fees. MARL students may be eligible for scholarships, grants, and other funding awards.

Harvard University

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Don’t let the degree title fool you. Harvard University offers its online Master of Liberal Arts (ALM) in Extension Studies: Religion degree through its Harvard Extension School, one of the university’s 12 degree-granting institutions. The diploma is adorned with the Harvard University insignia, and graduates participate in the annual Harvard commencement. The ALM Religion curriculum consists of 12 courses, including five core courses in religion subjects, one religion seminar, and two general electives. Students complete their studies with either a thesis or capstone project. All courses in the program are available online; however, students must complete at least three courses in person on Harvard’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus.

Students begin the degree’s unique admission process by enrolling in three specified graduate-level courses. Following completion of the three courses with a B grade or higher, students are permitted to apply for admission into the degree program itself. Degree eligibility requirements include a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited U.S. college or university. Individuals with a foreign-earned bachelor’s degree may be admitted upon program approval. Applicants cannot, however, possess or be in the process of earning another master’s degree in religion or a related field. The current per-course tuition price is $2,900, which puts the total cost of the 48-credit program at approximately $35,000.

Liberty University

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The Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) degree from Liberty University, an evangelical Christian institution, prepares graduates to enter the ministry by providing a solid foundational and practical education in Christian theology, biblical studies, and ministry practice. The 60-credit program is 100% online. Along with core coursework, students select one of 15 specialization tracks, including Christian Apologetics, Discipleship and Church Ministry, Global Studies, Homiletics, and Pastoral Counseling. Both full-time and part-time study options are available. Most MAR students complete all program requirements in two years. Students interested in continuing their academic pursuits may apply the 60 credits earned in the MAR program to Liberty’s 75-credit Master of Divinity (MDiv) program.

Liberty also offers a fully online Master of Religious Education (MRE) degree that blends Christian education and discipleship to prepare individuals called to professional Christian service. Examples of professional occupations for MRE graduates include associate pastor, discipleship pastor, small group pastor, and Christian education director.

Advantages of Earning an Online Master’s in Religious Studies

Following a calling doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning your current job or moving your life across the country to start a master’s in religious studies. Online religious studies master’s programs offer lots of advantages. Here are three of the biggest:

  1. Get a comprehensive overview of the subject while concentrating your studies in specific areas of interest

    Online master’s of religious studies degrees offer an excellent overview of religious traditions and their impact both on history and current society, as well as allowing you to develop your view of God. In short, an online master’s degree in religious studies allows you to study religion for both your personal interests and professional development.

  2. Become qualified for a wide range of church-related and secular occupations

    The master’s in religious studies online provides a credential that can be directly applied to MDiv and religion-related PhD programs. But if that’s not your goal, you’ll also be prepared to work for religious institutions, nonprofits, hospitals, and universities.

  3. Complete your degree from home

    Earning your master’s in religious studies online through a quality program means that you’ll be able to complete your academic studies while maintaining your present job and home life, as well as your current role with your place of worship.

What You’ll Learn in an Online Religious Studies Master’s Program

Earning a master’s in religious studies online prepares graduates for a wide range of roles in religious settings. Because of this, the knowledge and skills taught are broad based. With a few exceptions, online religious studies master’s programs feature curricula that are heavily Christian-focused, each with its own perspective driven by the school’s church affiliation (evangelical Christian, Jesuit, etc.). Coursework commonly includes the major religious traditions and their significance to societies and cultures; religious texts and their historical, social, and literary value; religious institutions; and the meaning of religion to individuals and society. Most, but not all, programs include a culminating activity, which is either a master’s thesis (aimed primarily at students intending to continue their studies into doctorate programs) or a capstone project.

The following five courses are common to the core curriculum of most online master’s degree in religious studies programs:

Common Courses

  • Apologetics

    Survey of basic issues concerning the defense of Christian religious doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. The course begins with an introduction to the theological and practical skills required to effectively engage the doubts and questions of believers and nonbelievers. This is followed by a discussion of specific topics such as the existence of God, resurrection of Jesus, the inerrancy of the Bible, religious pluralism, and postmodernism.

  • History of Christianity

    An overview of the history of Christianity and the Christian church from the apostolic age to the present day. Key topics include the development of Christian doctrine, the key spiritual leaders throughout history, spiritual formation, history of evangelism, American Christianity, and the emergence of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant branches of the Christian Church.

  • New Testament Studies

    This course provides students with a comprehensive review of the background and content of the New Testament taken in its historical, cultural, political, and religious contexts. Topics include interpreting the Gospels, interpreting the Epistles, deciphering Revelation, and the influence of the Old Testament on the development of the New Testament.

  • Research and Writing for Ministerial Preparation

    This course provides students with the necessary practical skills to produce graduate-level academic work. Research skills include theological and professional library competency; effective use of electronic research media and materials; research design, tools, and methodologies; and the tools for clear and effective academic writing.

  • Systematic Theology

    Introductory and advanced discussion of the nature, history, and methodology of systematic theology as seen from the perspective of a particular Christian tradition. Emphasis is placed on the nature of theological vision and the Biblical doctrines of Revelation, God, Man, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, angels, humanity, and sin.

Specialization Options

Most master’s in religious studies online programs allow students to tailor their studies to meet a particular area of interest within the larger religion field through specialization options. Most online programs offer a few specializations, and some (like Liberty University’s MAR and Crown College’s MA in Christian Studies) offer a dozen or more. If your program doesn’t offer specializations, however, you’ll likely be able to focus your studies on an area of particular interest through your choice of elective courses and/or the subject of your thesis or capstone project. Another option is adding a graduate certificate to your academic plans. For example, students in Harvard’s ALM Religion program (spotlighted above) can earn a certificate in one of four religion-related subjects, and the course requirements may be fulfilled with the elective course choices in the degree program.

Below are five specializations currently offered by online religious studies master’s programs:

  • Biblical Studies

    This specialization allows students to dive deep into the Scriptures and study individual books and specific cultural and historical themes. Course topics include the history of Christianity, the Old and New Testament, systematic theology, hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) and theological research, and the sermon writing and preparation process.

  • Global/International Studies

    Students opting for this specialization focus on the ever-changing nexus between religion and global affairs in preparation for ministry and service around the world. Course topics include the history of global Christianity, cultural anthropology, cross-cultural communication and teaching, and non-Christian religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism.

  • Leadership

    The leadership specialization is designed to provide graduates with a well-rounded foundation of practical skills for running ministries and church organizations. Course topics include biblical foundations of leadership, counseling, conflict resolution, team leadership, theology and worship practice, past and present Christian leaders, and ministry administration and management.

  • Pastoral Counseling

    The purpose of the pastoral counseling specialization is to prepare students to become knowledgeable, sensitive, and effective pastors when ministering to people in need. Coursework includes theories and practices in counseling, integration of theology and psychology, premarital and marital counseling, and human growth and development.

  • Theology

    The study of God and religious beliefs plays an integral part of every master’s in religion program online or on campus. The specialization in theology is, in most cases, for students seeking positions as theologians and religious scholars. Specialization centers around historical religious books and literature, apologetics, and contemporary theological issues.

Accreditation for Online Master’s in Religious Studies Programs

Accreditation is the process used to vet postsecondary schools and their degree programs for quality. It’s your way to be assured that any program you consider is worth your valuable time, effort, and money. There are two basic forms for postsecondary accreditation: institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation refers to the vetting of schools themselves. In the United States, institutional accreditation is overseen by a number of regional and national accrediting agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). All of the schools mentioned in this guide are accredited by a DOE-approved regional accreditation agency. In addition, some schools offering online religious studies master’s programs are accredited by The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) through their Commission on Accrediting. The ATS also accredits a small number of religious studies master’s programs themselves (programmatic accreditation).

Information on accreditation is available on degree program websites. You can also check accreditation status by visiting these ATS and DOE pages.

What You Can Do with a Master’s in Religious Studies

As mentioned earlier, one of the big functions of a master’s in religious studies degree is to provide graduates with coursework that can be directly applied to an MDiv degree program, as well as lay the foundation for doctoral-level study in a number of religion-related majors. But the degree is also designed to prepare graduates for lay ministry roles, including teaching (within the church and with church-associated elementary, middle, and secondary schools), chaplaincy (in hospitals, colleges, etc.), and church administration and leadership. Religious studies master’s graduates also find challenging and well-paying positions in the secular job market in fields like education, social work, and the nonprofit sector.

Here are five examples of potential careers for master’s in religious studies graduates, along with salary estimates:

Chaplain

Chaplains provide spiritual guidance and pastoral care to individuals and their families, most often in hospitals, mental health facilities, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities. They may also work in nonhealthcare settings like schools and prisons. Chaplains may or may not be ordained and their role is typically nondenominational, providing comfort and encouragement to individuals and families of all faiths as well as those with no religious affiliation.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile

$38,000

$51,000

$70,000

Source: PayScale, 2021

Church Administrator

Church administrators run the day-to-day operations of churches. Specific tasks are very similar to those of secular business administrators. Those tasks include planning and coordinating events, creating operations budgets, hiring and training staff, managing payrolls, paying bills, maintaining business records, and overseeing security operations and facilities maintenance. Effective church administrators must be detail-oriented, able to multi-task, and able to maintain a high level of professionalism at all times.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile

$25,000

$40,000

$63,000

Source: PayScale, 2021

Pastor

The duties of a church pastor are often described as preaching and teaching, and that’s pretty accurate. Specific duties and responsibilities of pastors vary somewhat between denominations and sects but typically include leading their congregations in worship through sermonizing, song, and prayer and providing spiritual guidance to individual church members. Strong speaking and writing skills along with a solid command of biblical history and scripture is required.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile

$26,000

$50,000

$79,000

Source: PayScale, 2021

Religious Education Director

Religious education directors are in charge of the education-related operations, activities, and events for a specific church or religious organization. They may or may not work in a formal school setting. Duties focus primarily on children, teens, and young adults. However, religious education directors may also be involved with adult church members and provide counseling services on religious, family, marital, and financial matters.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile

$25,000

$39,000

$58,000

Source: PayScale, 2021

Youth Minister

Youth ministers (or youth pastors) work to deepen the spiritual development of preteens, teens, and young adults through church programs, activities, and events. They normally work under the direction of the church’s senior clergy or (in larger churches and religious organizations) a religious education director. Typical work settings include local church facilities and church camps. They may also be employed in intercultural youth ministries around the world.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile

$24,000

$37,000

$50,000

Source: PayScale, 2021

Costs and Financial Aid for Online Master’s Degrees in Religious Studies

Earning a master’s in religious studies online requires a substantial commitment of time and money. And while you’ll have to take care of the time commitment entirely yourself, there are a number of excellent financial aid resources you may be able to access to help with the money part. The most common of these is the student loan. Student loans are available through state government agencies and private lenders, but the biggest source by far is the federal government. Other funding sources include scholarships and grants, work-study programs, graduate fellowships and assistantships, and employer-sponsored tuition assistance programs. Contact your school’s financial aid office to find out how you can tap into these and other funding opportunities. And be sure to visit our financial aid webpage.

What Your Online Master’s in Religious Studies Could Cost

The current tuition costs for three online religious studies programs is provided in the chart below to give you an idea of what you might expect to pay for your degree. Keep in mind that these figures represent tuition costs only. Your total program cost will be higher with the addition of program fees, books, supplies, internet access, etc.

School Name No. of Credits Cost/Credit Est. Total Tuition Cost

Athens State University (MA in Religious Studies)

30 (thesis track); 36 (non-thesis track)

$289

$8,670 (thesis track);

$10,404 (non-thesis track)

Crown College (MA in Christian Studies)

36

$555

$19,980

Loyola University New Orleans (Master of Religious Education)

36

$818

$29,448

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Religious Studies Master’s Programs

What are the admissions requirements for an online master’s in religious studies?

The admissions requirements described below are typical of most online religious studies master’s programs. Requirements do vary from program to program, though, so be sure that you understand and meet—in full—all specific requirements for any program to which you apply.

  • Undergraduate degree: A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college, university, or seminary is required. In most cases, the major subject of the degree does not matter, although a major in religion or theology may be preferred. Undergrad coursework typically must be completed with a minimum GPA specified by the school. Students with a graduate-level degree will normally be assessed based on that degree. Official transcripts of previous college coursework must be submitted.
  • GRE/GMAT/MAT test scores: GRE, GMAT, or MAT test scores are not required for admission into most master’s in religious studies online programs. Those programs that do require them typically waive the requirement for applicants who already have a graduate degree.
  • Prerequisite coursework: Some programs require applicants to complete some college-level coursework in one or more religion-related subjects either prior to admission or during their first year of master’s degree studies.
  • Additional requirements: Other common application requirements include one or more letters of recommendation and either an autobiographical or personal philosophy statement. International students must also submit test scores from the TOEFL or an approved alternate test as proof of English language proficiency.

How long will it take to finish my master’s in religious studies online?

The flexible nature of online study means that you’ll likely have wiggle room when it comes to overall program length. And the time that you’ll take to complete your degree will depend on factors specific to you, such as total credit hours required (minus any credits that you can transfer), whether your program culminates with a thesis or capstone project and how much time you’ll need to complete it, and your choice of full-time or part-time study. Most online master’s degree in religious studies students complete their curriculum requirements in two to two-and-a-half years.

Can I earn a master’s in religious studies 100% online or do I need to visit campus?

The vast majority of online master’s degree in religious studies programs are offered 100% online, including both coursework and the thesis or capstone project. There are exceptions, though, such as Harvard University’s program (spotlighted above). Some programs offer students the option of participating in some classes on campus. Regardless of what a program’s website claims, it’s important to check directly with each program you’re considering to confirm that there are no on-campus or other in-person requirements.