Online PhD in Practical Theology

Candidates obtaining an online doctorate in practical theology enhance their ability to explore the relationship between social and religious practice through research–investigating what human actions mean in a larger context while reviewing the literature around this topic. The top online practical theology PhD programs focus on how theology can be applied to day-to-day situations. Those completing an online doctorate in practical theology are well prepared to address an increasing need for thoughtful, well-educated personnel in the areas of pastoral counseling, education, worship, preaching and leading congregations.

An online practical theology PhD generally takes about five years to complete depending on a student's individual progress and enrollment status. Most programs require students to complete over 54 credits of doctoral-level coursework, seminars, or directed readings. Along with taking courses that cover the foundations of practical theology, students will earn credit through the elective coursework, a scholarly dissertation, or a teaching externship. To remain in the program they may be required to maintain a certain GPA, score highly on exams, participate in research, pass a comprehensive examination, and receive approval for a dissertation proposal.

About Online PhD Programs in Practical Theology

Students engaged in online doctoral programs in practical theology study Christian and other religious traditions, utilizing extensive questioning and analytical methods. Those in online PhD programs in practical theology also examine how institutionalized faiths can meet their congregation’s full spectrum of needs—spiritually, socially, politically and culturally. These types of online programs may differ from on-campus programs as coursework often takes place of class time. Online students may have a greater number of readings to complete, as well as discussion assignments and course projects. Students working towards online doctorate degrees in practical theology may specialize in a variety of areas depending on their career direction. Potential specialty areas in many practical theology PhD online programs include a focus on liturgical studies, mission work, the church and society, and religious education.

Coursework in online doctorate programs in practical theology offers students a broad knowledge of the origins of spirituality, comparative religion and practical applications for faith. A sampling of possible courses taken each year in the PhD in Practical Theology program at St. Thomas University includes the following:

Year One:

  • Contemporary Practical Theology. In this course you will learn about major works in practical theology, explore practical theological method, and develop a synthesis of contemporary practical theology.
  • Formation and Spirituality in Practical Theology. This course covers Christian formulation practice including areas such as religious education and proclamation, spiritual theology, spiritual direction, theological reflection, and theological education.
  • Hermeneutics and Methodology in Practical Theology. In this course you will be introduced to hermeneutical philosophy and related interpretive fields.

Year Two:

  • Community Life and Pastoral Practice for Practical Theology. This course covers congregational studies and Christian community life as it relates to practical ecclesiology.
  • Sources of Practical Theology. In this course you will learn about practical theological sources and conversation throughout Christian history.
  • Public Theology as Practical Theology. This course will teach you about forms of public theology including contemporary political and liberation theologies.

Year Three:

  • Social Science for Practical Theology. During this course you will learn about research methods and theory in relation to practical theology.
  • Culture and Ritual in Practical Theology. EAlong with examining contextual theologies and the theology of culture, in this course you will learn how to engage in practical theological examination.
  • Advanced Practical Theology. This capstone course brings together major contemporary topics in practical theology and prepares students for candidacy examination.

Year Four:

  • Prospectus Seminar. In this course you will learn about the writing of a dissertation including aspects such as literature review, method integration, prospectus defense.
  • Dissertation Seminar. A series of courses in which you will be trained in practical theological writing and presentation, and advance your dissertation work.

Most online doctoral programs in practical theology require students to pass qualifying exams, core exams, candidacy exams, or concentration exams. These examinations test them on their foundational knowledge of theology and ability to analyze, apply, and reflect on theological practices. Most importantly, students will be required to complete a dissertation that includes original research and investigation concerning the life and mission of the church. Often the dissertation process is completed through a series of dissertation courses which involve a dissertation proposal, draft of dissertation, dissertation defense, and submission of final draft of dissertation. Here are a few titles of recent dissertations from doctoral students at Fuller Theological Seminary: “Toward a Practical Theology of Evangelism: Spiritual Pilgrimage as an Essential Paradigm for the Christian Conversion Process and its Implications for Evangelism” and “Methodologies Constructing a Spirituality of Sleep and Work: An Exploration of the Major Daily Routines through Scripture, Theology, and Early Egyptian Monasticism.”

Value and Criticisms of a PhD in Practical Theology

The value of an online PhD in practical theology is that is can prepare you for a solid career in both religious and academic fields and enable you to develop many skills and abilities that are applicable to a wide range of occupations. For example, this type of program will help to sharpen your analytical and critical thinking skills as well as your ability to articulate thoughts, build logical arguments, and engage in scholarly theological reflection. There are also many criticisms that students who desire to earn a doctorate degree in practical theology should consider. Primarily, as this is a degree that concerns the study of religion, it may limit your occupational choices to those in religious fields and affiliated with organizations such as churches, seminaries, missions, and non-profits.

There are also some positives and negatives associated with practical theology PhD programs online. On the positive side, given the flexibility of online education, these types of programs give students the option to remain employed while pursuing an education. This can be extremely beneficial as they are able to gain valuable experience that can prove useful in career development. On the other hand, as online education calls for independent learning, those enrolled in these types of programs may miss out on the academic benefits of learning in a group environment such as discussions, debates, and the sharing of thoughts.

Application & Admission Requirements

Admission to online PhD programs in practical theology typically requires a Master’s degree from an accredited institution. A Master's degree in theology or ministry would of course provide an ideal foundation for applicants to online doctoral programs in practical theology, as well as a Master's of Divinity. Degrees in social work and counseling can also prepare students to enter online PhD programs in practical theology. Along with a completed graduate school application, students will also likely be required to submit transcript of previous coursework, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation.

Candidates for an online doctorate in practical theology should exhibit leadership skills and the ability to practice active listening and offer guidance and direction. They should have a strong desire to obtain a faith-centered career while focusing on the needs of others. For this reason, it is likely that online PhD practical theology programs may require students to submit a statement of purpose that outlines their career and educational aspirations. Additionally, a certain amount of ministry or vocational experience is often required. Careers that candidates for the best online PhD degrees in practical theology arise from include serving as pastoral leadership in congregations, but also involve professions like chaplains, faith-based activists, counselors and social workers. Or, candidates for online doctoral degrees in practical theology might simply have a history of intensive congregational participation, or of writing and speaking within their individual church.

Career Options & Job Market

Obtaining an online PhD practical theology may be a great choice for those seeking a faith-based career. Such a degree can add practical skills and knowledge to faith-centered pursuits. A variety of career choices await those who have completed their degree including pastor, clergy member, theological scholar, missionary, and theological journalist. The PhD is also the foundational degree program for someone who wants to be a religious educator and teach at a seminary, college or university.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics job growth is projected to be about as fast as average for religious workers such as clergy who conduct spiritual functions or provide spiritual guidance associated with religious faith. Fast as average job growth is also expected for directors of religious activities and education who coordinate programs to meet the religious needs of students or congregations. No matter what specific profession or market, for individuals dedicated to faith and its applications toward helping others, earning an online practical theology doctorate is likely a great career choice. Professional organizations can also help students decide on a specific career direction. Career choices are varied, but the level of personal fulfillment remains the same for those holding an online practical theology doctorate.

Where to Find Information

  • The Association of Practical Theology Blog: This blog from the Association of Practical Theology is a great resource for students who want to find up-to-date information on the latest news, important topics, and current issues in the world of practical theology.
  • CUA Doctoral Dissertation Handbook: Those curious about the dissertation process may want to take a look at this handbook from the Catholic University of America which details aspects like dissertation writing, research, elements, and manuscript preparation.
  • International Journal of Practical Theology: Students looking to learn about empirically descriptive and critically constructive theory of ecclesiastical and religious practice in society should look into picking up this academic journal.
  • Emory Candler School of Theology: Visit this school's guide to reference works, resources, and readings in approaches to the study of practical theology.

How to Get Funding

1The cost for practical theology doctorate degrees online can vary according to type of program and institution. For example, a PhD in theology program at Liberty University Online charges students $455 per quarter credit hour. With a minimum requirement of 57 total hours for the program, students pay at around $25,935 in tuition costs. Fortunately, students may not end up paying the full cost of the program as there are many ways to receive funding.

  • GBHEM: Scholarships for Graduate Students. Students who are active members of The United Methodist Church and pursuing a degree within religious studies can check out these awards and scholarships from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
  • The Fund for Theological Education. This fund strives to support underrepresented doctoral students and encourage the growth of diversity in ministry through fellowships for minorities pursuing PhD in religion-related fields.
  • SARTS: Grants and Fellowships. The Society for Arts in Religious and Theological Studies strives to support the generation of knowledge concerning arts and theology through its graduate faculty and student fellowships.

Essential Advice

  • As practical theology is such a wide area of study, it's important to choose an area of concentration that is relevant to your preferred career choice. For example, if you are interested in pursuing a career as an academic educator, you may want to consider a concentration in an area like church history, liturgical studies, spirituality, congregational studies, or church and society. Additionally, if you feel like you're called to a career in ministry concentrations like homiletics, mission, evangelism, or pastoral theology may prove more useful. Be sure to find a program that provides formal concentrations or elective courses which will allow you to focus your studies.
  • Before enrolling in a PhD in practical theology program, be sure to gain practical experience within ministry, missions, social work, counseling services, or religious research. This will benefit you as many theological schools require applicants to have relevant experience before they can be admitted into a practical theology program. Furthermore, conducting hands-on work in related areas can help you to clarify your career goals and help you decide whether or not a doctoral degree is necessary to fulfill your career goals.
  • It is important to build a working relationship with someone in the religious field as most programs will require you to submit letters of recommendation as a part of your application. These letters are purposed to give a solid indication of your scholarly potential and learning abilities, as well as validate your interest in the study of practical theology. A letter from a religious professor or minister who knows you well and has seen your work first hand can increase your chances of admission.