Skip to main content

NY Times & seminaries

The NY Times ran an interesting story this morning: "Students Flock to Seminaries, but Fewer See Pulpit in Future," by Neela Banerjee who is one of those who covers the religion beat at the Times. Here are some highlights:
Across the country, enrollment is up at Protestant seminaries, but a shrinking portion of the graduates will ascend the pulpit. These seminarians, particularly the young ones, are less interested in making a career of religion than in taking their religion into other careers.

Those from mainline denominations are being drawn to a wide range of fields from academia to social service to hospital chaplaincy, said the Rev. Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. Students who are evangelical Protestants, meanwhile, often end up at advocacy groups, sometimes called parachurches, which have defined the priorities and solidified the influence of conservative Christians.
That's an interesting way to define parachurch. Anyway, Banerjee reports that the “idea of using the seminary as the jumping off point for other, seemingly unrelated pursuits, is not new; just the number of people doing it is.” Banerjee uses facts and figures to give a snapshot of where this trend leaves denominations and seminaries:
Though mainline denominations have shrunk considerably over the last 35 years, enrollment in mainline divinity schools rose 20 percent from 1990 to 2004, according to the Association of Theological Schools. Part-time study programs and interest from minority applicants and women contributed to the gains.

At the same time, seminary graduates drifted away from becoming pastors. Among United Methodists, about 70 percent of seminary graduates in a recent survey said they would enter pastoral ministry, compared with more than 90 percent of graduates in 1970.

Mainline seminarians, including the Methodists, now largely fall into two age groups: those over 40, who are embarking on a second career in ministry, and those under 30, who are more likely to choose another profession. . . .

Often, seminary education, with its focus on personal spiritual growth, theology and social justice, introduces students to the idea that one's calling need not be answered in church every Sunday.
Does this trend create a lot of empty pulpits? Not according to what Banerjee's research:
So far, the shrinking interest in pastoral ministry has not created a shortage of ministers in the mainline denominations, partly because they have adapted. The United Methodist Church has added licensed ministers, who have completed training programs rather than the seminary and who can perform the functions of an ordained minister except for participating in the denomination's decision-making bodies. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has long required seminary graduates to do three years of pastoral ministry.
I hope there's some followup on this. It seems the emerging church as well as denominational folks, both of whom must be familiar with this trend, might find aspects of this article worthy of comment.

(Image by VirtualErn)


DukeToma said…
Hi! Brian Hanifan here.

Speaking of Seminaries, Mark has just informed me that he is scheduled to be ordained a Deacon October 28 and then the priesthood would be approximately 6 months later.

There's one possible explanation for the reduction in those interested in full-time ministry. It's not a popular explanation to be sure. When the Catholic Church allowed girls to serve at the altar along with boys there was a precipitous drop in boys volunteering to be altar servers. It makes sense in a way for children. Children especially do not want to do something that is "girly". When a flood of girls began serving at the altar the boys vanished!

Now, with this situation what we're seeing is a drop in the overall number of folks looking for full-time ministry in protestant seminaries. Yet at the same time we see an increase in women applicants. With the allowance in many protestant churches for the ordination of women ministers, we could be seeing a bit of what Catholics saw with altar servers. Are men shying away from something that is not seen as a "manly" thing to do?

I could be completely off my rocker, but that's just something that came across my mind. I do realize that I am biased against the ordination of women so that certainly could be influencing my view here.