“Study to show yourself approved unto God…” (2 Tim 2:15)

Evidence suggests that two impulses deeply rooted in my religious tradition have recently resurfaced in not-so-subtle disguises to the potential detriment of the church:  ministerial servitude and anti-intellectualism.  By the former, I mean the constellation of behaviors that churches manifest toward their ministers and that reveal an underlying confusion

between service and servitude.  By the latter, I mean the notion that zeal can replace preparation.

I just returned from a conference of theological educators (seminary professors) devoted to the current state of theological education.  The elephant in the room, of course, declining enrollments in seminaries of all stripe, soon crashed through the conference hall.  Reporting on the reasons deans and chief academic officers had given for undertaking any major program changes in the last year, a presenter noted that of the eight reasons that appeared most regularly, six were variations of “in order to increase enrollment/revenue.”  In other words, the major motivations for changes in education programs had little to do with educational philosophy or practice, and certainly not with theology or the needs of the church in today’s complicated society.  Now, I will readily admit that seminaries must have students in order to exist and that I prefer survival over the alternative.  Still, something seems awry to me.

What is the issue?  According to Tom Tanner’s analysis of the 2014-2015 enrollment figures for schools in The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the number of degree seeking students enrolled in ATS schools decline three percent in the period from 2009 to 2015.  Meanwhile, minority enrollments increased to one-third of the total, making 2015 the third highest enrollment of minority students on record.  Similarly, the number of international students increased five percent over 2009, three percent over 2014, and, most prominently, the number of students aged fifty or more increased eighteen percent over 2009, now amounting to one-fifth of the total enrollment.  (See http://www.ats.edu/uploads/resources/publications-presentations/documents/seminaries-set-six-enrollment-records.pdf; accessed 2/23/2016.)

The factors contributing to this declining enrollment include the ephemeral changes affecting the church at-large and the “spiritual-but-not-religious” phenomenon.  Measurable factors include, first, costs.  More than one-quarter of 2011 seminary graduates accrued over $40,000 in educational debt; meanwhile, the median clergy salary that year was $43,800 (See David R. Wheeler, “Higher Calling, Lower Wages:  The Vanishing of the Middle Class Clergy,” The Atlantic (July 22, 2014); http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/higher-calling-lower-wages-the-collapse-of-the-middle-class-clergy/374786/; accessed 2/23/2016).  For comparison, in 2014, the average law student incurred debt of $84,000 for a public education and $122,158 for a private education; the median lawyer salary that year was $114,970 (see Robert Farrington, “Law School and Student Loan Debt:  Be Careful” Forbes [Dec 18, 2014]; http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertfarrington/2014/12/18/law-school-and-student-loan-debt-be-careful/#7fe79afc4f06; accessed 2/23/2016).

Increasing seminary costs reflect decreases in denominational support.  In 1970/71, denominational support for ATS schools (Protestant) accounted for forty-seven percent of their overall funding.  By 1980/81, that figure had declined to forty-two percent, and by 1990/91 to thirty-nine (Joseph P. O’Neill, “Denominational Funding of Protestant Theological Education (1994)”; http://www.auburnseminary.org/sites/default/files/Report%20No.%201.%20Denominational%20Funding%20of%20Protestant%20Theological%20Education.pdf; accessed 2/23/2016).  Additionally, seminary endowments suffered significantly in the economic crisis of 2008.

Second, prospective seminary students have new options not available to earlier generations.  Many denominational liberal arts colleges and universities have begun new masters-level programs and many mega-churches have demonstrated a preference for training their own ministerial staff in something comparable to an apprenticeship model of theological education.

Third, the ministerial job market does not encourage young people, in particular, to enter fulltime ministry, let alone earn a seminary degree (and incur the debt).  Current statistics suggest a strange paradox.  On the one hand, staff cuts and delayed retirements, both consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, have resulted in an overall clergy surplus (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/06/from-clergy-shortage-to-c_n_566934.html; accessed 2/23/2016).  Staffing practices in many mega-churches also contribute.  On the other hand, smaller churches currently experience a clergy shortage:  The majority of US churches are small (up to 100 members); most people go to large churches (over 350 members) (See http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/quick_question28.html; accessed 2/23/2016).  Many of these small churches simply cannot afford fulltime clergy.

Meanwhile, seminaries across North America have been scrambling to maintain enrollments.  Schools in the ATS now offer more than 250 specialized degrees on the theory that surely there will be something on the smorgasbord that will attract someone.  Online education and creative scheduling (block, night, weekend) promise to attract students unwilling or unable to attend on-site courses.  Seminaries are abbreviating curricula, shrinking the once standard circa-90 credit hour M.Div. to as little as 72 credit hours.  In the process often abbreviating or eliminating traditional theological disciplines such as, well, theology and – this is admittedly a pet peeve –biblical languages.

The situation is very complicated. My concerns involve the apparent lack of denominational commitment to theological education, the nonchalance of local churches, and the obstacles placed in the way of young people, especially, who may feel called into ministry.  More than ever, theological degrees are becoming credentials rather than markers of learning.

The last Sunday night before I went away to Samford University to major in religion, my pastor asked me to preach.  I had acknowledged a calling to ministry in my junior year of high school and the church had promptly “licensed” me.  I do not remember either the text or the title of the sermon.  Afterward, one of the elderly women in the church, who had been one of my Sunday school teachers, came by to shake my hand.  I do remember what she said: “Go on down there, get your degree.  Maybe it will help you get a church.  But do not let it change you.”  I remember thinking at the time that the whole enterprise would be worthless unless it did change me; how it would change me, I had no idea.

The situation is very complicated, as “a voice crying out in the wilderness,” I want to suggest a number of actions to be undertaken for the good of the church.

  1. Churches and denominations need to recommit to theological education for selfish reasons if for no other.  The church needs bright young people in ministry; it cannot allow educational costs and poor salaries to scare them away.
  2. Meanwhile, seminaries should take note of the increases in minority enrollments and meet the needs where they exist.
  3. The increases in students aged fifty plus present unique challenges that trends in online course offerings and creative scheduling may not be well-suited to meet. Personal experience suggests that the technology presents an impediment, for example.
  4. Seminaries should at least resist the urge to make curricular decisions primarily for reasons of financial survival.

We live in the most turbulent and complex time in human history.  Churches need leaders who are educated to meet the challenge.  Seminaries owe their students and the churches more rigor, not less.