seminaries up, future pastors down

Christianity Today’s weblog pointed me to this interesting article in the NY Times. Apparently, seminary enrollment has gone up, but, at the same time, graduates who anticipate becoming pastors in local congregations has gone down. Consider this:

“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.

At Candler, a United Methodist divinity school with about 500 students from various denominations, a majority of students is under 30, according to Cynthia Meyer, assistant dean of students. Only about half the graduates say they will become church pastors, she said.”

I wonder what connection exists between the decline of mainline denominations and the decrease in seminarians interested in/called to enter pastorates. Has the decline led to less interest in the local congregation as a viable place be in ministry, especially in the mainline? Has the decrease in pastors led to decline among mainline churches? Certainly the answer is more complex than a simple “which end of the spectrum” approach, but these two coinciding phenomena do raise natural questions about connections between the two.


Published by Guy M Williams

Christian | Husband, Father | Pastor | 8th-Gen Texan | Texas A&M ‘96 | Asbury Seminary ‘01 | Enjoy family, reading, running, golf, college football

13 thoughts on “seminaries up, future pastors down

  1. And then they’re the folks who come out of seminary, take a church, pastor a couple of years, and then drop out.

  2. True. I wonder what the overall stats are for parish ministry a few years removed from seminary graduation.

  3. Don Mason, who was Dean of Students at ATS when I was there, and went on to be president of Central College in Kansas, did his doctoral work on the difference between those who felt called to ministry and those who entered it more as a social service. Those who claimed a call were much more likely to remain in practicing ministry.

  4. Interesting Steve…

    I also knew several folks for whom seminary was a place for deeper discipleship in their walk, and I can identify with that.

    What I see in the study is also the dynamic of people seeing many venues for ministry in addition to the pulpit. That was certainly true at Asbury and the School of Theology re-worked the MDiv and MA programs b/c the MDiv was structured with the assumption of the pastorate. Now that is still the primary focus, but there is flexibility for folks called to other kinds of ministry.

  5. Could it possibly have something to do with the fact that many seminary courses are not as relevant to preparing a candidate for ministry as once was true? For instance, when choosing a seminary, very few offer vocation oriented courses such as counseling, preaching, and church management, but rather courses such as “18th Century Catholicism in South Africa.” Interesting – yes, useful – only in a nondirect way.

    It could be a shocker to one who thinks they are going to get to sit around a fireplace discussing in-depth theological issues when they realize the real issues that take place in the church today.

  6. I’m reasonably sure I understand your point, big giant, in that last paragraph. But I’ll press you on the way you seem to be conceiving of it. I would contend that the “theological” issues are in fact the most “real” issues that take place in the church or anywhere for that matter. Perhaps you are suggesting that the person in for the shocking is one who expects to be spending their time discussing theological issues in abstraction or in the theoretical, not realizing nor preparing themselves for the mammoth task of bringing deep theological reflection, biblically informed and conversant with the Tradition, to bear upon the immediate and most commonly noticed concerns of everyday life for folk. This truly requires great help from the Spirit and excellent ongoing spiritual and theological training.

    You didn’t do this exactly–only hinted at its possibly, but I see a trend of folks (especially pastors!) speaking of the difference between “the theological and the practical.” In truth, the theological is imminently practical–these are not opposites to be differentiated. What folks ought to be saying is “the theoretical and the practical,” which do happen to be different.

  7. Being one of the younger career pastors in an aging denomination, I wonder how many people coming straight out of college look at seminary and say, “I’m interested in learning more, but not serving in the denomination that doesn’t reflect my demographic.”

    Also, how much of this could be attributable to an act of the Spirit matching the needs of the church with the desires/interests/calls on people lives?

  8. You know John R, there’s something to be said for people hearing and responding to calls to ministry that aren’t all pastorates. It could be that people are having God-inspired visions for ministries that collaborate missionally with the local congregation and they are seeking seminary-level educational preparation for carrying out these ministries.

    This trend doesn’t demand that we interpret it as a negative on the face of it. On the other hand, it should certainly raise our eyebrows and get us asking some probing questions about the state of the pastorate these days.

  9. I think that our problem may lie in the fact that we have a poor understanding of what it means to be “in ministry.” The church is horrible at articulating a real theology of vocation and calling. Therefore, the church usually tries to stear someone’s “call to ministry” toward being a pastor.

    It is clear throughout the letters of the New Testament that there are many “ministry” roles to be filled. I personally think that it is wonderful that we have disciples who are trained to think theologically working as case workers with DHR, or are serving tables at Carraba’s. The church may call that a waste. I’m not sure that God would, though.

  10. Yes. One way to understand this may be to look at it in two basic ways (though being mindful not to gloss over the possible negative issues involved in some cases):

    1. There is a decline in the number of people enrolling in and graduating seminary who plan to become pastors, and…
    2. There is an increase in the number of people attending seminary and seeking theological education and training who plan to pursue over avenues of ministry.

    From that vantage point we have a good thing to celebrate (#2) alongside as challenge to address (#1). I don’t think this excuses us from asking questions about the phenomenon of #1, but it does acknowledge that there is an exciting positive aspect to this news too.

  11. I guess my concern is that issue #1 sounds alot like us being concerned about trying to prop up our beloved institution. Our structure is confining to the extent that it creates a box that “pastors” should fit into. If you don’t look that part, if you don’t want to itinerate, if you don’t pinkey swear, you don’t have sacramental privileges and cannot lead a church. Let’s go back and read Acts 6. Peter’s goal was to separate the ministry of the word and the serving of tables. He did. For the next several chapters, Luke spells out how much more effective Stephen and the other “table servers” were at spreading the gospel. As a pastor, I feel like so much of what I do is the ministry of the word. Yet, so much of the action is “serving tables.”

    Is our concern that no one is being called to the ministry of the word? If so, we may be like Peter, sure in our thoughts and pure in our concern, but missing the point.

    Please excuse the rant.

  12. There probably is some institution-propping fear involved. But the issue remains that pastors are needed within the church, no matter what the ecclesiological theology and polity issues and context, and that there are less folks graduating seminary who are going into the pastorate.

    I have no problem with us showing some pickiness about investing folks with responsibilities to word, sacrament, and order. I think serious assessment and discernment are key here for deciding who is suitable to be in covenant with the church regarding these things. The more significant hang-ups are related to our polity and bureacracy. In other words, our doctrine is in pretty good shape; it’s our methodological commitments that need fresh evalutation, creative thinking, and clarity. This is a similar issue on the UM Conference, General Conference, and local congregation levels.

    Questions I think are important are:
    1. Are congregations places that are exciting and fulfilling for people to serve as pastors?
    2. Are people who are genuinely called to pastoral ministry within the church hearing and responding to that call?
    3. What is the relationship between our (those called to ministry and considering the pastorate) mental ideal of “church” and the realities of the church (both local and connectional) in which we serve?

  13. i have little to add to this but i enjoyed all the comments!

    my feeble addition might be that the church is taking on many new forms right now… that this coming generation does not relate to sitting in pews or listening to sermons… they are much more experiential… so maybe those people with the degrees are doing church in new ways that aren’t recognized?? i don’t know! hmmm…

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