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Studies Show Increase of Seminarians, Decrease of Pastoral Graduates

Protestant seminary enrollments are increasing throughout the nation, but a smaller portion of graduates are becoming pastors.

Protestant seminary enrollments are increasing throughout the nation, but a smaller portion of graduates are becoming pastors.

Over the last 35 years there has been a significant decrease in mainline denominations, however, enrollment in mainline divinity schools rose 20 percent from 1990 to 2004, according to the Association of Theological Schools.

Instead of following in the traditional path that leads seminarians to the pulpit, many students from mainline denominations decide to enter into a wide range of fields including academia, social service, and hospital chaplaincy, said the Rev. Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, to The New York Times last Friday.

Meanwhile, many evangelical Protestant students are deciding to work with advocacy groups or parachurches, “which have defined the priorities and solidified the influence of conservative Christians.”

According to Aleshire, only about half of those graduating with a Master in Divinity are entering into parish ministry. He noted that the percentage has fallen sharply in a generation and has decreased 10 to 15 percent in the last five years.

The New York Times acknowledged that the fact that seminarians are going into other fields besides the church is not new, but the number of students deciding to go into another field is.

The newspaper reported that in a recent survey of United Methodist seminary graduates, about 70 percent said they would enter pastoral ministry compared to more than 90 percent of graduates in 1970.

However, Princeton Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School reported an increase percentage of their students were entering into parish ministry.

PTS statistics showed that percentages have gone up for church ministries for 2003-2005 from 39 to 42 to 44 percent, respectively.

According to PTS’s director of student relations, Catherine Cook Davis, generally 40 percent of the graduating class goes into “some kind of ordained or pastoral ministry,” while about 23 percent go on to further graduate studies.

Davis noted that the percentage going into parish ministry is lower because “our students tend to be much, much younger than the other Protestant Seminary students,” and went on to say the average PTS student age is about 25 versus around 30 for other seminaries.

Duke Divinity School agreed with the upward trend of students applying to the seminary, noting that the number of applications to the school has increased three-folds since 2001. The school also reported that it received 600 applications last year for an entering class of 197 students.

Cheryl Brown, director of admission at Duke Divinity School as well as an alumnus, pointed out proudly that the seminary’s statistics on students entering into parish ministry was unique in that the percentage of students deciding to go into the parish more than double in percentage over the course of a student’s four year period at Duke.

“Each year we give to our incoming freshmen a survey and we ask what their vocational goals are and this year we had out of 105 students only 30 percent say that they had the vocational goal of entering parish ministry, which is pretty typical,” Brown told The Christian Post on Monday.

“However, in the last four years - this is what is so interesting - an average of 70 percent of our students who are graduating go into parish ministry. So I had to smile when I read this.”

Brown attributes the percentage increase to the seminary’s academic life that is “grounded in the worship life and in the life of the community.” She believes Duke, a United Methodist seminary, teaches servant leadership and forms ministry leaders through offering courses and programs such as spiritual formation, small groups led by local pastors, and contextual learning pieces where student serve in the community, local churches, participate in urban and rural ministry and then reflect on the correlation between their experience and what they learned theologically.

“Twenty years ago people didn’t go for a master in divinity for any other use other than to go into the ministry and now there are so many reasons,” Davis stated.

The PTS director said she agreed with the observation by New York Times that the younger students – the one coming right out of college - don’t have any idea what they want to do, but also added that she doesn’t know if it is a bad thing that the trend has been down for students entering into parish ministry.

“What I do as director of senior placement is I try to give our senior students the whole view of what is out there and not only parish ministry or chaplaincy,” Davis concluded. “So I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing.”

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