From ASSIST News Service:
By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
ATLANTA, GEORGIA (ANS) — Across the country, enrollment is up at Protestant seminaries, but a shrinking portion of the graduates will ascend the pulpit, says an article in the March 17 New York Times newspaper.
These seminarians, particularly the young ones, are less interested in making a career of religion than in taking their religion into other careers, the newspaper reports.
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, writes Neela Banerjee in an article headlined “Students Flock to Seminaries, but Fewer See Pulpit in Future” in the New York Times.
Only about half of those graduating with a Master in Divinity now enter parish ministry, Mr. Aleshire said. The portion has fallen sharply in a generation, he said, and declined 10 to 15 percentage points in the last five years alone.
Banerjee writes 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.
She says that among the important things Kirkland Reynolds has figured out in his three years in seminary is that he does not want to be a church pastor.
Ms. Banerjee writes; “Like many young people at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Mr. Reynolds, 24, hopes to put his religious education to some other use, saying he does not want to preach or take a position of authority in the community.”
She adds: “George Rupp, for instance, graduated from Yale Divinity School and served as president of Rice and Columbia Universities before becoming president of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid group. Thomas M. Chappell, co-founder of the Tom’s of Maine line of soap and toothpaste, completed Harvard Divinity School. And Al Gore attended Vanderbilt Divinity School for a time before switching to law.”
“Theological education has a lot of uses, like a legal education does,” said Barbara G. Wheeler, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York and director of its Center for the Study of Theological Education. “It’s good to have people with a theological education doing lots of things. It’s a perspective that helps.”
Banerjee continues: “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.”
Banerjee points out that 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.
The young candidates are exploring, said the Rev. Jonathan Strandjord, director for theological education at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Young people are thinking about possibilities, about blue-sky possibilities. Older people have mortgages and responsibilities, and their goal isn’t to invent a form of ministry or find something that is really out there.”
Banerjee explains that 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.
She adds: “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.”
The clearest impact has been the aging of the clergy in the mainline denominations. For example, the average age of ordination for Episcopal ministers is 44; in 1970, it was 29, Bannerjee writes.
She concludes that the older people entering pastoral ministry often say they needed years of other work and maturity before they could imagine leading a church.