Seminary: What is it Good For?

Millennials are challenging many facets of our social expectations. It should not be surprising that as they approach traditional educational avenues they will seek out different goals and applications of their degrees. Of course, approaching continuing education with a non-traditional goal is not limited to Millennials.

Recently, a survey of seminary students by the Association of Theological Schools reveals that only 41% of seminary graduates (of their accredited institutions) plan on pursuing pastoral ministry upon graduation. This is down from 51% in 2001 and obviously far below the 90% recorded in the 1950s.

This is more data about the changing face of ministry training. Seminary is becoming increasingly seen as ancillary for vocational ministry but also a reasonable alternative for individuals who want a deep theological training as they pursue a vocation outside of a traditional ministry role. There are two sides to this coin, but it is noteworthy to point out that for many seminarians the MDiv isn’t the requisite degree for pastoral ministry. Other degrees (MACE, MRE, MAT, etc) provide just as qualified a theological education and, for many evangelical churches, they simply are looking for candidates with a Master’s degree from an appropriate seminary. Now, the study should give us pause. One of the things to celebrate is that, perhaps, this data reflects a growing missional movement among seminarians who want to receive world class theological education and then go apply it in secular marketplaces. This is a kind of tent-making industry view that allows them to advance the Gospel where traditional ministers cannot reach. If this is the case this is a good thing.

One challenge though is that a clergy which lacks appropriate theological bona fides (I’m not saying an MDiv automatically provides this) can create churches that lack theological depth and inquiry. I doubt there are few serious ministers who would say we need more shallow, consumeristic, cosmetic Christian churches in America. To be a pastor, or church leader, requires that one be well rounded theologically (Titus 1:9; 1 Tim 3:2, 6.) While seminary provides a platform to advance in our theological growth, I’m not entirely certain it is solely the place for this and nor am I convinced our seminaries (by and large) are developing ministry-ready pastors.

 

However, I’m going to give some push back on these numbers as reflecting the actual ministry environment for seminary studies across the United States and even globally. Since the ATS survey is limited to only its member institutions it does not take into account non-ATS schools which are accredited by another agency (TRACS, SACS, etc) or are unaccredited. Many ATS schools are affiliated with mainline denominations which are seeing lower numbers of members desiring to enter the ranks of their clergy. The true growth of pastoral minded seminarians is likely outside ATS schools and inside these other schools. I would venture to guess if we were able to tack all of these seminaries we would find the numbers of students planning on entering pastoral ministry would jump, maybe as high as 60%.

Perhaps more clarification will come. We can certainly look forward to that, and in the meantime celebrate the possibility that there is a move afoot to take theologically trained leaders into the marketplace to grow the Kingdom of God in significant ways.

What do you think? How is seminary education changing? How are students changing seminary education?