Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Reality Check for Seminaries

A study released recently by the American Association of Theological Schools found that enrollment in its member schools had stabilized and even showed a slight increase over the previous year.   Perhaps more interesting are the upward and downward trends in student enrolment over the past decade.

In downward trends, the enrolment of white students has decreased by 19 percent.  There was a 6 percent enrolment decline for those under 30 and a 14 percent decrease in those seeking the Master of Divinity degree, the basic theological education program.

Upward trends included the following:  ten percent increase in racial/ethnic students, 16 percent increase in students over 50 years of age, and an 11 percent increase in those pursuing professional or academic Master of Arts degrees.

I would particularly like to address the upward trends and what they mean for the providers of theological education.

First, the increasing number of students over 50 who are engaging in a mid-career changes or preparing for a second vocation provides wonderful learning opportunities for all involved.  Many of these individuals bring years of experience not only in the church but in secular life.  Many have been managers, educators, and professionals in other fields.  Their experiences both enrich the classroom and challenge the professor in new and generative ways.

Second, the larger number of students from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds also offers opportunities and challenges.  People from varied cultures--including African-Americans--bring different learning styles to the classroom as well as rich life experiences.  (See colleague Terrell Carter’s book, The Lord Gave MeThis: Understanding Historic Leadership Development Practices of the BlackChurch to Prepare Tomorrow’s Leaders, for more on the theological formation of black leaders.)  Although this may stretch the professor in new ways, such diversity prepares all students in the class for the cross-cultural and inter-connected world in which they will serve.

Third, the attractiveness of the professional and academic MA programs may indicate both a desire to complete seminary in a shorter period and to focus on particular aspects of theological preparation.  Although many of these programs are research oriented, others focus on fields such as missional leadership, Christian formation, and missions.  Seminaries continue to adapt to provide what students need including offering both MDiv and MA degrees online.

The identity of those seeking theological education continues to evolve and this requires that theological institutions change in order to provide the formation these students need for effective ministry.

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