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Nondenominational students more prevalent in seminaries

While more evangelical students enter seminary with only parachurch experience, some leave with denominational credentials.

As she prepares for her third and final year in seminary, Jennifer Ikoma-Motzko is feeling something she never experienced before: denominational envy.

The 34-year-old Chicago native came to McCormick Theological Seminary from a proud non-denominational background. In high school, she attended Willow Creek Community Church; after graduating from college, she worked for a dozen years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

But as her fellow classmates go through the credentialing and ordination process for careers in ministry, she longs for the same degree of accountability and community that denominational structures offer.

“I was very much at home in the parachurch setting,” says Ikoma-Motzko, a fourth-generation Japanese-American. “It never occurred to me I might serve in a parish setting.”

Her journey is increasingly common. Surveys at seminaries belonging to The Association for Theological Schools show a growing body of nondenominational entering students. Today, 15 percent of first-year students describe their current affiliation as nondenominational. That compares with 10 percent in the 2001-02 school year.

There are a host of reasons for the shift, the biggest being the declining membership in U.S. denominations and the weakening of denominational identity.

Of all the students who enter seminary, the trend is most pronounced among evangelicals.

“Of the three communities within ATS — Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant — evangelical Protestants are the most likely to have been members of nondenominational churches,” says Daniel Aleshire, executive director of ATS.

In addition, says Aleshire, many of today’s entering students are shaped by high school and college parachurch groups, such as Young Life, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, (now called “Cru”) and other nondenominational groups.

Seminary professors began adjusting to this change a decade ago and have now learned to teach across denominational backgrounds, Aleshire says.

But as seminary students come closer to graduating, many give denominations a second look, especially if they want a career in church ministry. Surveys of graduating seminary students show a slight drop in the number of nondenominational students, suggesting that some join denominations during their last year of school.

The big reason, says Aleshire: “Clergy certifying systems are still denominational.”

Ikoma-Motzko may be among them. Having completed her field education in a Baptist church, she is now considering ordination and ministry as a pastor.

“I’m this weird nondenominational girl who might be called to be a pastor in the American Baptist Church,” she says.

It’s not an easy decision. Ikoma-Motzko and her husband are active in River City Community Church, a multiethnic, nondenominational congregation in Chicago.

Moving into a denominational setting is a little like learning a new language. Liturgy, vestments, church calendars and formal prayers are part of a different lexicon. Ikoma-Motzko remembers the first time she was asked to assist in a Presbyterian Church by reciting the “Prayers of the People,” a formal petition usually said before the celebration of the Eucharist.

“This way of worship was completely foreign to me,” she says. “But I had to remind myself, ‘This is also the church. There are hundreds and thousands of people who pray in this way.’”

Ikoma-Motzko, who is also a fellow at The Forum for Theological Exploration, a nonprofit ministry that provides fellowships to emerging Christian leaders, believes her nondenominational background provided her an excellent start.

“I have a perfect GPA thanks in large part to my InterVarsity training and development that helped me appreciate critical thinking, value dialogue partners, and develop a worldview that integrates faith with every aspect of life,” she says.

These days, though, she’s learning a completely different set of skills — those cultural, social and folk traditions long the mainstays of denominational Christianity.



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