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Theological education rebounds, but fewer students enroll

As some seminaries consolidate and others close, new schools are opening alongside new degree programs and a rise in online education.

A paradox lies at the heart of seminary education in the second decade of the 21st century: While enrollment continues to decline (at a pace of 1 percent a year), new schools are opening their doors.

In 2012, the Association of Theological Schools admitted 13 new member schools. In 2010, 10 schools were admitted to initial associate membership. That brings the number of U.S. and Canadian member schools to 260 — an all-time high.

At the same time, the number of students enrolled inches downward from year to year. There were 74,193 students enrolled at ATS member schools in 2011, down from 79,244 in 2007.

Daniel Aleshire, executive director for the association, says theological education presents a complex picture to the untrained eye.

For starters, theological education has never grown in direct response to demand.

“Seminaries are started because there’s a religious community that wants to extend its way of understanding religion and to educate its leaders,” Aleshire says.

Four of the newest schools are Korean seminaries, started to educate flocks of immigrants who have brought their own deeply inflected Christianity to American shores.

Add to that a number of Roman Catholic schools begun to educate lay members to teach religious education and provide leadership for other areas of parish ministry — a job that in years past fell to priests and nuns, whose ranks have dwindled.

This complex situation comes on the heels of the 2008-09 recession that hit many theological schools particularly hard. Half of seminaries cut their budgets by up to 12 percent in 2009. Consolidations and mergers ensued, especially in urban areas where competing schools vied for students.

An estimated 20 percent of seminaries continue to experience significant financial stress. And the closure trend is not over.

Seabury Western, an Episcopal seminary in Evanston, Ill., ceased most degree-granting operations, sold its campus and is in the midst of merger conversations with Bexley Hall, an Episcopal seminary in Columbus, Ohio. Washington Theological Union (Roman Catholic) in the nation’s capital and Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine (United Church of Christ) recently announced plans to close.

Meanwhile, the wave of mergers continues:

• Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C, joined forces with Lenoir-Rhyne University, in Hickory, N.C.;

• Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif., teamed up with Fresno Pacific University;

• Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., fused with Santa Clara University;

• Michigan Theological Seminary united with Moody Theological Seminary (a division of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute).

Seminaries stay afloat through four primary revenue streams: tuition and fees; endowments; grants from denominations or other religious organizations; and gifts from individual donors.

The 2008-09 recession hit endowments, which are stock-driven, particularly hard. The return of market value has helped steady those accounts.

Denominational support for theological education has been ebbing for decades. Aleshire predicts more closures in schools affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations as a result of the slump in membership among Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC and other denominational groups.

But the past few years have also seen a growth in the number of independent liberal arts colleges offering new programs in theological education. Aleshire says it’s part of a larger trend in which colleges are starting business schools and rolling out master’s degrees in education.

“The cohort of 18-year-olds is stable to declining,” says Aleshire. “So traditional undergraduate-focused schools are looking at starting professional graduate programs that can utilize their undergraduate faculty.”

The traditional Master of Divinity is not always among the new degrees being offered. The number of students seeking a Master of Divinity degree has slowed in recent years as specialized degree programs have accelerated. These include the Master of Arts in Counseling and the Master of Arts in Leadership Studies.

The accrediting body now allows students enrolled in academic graduate programs to earn degrees online, but the Master of Divinity degree still requires some on-site classes. For the first time, though, there is some wiggle room: Member schools may now petition the association for exemptions from the on-site rule if they can demonstrate their online Master of Divinity program provides a level of human engagement comparable to residential programs.

Finally, seminaries are challenged by megachurches that often don’t send ministers or lay leaders to seminary, and instead create professional education programs to meet their staffs’ needs. In some cases, megachurches have started their own seminaries.

Megachurches sometimes criticize traditional denominational seminaries for spending too much time on academic centered instruction and too little time on the practical skills needed to run congregations. (Seminary leaders often reply that megachurches still make up a fraction of America’s churches, and their graduates are unlikely to end up working for them.)

Still, some megachurches are open to traditional theological education, among them Minnesota’s Wooddale Church, where pastor emeritus Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, decided the church would pay full-time staff to attend seminary.

Amid all the change, Aleshire says, theological education has been able to step back from the Great Recession brink.

“The wolf is no longer at the door,” he says. “Most presidents get another half-hour of sleep at night.”

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