Enrollment at Protestant seminaries is increasing, but a shrinking proportion of graduates from these schools are moving into the pastorate, reports the New York Times (March 17). Those seminarians especially from mainline denominations are being drawn to a wide range of professions, from academia to social work to hospital chaplaincy. Evangelical Protestant seminarians often end up in parachurch ministries, such as evangelistic organizations operating outside of congregations.
Only about half of those graduating with a Master of Divinity degree now enter parish ministry, with the number declining by 10 to 15 percent in the last five years alone, according to the Association of Theological Schools. Reporter Neela Banerjee notes 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.“ Mainline seminaries are now likely to be comprised of older second career students and those under 30, who are more likely to choose other professions. The shrinking interest in pastoral ministry has not yet affected churches to a great extent because denominations have adapted in various ways, such as the United Methodists licensing lay people for many liturgical functions.
Meanwhile, a Wesley Theological Seminary study finds that the decline in young clergy has been particularly sharp during the past 20 years. United Methodist Church clergy under age 35 were 15 percent of the total in 1985 but only 4.7 percent two decades later. The data on “elders” (including those commissioned but not fully ordained) also showed that those age 55 and above increased from 27 percent to 41 percent during the same two decades The study included these figures for under-35 clergy in other mainline Protestant denominations: American Baptist Churches (5.5 percent), Christian Church (5.5 percent), Episcopal Church (4.1 percent), Evangelical Lutheran Church (4.9 percent) and Presbyterian Church (7.1 percent). For Roman Catholic priests, the total as of 2001 was even lower, 3.1 percent. By contrast, the conservative Church of the Nazarene reported 12.7 percent of its clergy are under 35.