Hard times for seminaries and those who attend them

The rocky road facing seminaries and those seeking ordination in the mainline Protestant churches is illustrated by two recent articles.

The first, in the Christian Century lays out the problem from an institutional point of view:

With declining student enrollment, diminishing revenue and often deferred maintenance on aging buildings, many seminaries are trying hard to cast a viable vision of the future and to figure out what programs are crucial, which should be revised and which should be buried. ….

Fortunately, the Association of Theological Schools and some of its member schools are thinking in new ways about theological education. Several seminaries are experimenting with a multifaith approach to education, which has the prospect of bringing in new revenue and students and is a bold strategy for engaging people of other faiths. It also raises the question of whether it is possible to form Christian students for ministry in such a setting—especially when many seminarians are not very grounded in their own faith upon arrival.

The crisis in seminary education is also prompting some to rethink the curriculum. Should the three-year master of divinity degree continue to be the standard for pastoral preparation or should different models be offered? The question is especially pressing given that the future is likely to see a rising demand for bivocational pastors who are called to serve in small churches.

The second from the Association of Religious Data Archives paints a bleak picture of the financial situation of many candidates for the priesthood:

More than a quarter of students graduating in 2011 with a Master of Divinity degree had more than $40,000 in theological debt and 5 percent were more than $80,000 in the red, a new study found.

Many of these students discovered that not only they or their spouses had to moonlight to make ends meet, but some had to choose another job besides the ministry to pay the bills, according to the study by the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary.

Several seminaries already realize the days of balancing budgets by raising tuition may be coming to an end. Those schools are implementing or exploring more affordable models of theological education. Their models include more online learning, fewer required course hours and greater emphasis on paid internships.

Perhaps as important, however, more theological schools also are asking themselves hard questions about their responsibility to offer financial guidance to students so inspired by what they believe to be God’s call that they pay little attention to the economic costs.

Where do you think theological education is heading? How can we best resolve some of the problems that seminaries and their students now face?

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