Seeking more seekers

Spurred by enrollment drops, theological schools broaden their educational missions

Seminary studies once meant submersion in the finer points of Christian theology. Today, they can translate into submersion of a different kind – in the frigid waters of the Maine coast, for example.

Bangor Theological Seminary is offering a week of sea kayaking in Penobscot Bay this summer as a noncredit course in "Wilderness Spirituality." Options are available for less outdoorsy types as well: Traveling teachers offer "An Introduction to World Religions" and "A Sprint through the Bible" to any group in northern New England that will pay.

With a 25 percent drop in enrollment since 1996, Bangor, like theological schools across the United States, faces the mounting challenge of making ends meet in an age when clergy retirements quickly outpace ordinations. Even Union Theological Seminary, the US flagship where theologians Reinhold Neibuhr and Deitrich Bonhoeffer once drew students from around the globe, is spending endowment principal to cover a $2.75 million deficit.

Schools' responses to the problem vary as widely as their theologies. What unites them is a quest to reexamine what the world wants or needs from them – and to provide it without betraying their core Christian missions. "It can't just be that we'll do anything ... to make money," said the Rev. Dr. William Imes, president of Bangor Theological Seminary. "We always want to be looking for people who are seeking around their vocations and their faith.... We want them to know we're in the big-questions business. [T]hat's essential to our future."

On the whole, enrollment at theological schools increases annually, according to figures from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) in the US and Canada. Its 240 member schools have 73,000 students, though just 42 percent of them are pursuing degrees to qualify for ordained ministry.

Years ago, theological schools existed to train clergy for church leadership roles. Today, the rising cost of specialized education has coupled with a stagnant number of prospective pastors to require that theological schools reach out to a broader pool.

Union Theological Seminary's financial woes are so serious, according to President Joseph Hough Jr., that enrollment would need to double to 640 to stem the tide. Yet no agenda will be viable unless the public wants to participate. "Is the vision compelling to those who have the resources to see that it happens?" Hough asks. "Is there public receptivity? We've researched this in focus groups and found that there is."

A committee at Union has suggested offering a master's degree in religion and the arts, for instance, and training Catholic lay people for church leadership roles. Helping churchgoers respect the legitimacy of non-Christian religions is sure to be a Union mission in the future, Hough says, and one that could attract a variety of benefactors.

For decades, theological schools have been a haven for nonministry students who felt stifled by the specialization of other fields, says Yale Divinity School admissions director Guy Martin. In the 1970s, for instance, psychology schools emphasized experimental science to a degree that those interested in counseling often found better opportunities through theological training. The same holds true today, he says, for those interested in philosophical foundations for environmental policy.

"Divinity school has often been a great place to allow for interdisciplinary study on the graduate level without doing a doctoral dissertation," Mr. Martin says. As a recruiter, he said, "you just need to provide information about what's available here."

Recruitment seemed unnecessary in the 1980s at such elite schools as Yale, Harvard, and Union, but now all three recruit. As a result, since 1996, new student annual enrollment at Yale has jumped to 135 from 100. Most who enroll after recruitment are not training for ministry, Martin says.

At Denver Seminary, recruitment helped relieve a late 1990s crunch, when enrollment dipped to 450. But another reason for enrollment's surge to 750 this year, says spokesperson Louanna Traubert, has been a new mentoring program for lay people.

"People are beginning to evaluate their lives," Ms. Traubert says: "9/11 brought a lot of questions to people's minds, where they ask: 'What does the Lord want from me?' " Through mentoring with other Christians, some discern a call to ordained ministry while others eliminate the option.

University divinity schools face less pressure than independents to reach the laity. Yet education for those who will never be ordained seems part of everyone's future. "I've never known institutions to make much creative change without some outside pressure," says Union president Hough. "This gives us a chance to ask who we are."

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