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Incoming Seminary Students – Who are they?

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Two-thirds of all incoming MDiv students at ATS seminaries commute to class – regardless of their size, all seminaries seem to be regional schools.

78% of all incoming part-time MDiv students work more than 20 hours per week. 81% of ALL incoming MDiv students work while attending school.

During the 2011-2012 academic year (the most recently completed academic year), 6,900 incoming students at 161 different schools within ATS completed the Entering Student Questionnaire. This is the first of three inforgraphics which presents some of the data found in the 2011-2012 ESQ. I took the time to sift through the data to see what we can learn about incoming seminary students. Who are they? Why did they come to seminary? What did they bring to seminary? How can we best serve the incoming student?

Some things surprised me while other things simply confirmed a suspicion. Overall, I think the data continues to reveal the need for seminaries to look closely at the system of theological education and think seriously about whether or not it is meeting the need of today’s seminarian. In a recent presentation, Dan Aleshire, Executive Director of ATS, talked about four drivers of change which are, “…stirring the pot of change and what brought us to the dance won’t get us home as theological schools.” I couldn’t agree more – what got us here isn’t going to work in the future.

After reviewing this first infographic, I can’t help but wonder if our system of theological education is appropriately dealing with the fact that seminary is simply part of what our incoming students (most of whom are in the millennial generation) are doing. We need to find a better way for seminary to fit in the rhythm of one’s life. This doesn’t mean we need to “dumb down” or “give away” degrees. It simply means we need to recognize that students are coming in with certain experiences and already have a full life. How can we creatively serve them while equipping them to serve the mission of God? Online education isn’t the answer; it may be part of the answer, but it isn’t the answer. To simply say online education will solve all the issues is naive. We definitely need innovative online initiatives, but we need much more. We need something that understands and takes advantage of the fact that ministry is personal in nature.

What are your thoughts? Does anything in this graphic surprise you? Is there a seminary you think is dealing with these issues? Over the rest of this week, I will share two other infographics. On Wednesday, we will look at why students attend seminary.

6 comments
  1. I think one of your statistics is incorrect.

    See Duke sociologist Mark Chaves: National Congregations Study report:

    http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSII_report_final.pdf
    Here are quotes from pp. 2-3

    “There is a lot to say about congregational size, but one fact is fundamental: Most congregations in the United States are small, but most people are in large congregations. Despite the recent proliferation of very large Protestant churches we call megachurches, the size of the average congregation has not changed since 1998.
    • In both 1998 and 2006-07, the average congregation had just 75 regular participants.
    • In both 1998 and 2006-07, the average attendee worshiped in a congregation with about 400 regular participants.

    . . . In a nutshell, the largest 10% of congregations contain about half of all churchgoers . . . This basic fact has tremendous implications for American religion. It means that most
    seminarians come from large churches (since that’s where most people are), but most clergy
    jobs are in small churches.”

  2. Thanks for looking into this Andy!

    Both the graphic and your statement are correct. We are getting our data from basically the same source. You are correct, the NCS report says “..the largest 10% of congregations contain about half of all churchgoers.” Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research took the data from the NCS report and built a table which broke down all the attendance figures. That table is the foundation for the graphic. Half of the chuchgoers do indeed attend the top 10% of churches. Because of the staggering number of small churches, the top 10% of churches includes churches below 500 churchgoers. Only 6.4% of churches (according to the table based on the NCS report) have over 500 churchgoers.

    The final quote you mentioned is the most important factor and the point I am trying to make in the graphic. “It means that most
    seminarians come from large churches (since that’s where most people are), but most clergy jobs are in small churches.” The “world” a seminarian experiences prior to seminary and the “world” he or she will experience in his or her first role in the church can be very different. I believe seminary’s should take this into account when developing their programs. However, as we will see in the infographic on Wednesday, more and more students have no desire to serve in a traditional role as the pastor of a local congregation – this has profound implications as well.

    Thanks, again, for the comment.

  3. Andy,

    I was at an event this week where I had an opportunity to talk with Mark Chaves. He and I had a conversation about church size and its relation to the realities that seminarians my face when graduating. Based on that conversation (and his reaction to the table on which the graphic was built), I updated this graphic because I think it was unintentionally misleading.

    My reply to your comment is the point the graphic was trying to make. Only 6.4% of churches have 500 or more attendees while 36% of seminarians come from churches of 500 or more. However, I should have used the word “churches” rather than “churchgoers.” The table is talking about church size AND churchgoers, but I should have used the word “churches.” The graphic shows what I wanted it to show and the percentages are the ones to which I meant to call attention. However, “churches” is more accurate than “churchgoers.” Thanks again for your comment. I look forward to more comments like yours!

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