The primary “competition” for seminaries is simply the decision not to go to seminary. Most data shows that seminaries don’t compete too much with each other. Rather, our primary competition is the option of not going to seminary. I think it is a result of the fact that our “because” is broken. Let’s look at some data.
Google Search Trends
We often make incorrect assumptions about marketing within the world of theological education. Marketing theological education is a lot like marketing the aglet. It has a lot of impact, but most people have no idea what it is or why it matters. Obviously theological education is significantly more important than the aglet, but you can see what I mean. Not only do relatively few people know what a seminary is, but also there is less interest in seminary among those that do know what a seminary is. Simply put, the number of people searching for the word “seminary” on Google is declining sharply. Since 2005 the relative interest in the word has decreased by 40 points.
Over the same time period, 2005-2012, enrollment across ATS has declined by a little over 6%. This is especially significant when we account for the addition of many new schools. In 2012, more than 10 new schools joined ATS and total enrollment was still 6% lower than it was in 2005.
Seminary vs. Theological Education
It is easy to look at these numbers and be discouraged. That tends to be the reaction most people have when I share with them such numbers. I understand the discouragement, but I choose to look at these statistics as opportunities. Instead of being discouraged, I would like us to consider a few other facts. We work with about 18 different ministry partners at Northern Seminary. One of those ministry partners has nearly 3,200 people involved in its ministry training programs. To put that in perspective, that organization is working with slightly less people than Fuller Seminary, the largest seminary in ATS. Another one of our partners launches a new ministry training cohort each fall with about 70 participants. In addition, according to a judicatory official at a denomination connected to Northern, there are between 300 and 500 pastoral vacancies at any one time in that denomination. Obviously, more data could be provided, but I think you get the picture. There is interest in theological education and a need for trained leaders.
Note the emphasis on theological education. Whether or not they can articulate it, people are interested in theological education. Currently, that interest isn’t translating into enrollment at a seminary. I think this is a result of the fact that our “because” is broken. The work of our seminaries is a very important component within the system of theological education and I think there are many people who want what we can provide. We simply need to help them understand this truth by revisiting our answers for why people should attend seminary.
Because I Have to Make Copies
Ellen Langer conducted a study in the late 1970s which entailed a complete stranger asking to cut in line at a copier. By simply inserting the word “because” into the request, the stranger was allowed to cut in line 93% of the time. This was true even if the request was simply, “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” The results of this study have been used to call attention to the fact that we are often not very mindful of the situations around us and tend to make “automatic” decisions. In addition, it has been used to call attention to the persuasive power of the word because. When the stakes were raised, meaning when the stranger was asking to cut in line and make a larger number of copies, the explanation following the “because” mattered significantly more. We may make “automatic” decisions when the stakes are low, but when they are high we think much more about the why behind the decision.
What is Your Because?
A quick glance of websites for seminaries across ATS will reveal a pretty common explanation for why people should consider attending seminary. It seems that the reasons we are giving aren’t cutting it. Large amounts of people are pursuing theological education, but a decreasing percentage of them are looking to seminaries for that education.
We cannot gloss over the fact that many other factors impact a person’s decision to attend seminary. Time and money tend to be the most common deterrents. Again, people are interested in theological education, but are not interested in paying $50,000 for a degree that is going to take 4 to 5 years to complete…especially since many seminary students are not planning to pursue full-time ministry employment following graduation. We need to create affordable, accessible, and relevant forms of theological education which provide compelling reasons for people to enroll.
In my role at Northern I am continually talking with prospective students, church communities, and prospective givers about why they should consider being involved with Northern Seminary. The stakes are always high because I am asking people to part with time or money. As seminary administrators, we need to think carefully about why people should be involved with our institutions.
How would you finish this statement? “You should come to seminary because…” Does your answer fit with the mission and vision of your institution? Is it compelling enough for people to depart from their finances? The statement could be reworded to say, “You should financially support our seminary because….” How would you finish that statement?
Theological education is a vital component of the church and the work of the kingdom. Let’s fix our “because” so that we can equip the church to change the world!