Seminary Life Today 1

This is from my friend and colleague at Northern Seminary, Greg Henson.

SMcK intro: Seminary life is a reality that needs to be known. In this series of posts by Greg we will be exposed to some realities about seminary life, and this can both encourage some to attend seminary (you will not be alone if you are 50+ years old and may be surprised by the number of peers you will have; you will not be alone if you attend because you want to study theology and Bible more with no particular ministry in mind; you will not be alone if you are a minister, want some more education, but also want “fellowship” in your kinds of questions) and discourage others (how much debt is wise?). Read on… let’s hear your thoughts!

What does this say about the future of seminaries? How should seminaries improve what they are doing?

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 next three posts (MWF), I will share this and two other infographics. Next post we will look at why students attend seminary.

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  • Paj

    When I was doing my MDiv I was surprised how little time people had at college but for different reasons.
    First, there were those heading for ordained ministry and my denomination over loaded them with church based stuff. They had to be ready to start after graduation. Stupid really, what about growing into your ministry role? Really stressful for their respective husband or wife.

    Second, those (and more so females) who lacked funds to allow them to focus on study first. Tragic the amount of stress lack of funds caused. Tragic also the loss of the time needed to be deconstructed then reconstructed by our gracious God, making us more like Jesus.

    In both cases I felt sad they both missed the opportunity to be able to reflect and think and hence better ministry later.

  • Leanne Penny

    Well my husband and I were both in Seminary together for a time and I actually remember being made to feel weird because we were working students. Many of the students our age were being bankrolled by their parents and were essentially living college life part 2.

    I eventually ended up working for the seminary instead of attending it because we didn’t want to incur serious debt with a ministry career in our futures.

    I wonder … did I miss it? Does this survey speak to the huge number of low residency Seminary students completing their degrees primary online? After 2 years at seminary my husband ended up taking a job in Oklahoma and commuting to seminary a few times a year and doing the brunt of his work online.

    He also dropped from a MDiv to an Mth because it was 30 credit hours less and many of the churches we would be interested in don’t demand an MDiv… which was great because we were paying out of pocket.

    Many scholarships are only available to students who are attending full time which leaves little assistance for the PT working Family students, and this creates a huge disparity in the peace between the bankrolled, FT students and the PT working parents / families…

  • RJS

    The last graphic – comparing the size of church for seminarians and US churchgoers is interesting. It isn’t what I had expected … 94% of US churchgoers attend churches of 500 or less.

  • Patrick O

    When I went through seminary I was single, so I was curious about the commentary on the single/married. The percentage is 49% are married, but the comment was that seminary students aren’t going through seminary alone, it is something their family is doing.

    Less than half are married, but being married is assumed to be something that is a leading trend? Using a similar percentage, would we also say that being male is something that the US population is doing?

    Singleness in ministry is a huge issue, and one that is often dismissed or ignored, precisely by the people whose experience in life is different (they were married right out of college). It is important because trying to find a ministry job while single is often fairly discouraging. Singles are, I would argue, discriminated against.

    Singles also are, I would argue, much more dependent on loans, fin aid, or working full time while in school (thus affecting their ability to focus on studies). It is an amazing boon to have a spouse working full time, adding financial support, social interaction, etc.

    And if we dismiss the experience of being single while in seminary to once again highlight the evangelical priority of being married, I think we are doing a great disservice to the whole conversation about seminary studies.

    Now that I am married, and finishing up my PhD, I find the whole process significantly easier and have significantly more support and connections in my church because I am part of a family.

  • Phillip

    In the seminary where I teach, I would say most of our students are employed full time. We try to accommodate with some online offerings (my and their least favorite option) but more with flexible scheduling. We offer courses one night/week for 3 hours, one week intensive formats (with assignments before and after that week), and weekend intensives that meet 2 or 3 weekends during the semester (with assignments before and after the meetings). The classes rotate through these formats.

    I remind my students that a full-time job, a family, and full time school work are all great things in themselves. But trying to do all 3 at once is a really bad idea. Something will suffer. So for students with jobs and family commitments, we advise them to take no more than 2 classes/term (if that much). Our program gives them 10 years to finish.

  • Jeff

    Northwest Nazarene is doing a good job of meeting needs as well as Liberty although Liberty has subpar academics. Also the MDiv needs to have a 72 hr track or scrap the 90+ credit req altogether. 72 credits is all the Federal gov and State gov need for Chaplaincy positions. Also I think 90 credits is too long. If any one is willing to donate a lot of money to me, I will educate seminary student for 72 credits and they will have a better education and be more effective ministers than any seminary out there right now in the US.

    Ask me how!

  • Jared Beverly

    I’m a little disappointed that the only couples this graphic considers “married” are mixed-sex couples. I know a few same-sex couples who are in committed relationships or who are legally married who attend seminaries.

  • Travis Greene

    I really hope this series talks about debt.

  • Jess Holmes

    Very interesting infographic. This series should address ULC and how it affects the statistics.

  • Sara

    I would agree quite a bit with Patrick (4). I’m currently attending seminary, and while I’m dating someone (providing really great emotional support) the financial stress of being single still stands. Certainly, I don’t think any discrimination is intentional on the part of the financial aid department at my seminary. Many scholarships that exist are, of course, subject to the plans of those who’ve given the money and are restricted to certain groups. However, the number of scholarships designated for married couples can be frustrating each year as I apply for aid.

    I have many married friends and I understand that, as the charts suggested, these people aren’t doing seminary alone — they have wives, husbands, kids, etc and seminary can be a difficult journey for them. It makes perfect sense to have money set aside for them to help so that school, finances, work, etc don’t become an undue stress on a marriage or family. On the other hand, I’m working three (part time) jobs, attending school full time and still accruing substantial debt. So, while I understand the helpfulness of aid to married couples/families, it’s discouraging at times to be single and be in seminary (where financial aid is concerned).

  • Adam

    When will Seminary and the American church reflect the chaninging ethnic demographic especially among Latinos? Are there any seminaries addressing this issue? This is a disturbing trend when we think about the long term mission of the church in America. I fear that if the American Church does not adapt, and “white” Seminaries and churches dont accept the call to reach and train the next generation of non- white Americans… we will be obsolete and much smaller in 20 years than we dare to imagine.

    ” The Census Bureau announced today (May 17, 2012) that nonwhite births now make up a majority in the United States. Data gathered in 2011 show that nonwhite, Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Native American, mixed race and others combined for 50.4 percent. That’s the first time that white births were not a majority in U.S. history, and that raises some questions about policy – from education to social services programs – and about how we see ourselves as a nation.”

  • Greg Henson

    Jared, the data on which the graphic is built simply denotes whether a person is male or female and married, which means there could be same-sex marriages in the married data. However, the graphic doesn’t make that clear. Thanks for pointing that out. It could be helpful to place a note somewhere on the graphic about that detail.

  • Greg Henson

    Travis, the series will discuss debt on Friday. It is a big issue.

  • Matt Edwards

    I loved seminary. I attended from 2000–20005 to get a ThM, when I was 21–26.

    One of the biggest disconnects I noticed between me and the seminary was the idea of the role seminary played in my life. They felt that seminary was my life; I felt that seminary was part of my life. I had a full-time job and I was active in a church. I commuted to campus and loaded all of my classes on to two days so that I could be there as little as possible (this helped availability with my employer).

    I felt that the seminary was designed for the single man, studying full-time (i.e. unemployed), and on financial support. The biggest new reality for seminaries is health care. If you are married, you need health insurance. If you want health insurance you need a job. If you are working, then you have a “divided” life and seminary is not 100% of your focus.

    I got in trouble with the administration one semester because of my chapel attendance. When asked why I didn’t attend chapel the required amount of times, I said “I work over 50 hours a week. I get off of work at 11 PM on Mondays and come home to my apartment to start my Greek homework, which usually takes me about 3 hours. My Tuesday morning Greek class is at 8 AM, so I am usually running off of 4 hours of sleep. After my 9:00 class, I have a choice: I can attend chapel or go back home and sleep for a few hours before my 2:00 class. It’s not a hard choice for me, and this is the life I have to live to get through seminary.”

    It was a little tough for them to hear. They kept coming back to why I didn’t value chapel. Thankfully they were gracious to me and let me watch chapel online (which was just starting to happen) on my own time to meet the qualifications.

    Anyway, that was just one instance in which I felt that the seminary didn’t understand me or my life. BUT, from what I can tell they have changed a LOT since 2005!

  • Jared Beverly


    Okay, thanks for clarifying. Yeah, the graphics artist could have represented that a little more clearly.

  • Andy Rowell

    @RJS and @Greg,
    I left a comment on Greg’s page:

    I think one of your statistics is incorrect: that only 6% of churchgoers attend a church of 500 or more.

    See Duke sociologist Mark Chaves: National Congregations Study report which does not explicitly refute that stat but at least calls it into question.
    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.”

  • Jim W.

    I think cost is huge. It’s the main reason I didn’t finish and haven’t went back, even though I’d like to. That being said some changes I’d like to see are:
    1. shrinking the mdiv to be more I line credit wise with other master degrees.
    2. Offering multiple course tracks in order to better serve students. For instance if a student has a bachelors degree in bible and ministry, is there a way to trim the course load in order to eliminate redundant classes?

  • jon

    Seminaries, with their high cost and low monetary reward will need to change soon. They will be the first part of the education bubble to bust, I think. If they cannot become more accessible through creative means, they will wither and die. They will be replaced by programs that are just as effective, cost less, and are more directly engaging to students’ lives.

    I loved the few years I spent taking online courses at a seminary, but my position and life situation did not allow me to continue on.

  • Andy Rowell

    Greg addressed my query above with this comment on his blog. Here it is:

    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.

    Greg Henson March 5, 2013

  • Greg Henson


    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!