Seminaries see changes after enrollment drops nationwide


When Eden Theological Seminary President David Greenhaw created Eden’s 2012 master plan, he said he was trying to keep life on campus.
Greenhaw first explained his vision to sustain Eden’s campus at a June 5 Webster Groves public hearing.

Eden has seen an enrollment decrease over the years. At the June 5 meeting, Greenhaw said Eden has six buildings no longer in use by the seminary.

To help keep “life” on Eden’s campus, as Greenhaw described it, the school created a three-phase master plan — Phase III would sell or lease part of the Eden campus to help bring in revenue.

The decrease in seminary student population has become more common across the U.S. Greenhaw pointed this out when he presented Eden’s 2012 master plan on June 5.
Eden’s decrease is less drastic compared to seminaries across the country, which are either out of business or, like Bangor Seminary in Portland, Maine, reevaluating its business model.


“Enrollment is down but it is still solid,” Greenhaw said.

Bangor has felt effects of decreased enrollment. In fall 2013, the seminary will no longer offer a graduate degree. Robert Grove-Markwood, Bangor’s president and interim president of the United Church of Christ, said Bangor’s enrollment has dropped 15 percent per year over the past three to four years.

“Enrollment across the spectrum is declining,” Grove-Markwood said. “But with the demographic in Maine, there are also just fewer people.”

A major factor, Grove-Markwood said, is the increased amounts of student loan debt for seminary students and the low-paying jobs at churches.

“(Churches) have less capacity to pay seminary graduates who come out with large amounts of debt,” Grove-Markwood said. “It’s a catch-22.”

A study by Anthony Ruger, Sharon Miller and Kim Maphis of Auburn Theological Seminary monitored seminary students’ loan debt in 1991 and 2001. Results from 2011 are not yet released.

The study reported the average theological debt of two years masters graduates in 1991 was about $10,000 and increased to almost $25,000. This nearly $15,000 difference, Ruger said, is partly because of the Education Reauthorization Act, which made more money available to borrow.

Ruger, senior fellow of research at Auburn Theological Seminary, said the numbers have “increased over the past 10 years but not nearly as much.”

“Some students are postponing seminary or going into a profession because clergy is not highly paid,” Ruger said.

Bangor also took a hit when the United Methodist Senate limited where its students could attend seminary. Bangor was not on that list.

Carol Lytch, president of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pa., said Lancaster has seen more part-time students and fewer full-time students.

“They have to keep their job and go part-time to school,” Lytch said.

Lytch said these students are harder to accommodate because they require more academic advising and more night classes. Lytch said she has also noticed more Lancaster graduates enter non-traditional roles away from pastoral ministry in churches.

“Students are using their degrees to go into leadership at nonprofits, military, hospital chaplain and counseling,” Lytch said. “It used to be that most students went from the university topastorate and now they have many more options to consider. People are just thinking differently. It’s not automatically, ‘I’m getting this degree to serve as a pastor.’”

Carolyn Held, a 2004 graduate of Eden Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree, said in her second year at Eden, she felt she was no longer called to parish ministry. She started her work as a chaplain at Lydia’s House, a St. Louis shelter for abused women and children, in 2003.
“I felt a strong call to work with women and children … When I started working here, it felt more like God’s calling me to be here,” Held said.

Greenhaw said 85 percent of Eden graduates go to work at local congregations.

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