Seeking More Seekers ; Spurred by Enrollment Drops, Theological Schools Broaden Their Educational Missions

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald | The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

Seeking More Seekers ; Spurred by Enrollment Drops, Theological Schools Broaden Their Educational Missions


G. Jeffrey MacDonald, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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