Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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"Seminary" (from the Latin seminarium , meaning "seed plot") was adopted by Roman Catholic Church fathers at the Council of Trent (sixteenth century) as the designation for settings where candidates for the priesthood could be nourished and formed in their vocations apart from distracting "worldly" influences. In the United States, "theological seminary" is now used as one of several names for institutions that provide postbaccalaureate training for men and women for various ministries in churches and synagogues. Other designations include "school of theology" and "divinity school," the latter generally referring to schools attached to a university. For most of their history, the primary purpose of these institutions has been the education of persons intending to become ordained ministers or rabbis. That purpose has been broadened in recent years.

Until the early nineteenth century, most Protestant clergy received a liberal arts education in colleges such as Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, followed by an apprenticeship of six months to a year during which one "read divinity" with an ordained clergyman. Concern for the adequacy of such preparation led Massachusetts Congregationalists to found Andover Theological Seminary in 1808. Other theological schools were established shortly thereafter. The shift away from the older liberal-arts-cum -apprenticeship pattern of education was an important step in the professionalization of Protestant clergy. Roman Catholics had founded their first U.S. seminary, St. Mary's in Baltimore, 17 years earlier in 1791. American Jews founded Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1875 as the first Jewish institution to train rabbis. Over the years, most theological schools, excepting Roman Catholics, followed the trends of professionalization that Protestant schools early adopted and that many other occupations also pursued (Bledstein 1978). For Catholics, however, it was only after Vatican II that seminaries shifted their focus substantially from moral and spiritual formation to preparation for professional ministry, with a renewed emphasis on the study of scriptures and increased practical training (Hemrick and Hoge 1986).

A fairly recent development is the establishment by several large evangelical seminaries of substantial extension programs offering degrees to part-time students. Several of these programs use satellite and computer technologies for course delivery (Morgan 1994). Recently, there has been considerable discussion of the character and purpose of theological education, with a particular concern over the dominance of the professional model of ministry (see Gilpin [1988] for a bibliography).

In 1994, the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS), the accrediting agency for theological education, listed 189 fully accredited theological schools (165 in the United States and 32 in Canada). Another 30 schools are listed as candidates for accreditation or associate schools, for a total of 219 (Fact Book 1993-1994:3). The 219 schools represent various Protestant denominations as well as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Of the total, 130 are affiliated with one or more Protestant or Orthodox denominations, 52 are Roman Catholic, and 37 are interdenominational or nondenominational. Four accredited schools provide rabbinical training for the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox branches of Judaism. Some Roman Catholic seminaries have chosen not to affiliate with the ATS. A number of Jewish schools also are not members. A number of Bible colleges and institutes also provide ministerial training for churches that do not require postbaccalaureate training for their clergy. They may be accredited by the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges.

Most theological schools, regardless of religious affiliation, are small when compared with other institutions of higher education. Enrollment in the largest school in 1993-1994 was 3,458 students, which translates to a full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment of 2,656 students. The smallest school had 16 students (13 FTE). Overall, 23 schools had a total enrollment of 75 or less, and 34 had more than 500. The modal school has a total student enrollment of between 151 and 300 students.

Theological schools vary in structure and governance. A large majority of Protestant schools are free-standing institutions. Most, but not all, are affiliated with a denomination and governed by a self-perpetuating or denominationally elected board of trustees. A smaller number are divinity schools related to a university and subject to the university's governing board. Most, although not all, university-related schools are interdenominational or ecumenical in character. The Roman Catholic Church also has free-standing as well as some university-related seminaries. Some are under the control of dioceses; others are controlled by religious orders. Jewish seminaries typically have close ties to a university but are governed by independent boards of trustees. Funding patterns vary. Some sponsoring denominations—for example, Southern Baptists, Lutherans, and United Methodists—supply substantial annual funding for their schools. Roman Catholic dioceses and religious congregations also contribute to the schools they sponsor, and often contribute the services of priests and members of the religious order as faculty members and administrators. Most schools rely on endowment earnings, annual fund-raising efforts, and tuitions for much of their income.

That many theological schools have a formal denominational relationship makes their environment considerably different from most other professional schools and creates a multiple-accountability structure: to governing boards, accrediting agencies, and the denomination. While denomination-seminary relationships are often strained, they can become exceedingly difficult, as recent events within the Southern Baptist Convention have illustrated. Fundamentalist Southern Baptist denominational leaders have led a "purge" of their seminaries, removing trustees, administrators, and faculty who hold moderate or liberal theological positions.

Typical seminary faculty size is small. Protestant faculties range from 3 to 106 with an average of 17; Roman Catholic faculties range from 4 to 36 and average 14; Jewish faculties range from 10 to 40 in size (Wheeler et al. 1992). The composition of theological faculties is changing slowly to reflect gender and ethnic diversity.

Total enrollment in theological schools grew substantially between 1972 and 1987, up approximately 60% when all degree programs are taken into account. Between 1987 and 1993, total enrollment grew by 14%. Enrollment in master of divinity (M.Div.) programs (the major program leading to ordination) has remained relatively flat since the mid-1980s. The increase in total enrollment has come mostly through the expansion of other degree programs: such as the doctor of ministry (D.Min.), an advanced degree for ordained clergy, and specialized master's programs for students interested in careers other than ordained ministry (e.g., youth ministry, religious education, or counseling).

During the 20-year period 1973-1993, the enrollment of women in ATS schools grew from approximately 10% to more than 30%. In mainline Protestant and ecumenical schools, women constitute more than half of the student body. Protestant schools with an evangelical orientation enroll considerably fewer women (approximately 14% in 1986). Women students enrolled in M.Div. programs are considerably less likely than men to be planning a career in pastoral ministry and are more likely to seek employment as counselors or chaplains (O'Neill and Grandy 1994).

From 1972 to 1993, the enrollment of African Americans in all theological schools went from 3% to 8% of the total number of students. Hispanics increased from 1% to 3%. The number of Asian students grew from 1% in 1981 to almost 6% in 1993.

Focusing only on overall enrollment trends masks considerable variation by type of schools. The largest increases since the early 1970s came in Protestant schools with an evangelical orientation. Mainline Protestant schools also grew during this period, but less so than evangelical schools. Roman Catholic seminaries experienced overall declines, especially in the number of candidates preparing for the priesthood (Carroll 1989). These declines have reached crisis proportions in recent years, even as total U.S. Catholic membership is growing (Schoenherr and Young 1993).

Age changes among students have been important. The mean age of entering seminarians in 1962 was 25.4 years. By 1988, it was 31 (Larsen and Shopshire 1988). In 1993, the ATS reported the modal age of male students as between 30 and 39 years. The age for women was bimodal, almost equally divided between the 30-39 and 40-49 age groups (Fact Book 1993-1994:83). The overall trend to older students, while often salutary in terms of the maturity and life experience, means a substantial decrease in service years in ordained ministry per student graduate. It also substantially increases the average cost of educating a stable supply of clergy.

The cost to individual students of theological education is low in comparison with other professional schools (1993 tuition ranged between $1,200 and $13,000), reflecting both the relatively low earnings potential of many graduates and the efforts by some denominations to subsidize their students' education. Nevertheless, rising educational costs have led to an increasingly heavy debt load for many students (Ruger and Wheeler 1994).

Seminary leaders worry not only about the number of student enrollments but also about the quality of students when compared with entrants into other professions or with previous cohorts of seminary students. Comparative data are inadequate to substantiate these worries. Limited evidence suggests that entering seminarians have slightly lower grade point averages than students entering medicine and law. Additionally, analysis of GRE scores indicates that women students planning to pursue an M.Div. degree have higher average scores than their male counterparts, but that both men and women score somewhat higher than those pursuing master's degrees in other helping professions—such as counseling, social work, and nursing (Grandy and Greiner 1990:8 f). Recent entering seminarians are less likely to have been in undergraduate leadership positions as seminarians in the past (O'Neill and Murphy 1991).

Jackson W. Carroll


B. J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism (New York: Norton, 1978)

J. W. Carroll, "The State of the Art," Christianity and Crisis 49(1989):106-110

Fact Book on Theological Education (Pittsburgh: Association of Theological Schools, 1993-1994)

G. Gilpin, "Basic Issues in Theological Education," Theological Education 25(1988):115-121

J. Grandy and M. Greiner, "Academic Preparation of Master of Divinity Candidates," in Ministry Research Notes (Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service, 1990)

E. F. Hemrick and D. R. Hoge, Seminarians in Theology (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1986)

E. L. Larsen and J. M. Shopshire, "A Profile of Contemporary Seminarians," Theological Education 24(1988):1-136

T. C. Morgan, "Re-engineering the Seminary," Christianity Today 38, 12(1994): 74-79

J. P. O'Neill and J. Grandy, "The Image of Ministry," in Ministry Research Notes (Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service, 1994)

J. P. O'Neill and R. T. Murphy, "Changing Age and Gender Profiles Among Entering Seminary Students," in Ministry Research Notes (Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service, 1991)

A. Ruger and B. G. Wheeler, "Deeper in Debt," Christian Century 111(1994): 100-103

R. A. Schoenherr and L. A. Young, Full Pews and Empty Altars (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993)

B. G. Wheeler et al., "Theological Education," in Encyclopedia of Educational Research , Vol. 4 (New York: Macmillan, 1992): 1422-1427.

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