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A Quick Question 

Are more or less women entering seminaries today?

The quick answer: 
  More but still less!

The longer answer:  From 1978 to the present, women have entered M.Div programs in increasing numbers, however, those numbers are still not parallel with those of men.  Using mainly 1993-94 national statistics and survey data, the book entitled Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling (Barbara Brown Zikmund, Adair Lummis and Patricia Chang) reported the following statistics:

"Despite the fact that more women are enrolled in seminary today than in any other time in history, the number of female students reported by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS)..has grown only from 19% of total seminary students in l978 to slightly over 30% in 1994. These seminaries include Roman Catholic seminaries, which do not prepare women for the priesthood, so the percentage of women enrolled at Protestant seminaries is a bit higher.  Nevertheless, 70% of seminarians are still men, and men continue to enter the ministry in majority numbers."  

Several factors account for the increase in proportion of women in seminary. First, social attitudes have shifted favoring openness for women entering all professions, including divinity, the former "queen of professions." In the last fifty years, society has been generally more open to women entering professions formerly filled predominantly or solely by men.

Secondly, this shift led Protestant denominations in the 1970's to make important decisions.  They could either make changes in their canons so that women could be ordained for the first time (i.e. the Episcopal Church and denominations now part of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) or establish national programs to assist women interested in becoming clergy to obtain the needed credentials and find positions (ie. mainline denominations such as ABC, Disciples, UCC, United Methodist, the Presbyterian Church).  

Finally, secularization in society has affected the central importance of church organizations. This has lessened the attractiveness of clergy as a career choice particularly in the liberal mainline Protestant denominations that have valued advanced graduate degrees for their clergy. With graduate degrees, intellectually gifted men could find better paying and more prestigious occupations than parish ministry, thus leaving more slots in seminary classrooms for equally gifted but more ministry-motivated women.  However, there is evidence that women, too, are responding to the same secular career sirens, particularly when they begin to realize that ordained men will still get the better parish positions. In addition, other studies have found that proportionately fewer women seminarians, even those enrolled in M.Div. programs, enter ordained ministry and when they do, end up leaving church positions at higher rates than men.

Overall, the number of women clergy has risen in the last 10 years but it is difficult to give an exact or even an approximate count of how many women serve in the United States.  Only a handful of the larger mainline denominations keep accurate records of all active clergy by gender.  Many of the smaller denominations do not keep such records, and conservative denominations (particularly the Southern Baptists) which do not officially approve of their congregations ordaining women to serve (although there are SBC clergywomen) do not have accurate statistics.  Further, there are many levels of clergy, even officially, with different levels of education and status in some denominations. For example, in the Lutheran and Episcopal denominations as well as Catholic, deacons are ordained, but ordained to a lesser order than fully ordained clergy or priests. 

In the Clergy Women book cited above, after looking at the fifteen denominations in that study, it was noted:

"when we examine the changes in the percentage of women clergy across time, the proportional increase between 1986 and 1994 is, in most cases, lower than the proportional increase between 1977 and 1986.  This suggests that while the percentage of women clergy continues to increase, it is doing so at a slower rate."

For more information on women in ministry, please visit the Women and Religion section of this site.

Adair Lummis will be teaching an online course titled Women, Religion, and the Future of USA Churches. Read more about this course on the Hartford Seminary web site.


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