In the US theological community there is a common perception that enrollment in US theological schools has declined since the recession began, that the decline is ongoing, and that this decrease in enrollment is a crisis for US churches. It is feared that the decrease will lead to a shortage of pastors and threaten the health of the churches. The cost and difficulty of graduate theological study, the availability of more lucrative professions, and the recession, are widely believed to have caused the decline. Getting a graduate theology degree and being a member of the “clergy is not easy, you need to be available all the time, it is a very intimidating profession”, says Presbyterian minister Rev. Dr. Karen Claasen, pastor of a Culver City, California, congregation. Also, “the pay is not great”, observed Rev. Claasen, with a shrug.
A close look at enrollment in US and Canadian theology schools reveals that, while there has been a decrease in the numbers of students enrolled since 2005, the cause of the decrease is unclear, and the perception of an impending crisis in the churches may reflect factors other than the supply of future pastors.
Between 1991 and 1997, total enrollment (including full-time and part-time students) in U.S. and Canadian theological schools was stable at about 61,000 students per year. In 1998 enrollment in the same schools began a steady increase each year for seven years, reaching a height of 81,302 in 2005. From 2006 on enrollment began to decline, reaching 72,000 in 2014, which was the same number in 1999. (All statistics are from The Association of Theological Schools, Annual Data Tables, 2003 to 2015.)
Total enrollment has decreased by 10% from its 2006 high, returning to the number in 1999. This data indicates that total enrollment is actually higher now than it was during an extended period of time before a relative surge in enrollment that began in 1998. Notably, total enrollment began to decrease at an accelerated rate in 2008 and 2009, during the height of the recession, which is to be expected. The data does indicate a relative decline when compared to the height of enrollment during the years from 2004 to 2006, but the same data can support the conclusion that the recent decrease in enrollment reflects the abnormally large enrollment during the years leading up to 2006.
There is little consensus about the cause of the decrease. Pastors and school administrators offer varying interpretations. Father Rodel Balagtas, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, in Los Angeles, California, argues that the increased materialism of secular culture, and “the attractions of the world”, discourage men from entering the priesthood. Others point to a failure of the schools themselves to encourage enrollment.
Presbyterian Rev. Dr. Azriel Azarcon, of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Illinois, argues that “the leadership of the churches have not given enough support to the schools” which provide pastors to those churches. Azarcon says that the result has been poor morale in the schools and the resulting decreasing enrollment. Claasen points to the practical difficulties of graduate study and low earning potential as causes of decreasing student enrollment.
Of course the factors that Balagtas, Azarcon, and Claasen point to are not new, and don’t explain increasing enrollment before the recession. Tom Tanner, Director of Accreditation and Institutional Evaluation for The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), acknowledges that total enrollment in ATS schools has declined since 2006, but points out that “ATS enrollment is actually higher now than it was in 1999”, before the “enrollment bubble” of the early 2000s.
Chris Mainzer, a colleague of Mr. Tanner at ATS, points out that enrollment in secular graduate schools also declined when the recession began, which supports the view that the economic factor contributed to the decrease in enrollment. Mr. Mainzer notes, however, that there has been “declining church attendance” at many of the churches whose schools are members of ATS and suggested that decreased interest in religion per se may have been the cause of the enrollment decrease.
A major study by the Pew Center for Religion & Public Life (“America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, May 12, 2015) offers support for Mainzer’s suggestion that a broad decrease in the social appetite for Christianity has caused the decreasing enrollment. The Pew study found that the Christian share of the US population has decreased from 78% in 2007 to 70% in 2014, a 10% decrease that mirrors the 10% decrease in theology school enrollment between 2006 and 2014. This suggests that the decrease in enrollment is linked to a decrease in Christianity itself, rather than the cost of tuition or specific church policies.