Two stories came across my desk over the last week that seek to describe the phenomenon of decline in the church in drastically different ways. One is a quote from one of two April PC(USA) Board of Pensions Regional Benefits consultations. The second is one of the first articles published on the research by Barbara Wheeler and Tony Ruger, two Presbyterians, on their extensive and decades old research on seminarians and enrollment. One seems to say seminaries are sending more graduates to the church and the other alludes to the church sending fewer students to seminary.
Both make me wonder, what is God up to and calling the Church to do? I would like to test a few provisional answers with you.
First there was a story by Susan Reimann with the Board of Pensions Communications on their April Western Region Benefits Conference that does not name but does quote “one participant” who said “The Church is shrinking. We are losing churches all the time … and yet the seminaries … churn out more and more seminary graduates.”
Seminaries do continue to graduate more students, but since a peak a peak in enrollment at all accredited theological schools including all mainline schools in 2004-5, there has been a decline. This second story comes from an article in the Spring 2013 edition of InTrust magazine by Wheeler and Ruger entitled “Sobering figures point to overall enrollment decline” summarized here. Enrollment at mainline schools, like our Presbyterian Seminaries, has decreased at a faster than average rate. There has been more than a 15% decline in enrollment since 1992 and close to 20% since the peak in 2004.
Wheeler and Ruger note that seminaries are attracting excellent students, more and more that are younger, with growth in the number of African-American and Hispanic students. Students 50-64 are also increasing. Mark Chaves’ 2001 book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends comments on this last phenomenon support theories posited by Andy Browne at the Board of Pensions based on their research. Namely, we can expect a large number of ministers to retire over the next 10-20 years.
What do you think God is up to when you hear these theories and the research behind them? When I think contextually about the growing population and complexity of the world we live in, I am more and more convinced the need for well-formed, informed, Reformed, pastoral leaders is growing not declining. Churches may be shrinking, but ministry needs and opportunies to serve will be increasing soon if not already. I think God is calling us to be a calling church. We have an opportunity as Presbyterians as many seminaries close, drastically change there mission including more and more that are closing some or all degree programs to provide leadership in established and yet to be established faith communities.
Seminary enrollment reflects something that is happening in the Church as much as what is happening in seminaries. Seminaries do “churn out graduates,” persons sent by God and the Church. When it is done well, congregations and Presbyteries have discerned these persons likely called to be future teaching elders in the PC(USA) or pastors in their own traditions. Or as Ted Wardlaw, President of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary recently said, “Seminarians are not grown in greenhouses.” They come from the church.
The Church’s role is to find and send those we believe are leadership-gifted, thoughtful, loving, and full of life. Hopefully they will be diverse as a group, younger, and willing to take risks that will make a difference for Christ in the Church and God’s world that is lined up with deep needs. Presbyterian Seminaries prepare those they are sent by God and the Church as spiritual mentors, pastors, preachers, and teachers that make a difference in our lives, the church, and the world. For two centuries they have done this and are as ready and able as ever, as they grown and change too, to meet the needs of the changing church.
I think God is wondering if we are ready as a Church?
Fairly compensating pastors for ministry and paying for their education is another subject I will addresss in my next post.
You can go to learn more about the Board of Pension plans and offer feedback here.