Seminaries face changes: New paths to ordination emerge

Seminaries welcomed students back to school this fall, but both the students and these institutions are facing pressures that are transforming the way clergy are trained. Schools are struggling financially, enrollment is declining, and many seminarians face increasing debts. Other factors, however, could make a seminary education more accessible.


For more than a century, a traditional seminary education was the standard route to the pulpit: three or more years of study capped by a degree, ordination and a post in a congregation.

What do these changes mean for congregations? What will be lost and what will be gained by the incoming seminary or theological student? Is a theological education more or less relevant today?

This edition of ReligionLink provides resources for reporters exploring these issues.

  • The Association of Theological Schools also conducts research on seminary education.
  • In Trust, an association of the boards of theological schools, posts online resources on a wide range of topics related to seminary education.
  • According to In Trust, total enrollment reached 75,898 in fall 2010, up from 75,431 in 2009 among ATS member schools. The increase came from the addition of 11 new schools to the association, with a combined student body of about 1,000. Enrollment figures from the previous five years, however, “reflect continued slow decline.”
  • See clergy wage figures from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Low wages are a factor in the concern about mounting debt for seminarians.
  • Washington Theological Union (Catholic) announced it would close in 2013 due to financial considerations. Cardinal Meunch Seminary (Catholic) in Fargo, N.D., closed in April 2010.
  • Southern Seminary (Southern Baptist) closed its school of church music in 2009.
  • In 2008, the Weston Jesuit School of Theology (Catholic) of Cambridge, Mass., merged with Boston College, becoming part of its new School of Theology and Ministry.
  • Andover Newton Theological School (American Baptist and United Church of Christ), in Massachusetts, and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (American Baptist), in New York, discussed the possibility of merging but opted against it in 2009, deciding instead to pursue collaborative academic programming.
  • In fall 2010, Lexington Theological Seminary (Christian Church, Disciples of Christ) moved from a campus-based school to an online one, retaining a few on-campus supplemental classes. Its 80 resident students were phased out by May 2011.

Seminaries and Theological Schools in the U.S.

  • Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada

    The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada is a membership organization of more than 250 graduate schools in the U.S. and Canada. The organization conducts professional and academic degree programs on the practice of ministry for teaching and research in the theological discipline.

  • Cherry Hill Seminary

    Cherry Hill Seminary is the leading provider of education and practical training in leadership, ministry and personal growth in pagan and nature-based spiritualities. Holli S. Emore is the executive director.

    Contact: 888-503-4131.
  • Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

    Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., which Graham co-founded, has archival photos of Billy Graham and his family available for digital transfer. Contact through the website.

    Contact: 978-468-7111.
  • Hartford Seminary

    The Hartford Seminary posts a list of religious groups supporting LGBT concerns, as well as other resources.

  • Jewish Theological Seminary

    The Jewish Theological Seminary is a collection of five schools, including a rabbinical school, in New York City. It ordains both men and women in the Conservative movement. A page for journalists lists faculty members by topic.

  • Moscow Theological Seminary

    Moscow Theological Seminary (MTS) is the center for all ministry and congregational leadership training for the Russian Baptist Union. The Russian Baptist Union, founded more than 140 years ago, is the largest evangelical protestant group in Russia. Moscow Theological Seminary operates nine Learning Centers across Russia: Moscow, Chita, Chelyabinsk, Golgotha, Noyabrsk, Leninsk-Kuznetsky, Rostov-on-Don, North Caucasus and Khabarovsk.

  • St. Innocent Orthodox Theological Seminary

    The seminary was founded in 1976. Its name and location have changed through the years; since 2006 it has been in Roswell, N.M.

News Articles

National Sources

  • Daniel Aleshire

    Daniel Aleshire directs the Association of Theological Schools, which is based in Pittsburgh, Pa. The association has 251 member schools with 80,140 students total, of whom 64 percent are men and 36 percent are women. The ATS posts a number of tables on seminary enrollment.

  • Dorothy C. Bass

    Dorothy C. Bass is director of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. This project, funded by the Lilly Endowment and based at Valparaiso University in Indiana, works to develop resources to help people live out the practices of Christian faith with integrity. Bass can speak about teaching children to resist the pressure to always buy more and do more – how families can learn to slow down, take Sabbath time and rest. Bass is co-editor of Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens and of Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, published in 2006.

  • Linda Cannell

    Linda Cannell is dean of academic life at North Park University in Chicago and the author of Theological Education Matters: Leadership Education for the Church.

  • Robert E. Cooley

    Robert E. Cooley is president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a past president of the Association of Theological Schools. He now serves as a governance mentor for In Trust, an association of the boards in theological education, where he advises theological institutions on possible mergers and affiliations.

    Contact: 302-654-7770.
  • Derek Cooper

    Derek Cooper is an assistant professor of biblical studies and historical theology at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Pa. He is the author of So You’re Thinking About Going to Seminary: An Insider’s Guide.

  • Edmund Gibbs

    Edmund Gibbs is professor emeritus of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif. He is an expert on the emerging church and has called for seminaries and theological schools to rethink the way they train pastors for the 21st century. His books include LeadershipNext: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture.

  • Stephen Lewis

    The Rev. Stephen Lewis is  president of the Fund for Theological Education, an organization that promotes and supports theological education.

  • Nadine S. Pence

    Nadine S. Pence is director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. She is also a former seminary professor.

  • Ramesh Richard

    Ramesh Richard is professor of global theological engagement and pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas. He can discuss the challenges facing the evangelical world from pastors in developing countries who lack seminary educations, as well as the difficulties facing foreign pastors who come to the U.S. for seminary educations.

  • Frederick W. Schmidt

    The Rev. Frederick W. Schmidt is director of spiritual formation and Anglican studies and an associate professor of Christian spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Dallas. He is the author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1996).

    Contact: 214-768-2292.
  • Barbara G. Wheeler

    Barbara G. Wheeler is the former longtime president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, a leading Presbyterian seminary. In November 2003, Wheeler engaged in a widely followed debate on gay ordination with Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., a leading evangelical institution. The exchange, titled “Strangers: A Dialogue About the Church,” took place at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. In her address, Wheeler spoke in favor of ordaining active homosexuals, but also about the dynamics of the debate and its negative impact on the churches.

    Contact: 212-662-4315.
  • Katarina Schuth

    Sister Katarina Schuth is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester, Minn., and holds the Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. She is an expert on Catholic American seminary education.

  • David Sebastian

    David Sebastian is dean of Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Ind., which saw a dip in enrollment through the 1990s and a steep increase through 2008. He has written about the turnaround and about trends in theological education.

    Contact: 765-641-4032.
  • Malcolm L. Warford

    Malcolm L. Warford served as director of the Lexington Seminar, a 10-year project on theological teaching for the church’s ministries supported by the Lilly Endowment and sponsored by Lexington Theological Seminary. He is the editor of Revitalizing Practice: Collaborative Models for Theological Faculties.

    Contact: 540-292-0474.

Regional Sources

In the Northeast

  • Stephen Lewis

    The Rev. Stephen Lewis is  president of the Fund for Theological Education, an organization that promotes and supports theological education.

  • J. Baird Callicott

    J. Baird Callicott is a professor in the philosophy and religious studies department at the University of North Texas in Denton. His expertise includes ecological ethics. He has written several books, including In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy and Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics From the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback.

  • Theodore Brelsford

    Theodore Brelsford is a former assistant professor of theology at Emory University in Atlanta and is now a pastor at Orchard Park Community Church in New York. He is co-editor of Contextualizing Theological Education.

  • David Horn

    David Horn is director of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s distance-learning program, Semlink.

  • Glenn T. Miller

    Glenn T. Miller is professor emeritus at Bangor Theological Seminary and the author of Piety and Profession: American Protestant Theological Education, 1870-1970. Contact through the seminary.

  • St. John’s Seminary

    St. John’s Seminary, a Catholic school in Brighton, Mass., is expanding its on-campus offerings with the introduction of a new institute on faith formation and a new master’s degree to be offered through that institute. The Rev. Christopher O’Connor is president of the institute. Contact via the seminary.

    Contact: 617-746-5422.
  • Christian Andrews

    Christian Andrews is director of ministries at Outreach Red Bank Community Church in Red Bank, N.J. In July 2011, he participated in a Princeton Theological Seminary conference on vocations for the 21st century.

  • Bruce C. Birch

    Bruce C. Birch is emeritus dean and emeritus professor of biblical theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He is co-editor of  C(H)AOS Theory: Reflections of Chief Academic Officers in Theological Education (2011).

  • Willette A. Burgie-Bryant

    Willette A. Burgie-Bryant is director of student formation and the chaplain at Eastern University’s Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa.

  • Larry Golemon

    Larry Golemon is executive director of the Washington Theological Consortium, an organization of 17 seminaries in the Washington, D.C., area.

  • Paul Robert Sauer

    Paul Robert Sauer is associate editor of the journal Lutheran Forum in Delhi, N.Y., which covers both the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America denominations. In the summer 2009 issue, he called for closing one of the LCMS’ two seminaries because they had grown too similar to each other, and because of a decline in the number of congregations that could support full-time pastors.

In the South

  • James Perkinson

    James Perkinson is professor of ethics and systematic theology at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit.  He has written about religious expression in rap music.

  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.

    R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and hosts a weekday call-in radio program. In 2001, he chaired the executive committee of the Greater Louisville Billy Graham Crusade. Mohler’s blog often mentions Graham.

  • Jason Byassee

    Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a research fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School. He wrote a rebuttal for The United Methodist Reporter of Sky McCracken’s essay for the same publication about the decline in value of a seminary education.

  • Craig Hill

    Craig Hill is a research professor of theological pedagogy at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He oversees several new degree programs that serve distance learners.

  • Bob Abegg

    Bob Abegg is director of online and external studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, which started with one online course in 2003 and now has two dozen, with 1,000 students. He is also elder emeritus at Centerpoint Church in Mesquite, Texas. Contact via DTS’ External Studies Office.

    Contact: 214-841-3781.
  • Gary Peluso-Verdend

    Gary Peluso-Verdend is president of Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla., a multidenominational Protestant school. He is also an associate professor of practical theology and is an expert on congregational cultures and training for church leadership.

  • Joseph A. Bessler

    Joseph A. Bessler is an associate professor of theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla. He wrote a chapter on the endangered seminary for the book Revitalizing Practice: Collaborative Models for Theological Faculties.

  • Sky McCracken

    The Rev. Sky McCracken is district superintendent for the Paducah district of the Memphis Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He wrote a July 2011 essay for The United Methodist Reporter in which he questioned the value of seminary education in training pastors to successfully lead congregations.

  • Viki B. Matson

    Viki B. Matson is an assistant professor of the practice of ministry and director of field education at Vanderbilt Divinity School at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Her areas of interest include church leadership development and theological education.

  • Chuck Kelley Jr.

    Chuck Kelley Jr. is president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which announced in April 2011 it would lay off seven people, including three professors.

  • Luder Whitlock Jr

    Luder Whitlock Jr. is chairman and interim president of Knox Theological Seminary, a Reformed school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The school recently launched Knox Virtual for distance students.

    Contact: 954-771-0376.
  • Don Sweeting

    Don Sweeting is president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. He wrote an essay on theological education in which he stated he thinks seminary education is more important than ever.

    Contact: 407-366-9493 ext. 213.
  • John Senior

    John Senior is an assistant professor of the practice of religion and society at Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C. Theological education is among his areas of expertise.

  • Allison St. Louis

    The Rev. Allison St. Louis is director of field education and “The Second Three Years,” a mentoring program for graduates of Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, an Episcopal seminary.

  • Ronald Edward Peters

    Ronald Edward Peters is president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of black seminaries in Atlanta.

    Contact: 404-527-7700.

In the Midwest

  • John Bolt

    John Bolt is a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich. In 2003, he participated in a Calvin forum on seminary education and contributed an article titled “Warning! Seminary Education May Be Hazardous to Your Spiritual Health” to its journal.

  • Rockbridge Seminary

    Rockbridge Seminary is the nation’s first online-only seminary. Its offices are in Springfield, Mo. It reports an enrollment rate growing at 29 percent. Contact through President Daryl Eldridge.

  • Duane Kelderman

    Duane Kelderman is vice president for administration and an associate professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich. In 2003, he participated in the school’s forum on seminary education and contributed an article, “Is Seminary Education for Pastors Still Necessary,” to its journal.

    Contact: 616-957-6933.
  • Moody Theological Seminary

    Moody Theological Seminary was created in January 2010 from the cost-savings merger of two schools, Moody Bible Institute and Michigan Theological Seminary. The school has two campuses, one in Grand Rapids and one in Chicago. Contact Paul Wilson, associate dean of student services.

  • Sally Peters

    Sally Peters is director of the Center for Lifelong Learning at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. In July 2011, she led a session on vocation in contemporary life at Princeton Theological Seminary’s conference “Perspectives on Vocation for the 21st Century.”

  • Lugene Schemper

    Lugene Schemper is a theological librarian at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich. He wrote an article on seminary education for Hispanic pastors.

In the West

  • Sharon Daloz Parks

    Sharon Daloz Parks is a senior fellow at the Whidbey Institute at Chinook in Clinton, Wash. In 2010, she spoke before the faculty at Washington Theological Consortium on the subject of challenges to contemporary theological education.

    Contact: 360-341-1884.
  • Karen Dalton

    The Rev. Karen Dalton is director of field education at Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist school in Los Angeles.

  • Robert Freeman

    Robert Freeman is assistant professor of distance learning at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

  • Ann Jefferson

    Ann Jefferson is program coordinator for Theological Education for Leadership, a new distance learning program at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.

  • James McDonald

    The Rev. James McDonald is president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, the only Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary in the western United States. SFTS announced in 2011 that it would close its Southern California campus, saving the school $450,000 per year.

  • David Buschart

    David Buschart is a professor of theology and historical studies at Denver Seminary. He has written that the challenges facing seminaries reflect the social, economic and cultural shifts affecting all institutions.

  • C. Smalley

    C. Smalley is president of Arizona Theological Seminary and Bible College. In the school’s academic philosophy, which Smalley wrote, the school bills itself as favoring “academy model” over the “university model” of education adopted by most seminaries. It has also forgone accreditation with non-Christian educational entities. Contact

    Contact: 520-303-7261.

Related Source Guides