Our previous posts in this series have highlighted difficulties faced by seminaries. One of these is the declining pool of prospective students who have just graduated from college. A recent Christianity Today article tells us that things are getting even worse in this regard—18 Christian colleges have closed since the COVID-19 pandemic. In this post we’ll dive into the details a bit and suggest some solutions.
Tough days for colleges
I hate to pour cold water on colleges at this time of the year when joyful commencement celebrations are happening all over the world, but . . . . Where are the replacements for this year’s grad’s coming from? Who will fill their shoes? Sadly, this year’s commencement will be the last for some schools.
The CT article cited above refers to a detailed study conducted by Higher Ed Dive that lists 92 colleges that have been closed since 2016, along with the reasons why they were shuttered. Colleges that have closed represent a wide range of of institutions, including Christian schools (e.g. Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic) and other privately funded schools, as well as a number of publicly funded schools. Some of these schools had specialized curricula (e.g. art, education, ministry, nursing, technology); others offered broader liberal arts programs.
The problem doesn’t end here—some schools are still hanging on only due to cost-cutting measures, such as mergers, jettisoning unpopular programs, and replacing retiring tenured faculty with part-time adjuncts. Trinity International University (TIU) in Deerfield IL recently made the decision to replace all but one of its residential undergrad programs with online programs.
School closings are not news except in their escalating numbers. COVID-19 turned a downward trend into a death spiral. Demographics, economics, and many issues related to cultural changes are involved. Many schools couldn’t solve the iron triangle of costs, access, and quality, and there will be more that can’t solve it in the days ahead. The undergraduate pool is drying up. What’s a seminary to do?
What’s a seminary to do?
A 1961 soul song by William Bell had this refrain: “you don’t miss your water ’til your well runs dry.” I came across the song when the Byrds did a country cover in 1968 in their seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Bell was singing about a failed romance, but the metaphor is also fitting for currrent seminaries’ failing admissions efforts. Seminary recruiters can no longer simply go to the well of recent college grads to replenish their student bodies.
This is a problem for the churches as well as the seminaries. If the seminaries can’t depend on the colleges for prospective students, neither can the churches depend on the seminaries for prospective pastors. A recent study determined that 25% of today’s pastors plan to retire by 2030. Who will replace them? And since when is the church’s mandate just to maintain the status quo? Who will plant and pastor new churches? What’s the church to do?
Churches and seminaries had better start matching their talk about being partners with strategic planning and action. Seminary alumni/ae who are already serving in churches should be a vital link in facilitating this sort of cooperation. Seminaries can develop new pools for recruiting students, starting with adults who are seeking a second career in ministry or already engaged in bi-vocational ministry. Such adults will need programs suited for adult learners who are studying part-time. Churches can ramp up their existing adult education programs and create a basic ministry preparation curriculum for their gifted congregants. Individuals who excel in such basic studies should be identified and funded to engage in a formal seminary program. Competence-based theological education (CBTE) programs that partner seminaries and churches seem to be the best current strategy for this sort of church-seminary synergy. In such programs students participate in credible academics as they grow in ministry wisdom, getting their hands dirty alongside seasoned pastors.
Many are familiar with Mike Rowe’s TV series “America’s Dirtiest Jobs.” Mike is known as the perpetual apprentice because he steps in to do really grungy jobs in this series. But there’s another side to Mike, the side that helps young people realize that a college degree (along with the huge debt that often comes with it) is often not the best foundation for building a career. The alternative is educational programs that use a hands-on mentor-driven approach to learning a skilled trade. Mike promotes this through his Mike Rowe Works foundation. Aren’t the implications of all this for ministry studies obvious?
Seminaries can no longer rely on recent college grads to replenish their student bodies. What’s more, churches can no longer rely on seminaries to replenish their pastoral staffs. The church needs people who are willing to get their hands dirty in ministry, whether they have a college degree or not. Seminaries need to recruit such people from the churches. It’s time for churches and seminaries to skip “the middle man” and work together directly to train people with dirty hands for ministry. Colleges—and seminaries—come and go. The church stands on the word of the Lord that endures forever!
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Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NLT)
Timothy, my dear son, be strong through the grace that God gives you in Christ Jesus. You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others. (2 Timothy 2:1-2 NLT)