Theological education 2012: New World Order

More than 74,000 students are enrolled in theological education in North America, bringing a menu of vocational goals that mirrors the flux of a changing society.

A head-count enrollment of 74,193 in the U.S. and Canada is reported by the Association of Theological Schools. That number continues a trend of slight annual decreases since 2006. The percentage of women and minority enrollments, meanwhile, has been steady or increasing. Other demographic trends reflect transformations in church and culture, according to Yale Divinity School officials.

“What we see today is a blending of traditional students, mainline ministers, social reformers, young idealists, joint-degree students, 45-and-up students coming from other careers and now wanting to do something more meaningful with their lives,” says Anna Ramirez ’93 M.Div., Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid.

“When I came here in the early 90s, it was mostly Protestants who wanted to be pulpit pastors and Catholics who wanted to do nonprofit or Ph.D. work. After 9/11 there was a shift – a new flood of applicants – 9/11 widows, young people who were shocked at what happened, others who were questioning their own values.

“Today a new world order is underway. Young people are traveling the world, bringing a sense of an interconnected, global view of Christianity. We have students working in Malaysia, Russia, China. We have faculty working on economics, environment, the nature of faith in a globalized era. Christianity is a different thing now.”

A shifting denominational and economic scene is stirring many students to pursue approaches and identities that combine theological education with other professional disciplines, says YDS Dean Harold Attridge.

Traditional ministry opportunities are in a state of flux as some denominations face a declining number of full-time local-parish positions on offer. Other graduates are becoming teachers, either in public or private schools. more are pursuing joint degrees (for instance, with Yale School of Law, or Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, or Yale School of Management), or are bringing a previous professional credential or career experience to theological studies in hopes of combining them after graduation.

“In my ten years here as dean, we’ve seen a certain trajectory of students doing other professional work,” he says. “And we’re seeing an increasingly younger student body, one that is open to a variety of ministries in order to put their theological education to significant use in a shifting scene.”