The Current State of Seminary Education in the United States
A deep dive into data from The Association of Theological Schools
I didn’t go to seminary. I went to graduate school. I *almost* went to seminary, though. And just a few months ago I got invited to be on a panel at Wake Forest University‘s School of Divinity. I realized something very important during that visit - divinity schools are a completely different thing compared to graduate programs in something like political science.
For instance, they had an alumni reception and dozens and dozens of former students actually showed up! That would never ever happen if, let’s say, Michigan State’s graduate program in political science had a reception on campus. One big reason? Almost all the graduates have moved away from the East Lansing area. Every once in a while, some SIU grads will get together at the Midwest Political Science Conference for dinner, but that’s about as far as it goes. Divinity schools have a stronger sense of community than I am accustomed to.
Another thing that I find really interesting about divinity schools is what happens when a new dean takes over. I saw tons of pictures of Edward Aponte’s installation service at Drew Theological School. Dozens of alumni came back and joined the ceremony with full regalia. It was a big event that was live streamed. I didn’t even know who our dean was when I was in graduate school. There was no installation service. The new dean just showed up in June and moved into their office with no fanfare.
(These are the kind of things I notice as a social scientist, by the way. And, yes, it does annoy my wife that I have to point all this out. But I am always looking for little cultural differences.)
But beyond all of that cultural stuff, I think that seminaries are just an incredibly important part of the religious economy. In many ways they are the canary in the coal mine for the health of American religion. If a tradition is training up a bunch of seminarians, one has to assume that it’s because there is demand there. If their enrollments are declining, that’s because things aren’t going well in the denomination.
Well, I have some data about seminary enrollment. It comes from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), which was founded in 1918 and lists 273 member schools. They put together a really comprehensive report about the enrollment, faculty, cost, and other factors from all their members and publish it each year. It’s a treasure trove of information, which is formatted as a PDF (which is super annoying from a data analysis perspective).
I am going to just give you my first cut at this data in this post. There are tons of other areas to explore in future posts if this one gets some good feedback. The one metric I am going to use in this post is: head count, full time equivalent. This means that only full-time students get counted as one, part-time students count fractionally.1
Here are the twenty-five largest seminaries that have membership in ATS in data collected in 2022-2023. Note first that Liberty is just a behemoth, with a total enrollment of over 3,500 students. In fact, Liberty’s enrollment is more than the #2 (SBTS) and #3 (MBTS) seminaries combined. It’s just that big. But the vast majority of Liberty’s students attend virtually. This press release from October 2022 reports a total enrollment of 130,000 students (graduate and undergraduate). Less than 16,000 are on campus.
But there are a lot of Southern Baptist schools in the top ten! The aforementioned SBTS, MBTS, but also Southwestern and Southeastern, New Orleans and Gateway. That’s all six of the Southern Baptist’s seminaries in United States in the top ten.
In total, eight seminaries have a total FTE enrollment of at least one thousand. Nine more have FTE enrollment of between 500 and 1000. But notice how I’ve categorized this list. There are just one school that could be classified as mainline (Duke), the other twenty-four are more in the evangelical tradition of American Christianity.
Let’s take a look at which denominations have the largest seminary enrollments now. ATS does all the classification on their end for this, by the way. So, I can’t offer any insight into why a certain seminary is put into one bucket and not the other.
Interdenominational seminaries are clearly doing the best with nearly 11,000 students enrolled. ATS lists 48 seminaries in this category. The largest is Asbury at 1,156 FTE followed by Fuller at 1,047. Also in this category is Regent, Gordon-Conwell, Westminster, and Talbot.
The Southern Baptists are in second position, as previously mentioned, they have six of the largest seminaries in the data. Roman Catholics are third with a total of 4,704 seminarians. I just have to point out how interesting it is that there are over 60 million Catholics in the United States and there are about 13 million Southern Baptists. Yet, there are 7,400 SBC seminarians and just 4,700 Catholic priests in training.
Here’s something that I want to make exceedingly clear - there is very strong evidence here of the deterioration of mainline Protestant Christianity. I’ve written about denominational decline before, but this is another way to get to illustrate that point.
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