Are Seminaries Failing the Test?


FACTs on Theological Education
data from the Fact2000 study

Are Seminaries Failing the Test?  
by David A. Roozen

Seventy-five years ago, the pioneer of religious research, H. Paul Douglass, worried when he found that 40 percent of Protestant ministers lacked a college education. Even that percentage was increasing because frontier pastors had very little formal training.* 

He would be pleased today—at least on the surface. Research undertaken by Faith Communities Today (FACT) shows that the figures that troubled him so greatly have shrunk to under 20 percent. Among the oldline Protestant clergy, a whopping 95 percent of senior and solo pastors have college degrees. The data also demonstrate that clergy with seminary training are more likely to use literary and media references in their sermons and that they serve congregations with high levels of involvement in ecumenical and social ministries. That’s the good news.

But there is also perplexing data that would surely trouble Douglass as it does the researchers and educators who worked together in FACT. Vital congregations are more likely to be served by pastors who never completed seminary than by ministers with a masters or doctoral degree from seminary. That is, there appears to be a negative relationship between education and congregational vitality (as subjectively assessed). This finding is true across Protestantism—among what FACT researchers call liberal, moderate, evangelical and historically black denominations. 

A chorus of theological educators has responded, “Not possible. Seminary-educated clergy must be using more rigorous evaluative criteria.” Their plausible argument, however, just doesn’t bear up in subsequent FACT analyses that use more objective measures of various aspects of vitality.

Narrowing the focus to oldline or mainline Protestantism (what FACT describes as liberal and moderate denominational families) clergy with masters or doctorates from seminary are less likely to be in growing congregations, less likely to serve congregations that have changed their worship patterns in the last five years, and more likely to be in congregations with conflict.

Upping the ante, the subsequent analysis also suggests that the negative relationship between vitality and education is greater than first thought, because of the confounding factor of size.  Larger congregations are slightly more likely than smaller congregations to be vital—but they are less likely to have clergy with a seminary degree.  If one looks within size categories (see figure 1) for oldline Protestants, the vitality/education gap increases. 

A recent study of mainline seminaries conducted by Dennis Anderson** suggests that one reason why denominations are providing less financial support to their respective seminaries is that the churches believe that seminary graduates “lack the practical education needed for sustaining and broadening today’s parish ministry.” The academic dean of one seminary proposes a simple test: “Do congregations flourish under our graduates?” The FACT answer: apparently not. 

So far we’re not sure why this is, and more analysis is planned. There are, however, two possible clues. The first is this: FACT found that pastors with seminary training in oldline congregations are less likely than those without seminary degrees always to emphasize God’s love in their sermons; also they are less likely to deal with the spiritual development of their members. A second clue is this: the negative relationship between clergy education and congregational vitality appears to be unique to the denominations that are cognitively (rather than liturgically or expressively) oriented. Figure 2 shows this within oldline Protestantism, but the same pattern is found within evangelical Protestantism.***

*See The Protestant Church as a Social Institution by H. Paul Douglass and Edmund deS Brunner. Published in 1935 by Harper and Brothers. 

** See “The Churches Drift Away—Where are the Denomination-School Ties of Yesterday?” reporting Anderson’s study, written by Kenneth A. Briggs, in In Trust, Volume 13, Number 2, 2002.

***Liturgical/expressive denominations among oldline Protestants include Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Unitarian Universalists. Within evangelical Protestantism, they include holiness and Pentecostal groups. All of the above were included in the FACT study.  

Figure 1 Failing the Test: Seminary Pastors Seem Unprepared for Vital Congregations

  Figure 1

* Number of Regularly Participating Adults

Figure 2:Thinking Too Hard?  Seminary Grads in Cognitively Oriented, Oldline Denominations Less Likely to Pass the Vitality Test

Figure 2

*Cognitive Vs Liturgical/Expressive, Oldline Denominations
**Education of Senior or Sole Pastor of Responding Congregations 

David Roozen is a professor at Hartford Seminary and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. With Carl S. Dudley, he directed the Faith Communities Today research. 

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