The Future of Theological Education: A View from One School
George W. Truett Theological Seminary
In J.D. Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye, Houlden Caulfield laments at one point, “Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that's impossible, but it's too bad anyway." For those of us in this room, Houlden Caulfield’s lament might echo sentiments we have expressed about theological education. “Certain things they should stay the way they are…I know it’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.” We may prefer that things stay the way they have been in theological education, but the impetus to change, or at least to consider possible changes, drives us to ask questions about the future of theological education. I will say from the outset: I do now know the future of theological education. So rather than operating from the assumption that I do, I would rather talk about issues and questions that seem relevant to how our institution attempts to provide theological education. I would not presume to have answers to any of these, but only to confess that these are the issues with which we wrestle in our own institution.
Demographic Shifts in Population
The first change underway, perhaps to no one’s surprise, involves demographic shifts in population at the national level. These demographic shifts in the United States have not gone without notice. In this election year, in particular, pundits and scholars alike have rehearsed the statistical shifts as blue states turn red and red states turn blue, due in large part to the prevailing population changes. Beyond their implications for the Electoral College, however, such shifts have significant implications for theological education now and in the days ahead.
By now, we are familiar with numbers tracking the significant shifts in the Hispanic community. In 1990, the Hispanic population numbered 22.4 million. By 2000, the same population group had grown to 35.1 million, and in the most recent census (2010), the number had risen to 50.5 million, more than doubling in the last twenty years. Further, the overall trend towards a “minority majority” population is statistically evident in the latest projections by the Census Bureau. Assuming their models of projection are valid, there will be 132.8 million Hispanics by 2050, representing 30% of the total population, 65.7 million African Americans, representing 15% of the population, and 40.6 million Asian, representing 9.2%. Taken together these percentages suggest that minorities will comprise nearly 55% of the population, a national minority majority, by the year 2050. At present, only four states (California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas) along with the District of Columbia are minority majority. And perhaps most striking, and certainly closer to hand is the projection that by 2023 (in just over a decade) more than half of all children in the United States will come from minority families, a statistic well worth considering by theological educators and congregations alike.
The rapid demographic change has significant implications for theological education writ large and more specifically, for theological education carried out among Baptists in Texas and the surrounding states.
In 2011, nearly 5,500 churches comprised the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Among the 5,500 churches, over 1,100 are listed as Hispanic congregations. In addition to partnering with the Baptist General of Texas, these congregations constitute the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas. The Convencion is the largest Hispanic Baptist Convention in the United States and the third largest in the world, behind that of Mexico and Brazil. Granted, most of the churches in the Convencion are small and likely incapable of supporting one full-time pastor, let alone a full staff (at least at present), but their growing presence and influence should not go unnoticed. In what ways are we as theological educators preparing the next generation of ministers to serve in and partner with the churches that flourish largely within a Hispanic context?  Further, should our academic programs reflect such diversity and if so, in what ways?
Trends in Enrollment and Degree Programs
Enrollment by both age and degree continues to shift in theological education. Table 1 tracks enrollment by age. As the chart indicates, students who are 20-29 represent the largest age group enrolled in theological education. As Table 1 indicates, the numbers for the 2007-2008 academic year represent the beginning of a slow decline for enrollment at ATS institutions, due in large part to the economic downturn. In the enrollment numbers from 2010-2011, the percentage of students ages 20-29 has returned to pre-recession numbers. In my own institution, the percentage of students in this age bracket is significant. The average age of our entering class is 23 years old and the percentage of students in the 20-29 age range is 79%. Students come to us sensing a call, but many arrive with little sense of direction. The research related to emerging adults confirms that this sense of uncertainty and even indecisiveness is consistent with this age group. Rather than talking about seminary as a place where one comes for preparation for a particular ministry, we have started talking about seminary as a place for discernment as one prepares for ministry. If the largest age group in theological education is characterized by uncertainty and indecisiveness, then how should a theological institution respond? What is not in the curriculum or in the extra-curricular activities that could aid in this discernment process?
In other mainline traditions, however, theological education is not experiencing expansion but in fact, severe contraction. Of the 11 Episcopal Seminaries in the United States, one recently announced it would end its main residential program, another is shutting down one of its campuses, and a third is selling a good portion of its campus. The future of Baptist programs initiated in the last three decades remains somewhat uncertain and demands cautious optimism as these institutions wrestle with issues related to finances, potential students, constituency, and stakeholders.
In some mainline traditions, such as the Presbyterians, theological education is a precursor to ordination and even ministry placement. A Presbyterian church should be able to anticipate the theology, skill set, and abilities of a seminary graduate. And in some ways, the seminary system developed by Southern Baptists in a previous generation functioned similarly; those schools served as a “clearing house” of sorts for ministers seeking to serve Baptist congregations. And finally, what happened at those schools ultimately influenced the direction of the convention.
Theological Education in a Post-Institutional, Post-Christian Context
Repeatedly I have heard religious pundits claim that we are in a post-denominational, post-institutional context. Typically this claim is followed by the assertion that most students entering seminary have no desire to serve in a congregational setting. In some sense, I find myself wondering if the assessment of culture generally, and religious culture in particular, by scholars preempts the question of vocational choice by students. If social scientists and religious scholars declare that institutions are dead, then is it any wonder that students are reticent at best to give their lives in service to the church? After hearing the pronouncement of scholars, students might throw up their hands and say, “Who wants to serve the dead?”
In response to the shift towards anti-institutional thinking, theological educators must do more than simply join the chorus of those declaring the end of institutions, but instead, they must reframe the conversation for the 21st century as it pertains to the life of the church and its place within the Kingdom of God. The way forward for such a conversation, arguably, may be found in Hugo Heclo’s short volume entitled, On Thinking Institutionally. Heclo, a former Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and Professor of Government at Harvard University, has carefully nuanced the subtleties between thinking about institutions and thinking institutionally. Heclo explains that
Institutional thinking has to do with living committed to the ends for which
organization occurs rather than to the organization as such. . .The organization
has a surplus of meaning insofar as it is seen to serve a valued cause in
some important way.
Further, Heclo explains that thinking institutionally “means being mindful in certain ways, exercising a particular form of attentiveness to meaning in the world.” And individuals and communities can exercise such attentiveness because of what Heclo terms “faithful reception”—of “thoughtfully taking delivery of and using what has been handed down.” In helping others think institutionally, we must ask what it is exactly that we are “handing down.” But even more, we must ask how we are enabling students to thoughtfully take delivery of it and use it. Consequently, we need to ask how theological education can provide the fertile soil and ample resources for a reimagining of institutional identity in a Post-Christian world; how can such resources be used to enable them to think institutionally. Such a difficult task, however, requires the capacity to imagine anew both the work and role of the church in the world.
In their article, “Finding a New Way: A Call to Reconceptualize Theological Education,” Jeffrey Jones and Robert Pazmiño suggests that perhaps more so now than ever, “theological schools are called to attend more directly to the spiritual and faith formation of students in nurturing their pastoral identity and imagination.” I am particularly interested in the notion of pastoral imagination. Craig Dykstra, senior vice president at the Lilly Endowment, allegedly coined the term in an effort to describe the particular intelligence that ministry both requires and cultivates in those who practice it. Dykstra explains,
It is a beautiful thing to see a good pastor at work. Somehow pastors who really
get what the Christian ministry is all about and who do it well are able to
enter many diverse situations, whether joyous or full of misery and conflict,
and see what is going on through the eyes of faith. This way of seeing and
interpreting shapes what the pastor thinks and does and how he or she responds
to people in gestures, words and action. It functions as a kind of
internal gyroscope guiding pastors in and through every crevice of pastoral life
In a way, this new position of Pastor stops me in my tracks, for at a very young
age, I have preached, my most prized goal, and the quickness of it has startled
me into a good long pause. For the first time, I am not waiting to graduate,
striving to complete a semester, dreaming of a future career, or hoping to
become an adult. I have arrived at something that does not have built-in
milestones to conquer, and my conquering spirit is thus quieted.
I recently read an article about a very successful lawyer, and at the conclusion
of the story, the lawyer said, “I refuse to let my work define me.” Here is a
person who has accomplished much vocationally, but it is not the vocation, or
the success, that makes her who she is.
Pastor seems so intrinsically tied to my spirituality that is difficult to conceive of a
spiritual identity apart from that title. But I must do it.
I must find that part of myself, that core, that center that is more than Pastor, other
than Pastor, deeper than Pastor, more sustainable than Pastor, and I must
envision my future as a more wholly developed representation of that core
(Pastor aside), or I fear I will become a Pastor (in function) only (human
being, image of God aside).
Five or ten years from now I want to be more of myself, as God intended, and less of anything else, and I think that would look something like this:
I hope to have unleashed new creativity.
I hope to be a person of prayer, to have settled into a rhythm that aids my consciousness in doing all work with God and to God.
I hope to have a deeper appreciation for art, music, beauty, nature, and language.
I hope to have loved at least one person or family who is markedly different from me to such extent that the repercussions
on my way of life are irrevocable.
I hope to have eaten lots of fruits and vegetables, and to have grown some of them myself.
I hope to have read a lot of books—mostly novels, but some poetry, theology,
philosophy, with other genres and topics mixed in.
I hope to have become a writer—published or not—to have plenty more works than a pile of sermon manuscripts.
I hope to have been a loving and faithful wife who
has supported my husband in finding his best self and forgiven him when he’s
been at his worst.
I hope to have and to keep a handful of serious friends.
I hope to have found subtle and small ways to live counter to the culture of scurry, the culture of wealth, the culture of arrogance, and the culture of individualism.
I hope that if there was one thing those I have ministered to could say about me, it would that I listened to them, and if there was one thing my church could say about me, it would that I relentlessly guarded the value of each person, and if there were two things they could say about my preaching, it would be that I helped bring Scripture to life in their imaginations and bring God to focus in their line of vision, and if there was one thing they could say about our church, it would be that it helps
them hold tight to hope, and if there was one thing they could say about our
worship, they would say that it occasions subtle collisions with the divine.
I would hope that my character might match that of my church, which tries to be slow, gentle, thoughtful, peaceful, and attentive to children.
In five or ten years, I would hope that my roots would have begun to sink down deep, and that I would know this one place and its people, that I would still be content with modest ambitions yet wildly willing for God-sized adventures.
Ultimately, that is the future of theological education—to create a place that not only inspires and informs, but a place that shapes and nurtures a pastoral imagination.
Headcount Enrollment by
20-29 30-39 40-49 50-64 65 & Over No Report Total Enrollment 20-29 as a % of total
2003. 13,012 8,607. 6,848. 4,038. 181. 602. 33,287 39%
2007. 14,129. 7,911. 5,805. 4,464. 254. 1,438. 34,001. 41%
2010. 13,351. 8,064. 5,413. 4,513. 267. 473. 32,829. 41%
Age and Degree
Master of Divinity Enrollment by Age
Enrollment for Master of Divinity vs. Non-Master of Divinity Degrees
1999 2003 2006 2010
MDiv. 29,842 33,287 34,935 32,780
MA. 8,361 10,343 11,030 11,225
MTS. 7,862 8,708 9,842 9,264
Non-Mdiv as a % of Mdiv
1999 2003 2006 2010
54% 57% 60% 62%
Diversification of Theological Education in the Baptist Tradition
Baptist Related Master of Divinity Programs Since 1988
1988 Beeson Divinity, Samford University
1988 Duke Divinity School Baptist House, Duke University
1989 Baptist Theological Seminary, Richmond
1991 Candler School of Theology Baptist Studies Program, Emory University
1992 M. Christopher White School of Divinity, Gardner-Webb University
1994 George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University
1995 Brite Divinity School Baptist Studies Program, Texas Christian University
1995 Logsdon Seminary, Hardin Simmons University
1996 James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University
1996 Campbell University Divinity School
1997 The John Leland Center for Theological Studies
1999 Wake Forest University Divinity School
2002 Baptist Seminary of Kentucky
2003 B.H. Carroll Institute
2004 Chapman Seminary, Oakland City University (General Baptist)
2004 Baptist Studies Program at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
2005 Central Baptist Theological Seminary (date of reorganization and
formal association with CBF and ABC)
Baptist Related Institutions Offering a Masters Degree
Other than the Master of Divinity
Dallas Baptist University
East Texas Baptist University
Howard Payne University
Houston Baptist University
Missouri Baptist College
Wayland Baptist University
 J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (USA: Little, Brown and Company, 1951), 122.
 Projections suggest that the United States population will actually become “minority majority” by 2042.
 Another implication of the changing demographics concerns the students involved in theological education. Last year the Association of Theological Schools reported that 75,898 students were enrolled in member schools. Of that number, only 3,506 were Hispanic. Other than Native Americans, Hispanics had the smallest enrollment of any minority despite the fact that Hispanics enjoyed the fastest population growth of any group. In the coming days, theological institutions will have to give greater attention to recruiting, retaining, and graduating Hispanic students who can assume leadership in a variety of ministerial settings.
The changing demographics also concern faculty diversity. The 2010-2011 Annual Data Tables released by the Association of Theological Schools indicate there are 3,296 individuals serving as faculty members at the nearly 260 schools that comprise the association. Of the nearly 3,300 faculty members, only 120 are Hispanic, a figure that represents less than 4% of all faculty involved in theological education. Among African-American faculty, the figures are not much better. The number rises to 258, representing less than 8% of all instructional faculty. In the last decade, the percentages of faculty members that are Hispanic and African American have increased but only minimally (1% and 3% increase respectively). At institutions like Truett, which require candidates to have a particular denominational affiliation, the challenge to recruit and hire minority faculty members remains an acute problem. The desire to hire minority faculty, however, is not born out of a need to be politically correct, as it is to create a faculty that represents the diversity of the constituency that we serve. In considering the future of theological education, institutions would do well to decide that certain things should not stay the way they are.
 One example of such a curricular change is seen at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX where they have developed Master of Divinity with Hispanic Church Studies Concentration. According to the website:
The Hispanic Church Studies concentration is a curricular specialization offered by Southwest to prepare and equip students for ministry in Hispanic communities. It also helps students integrate ministry among Hispanics within their general parish ministry. Students complete the concentration by taking four three-credit hour electives offered through the concentration. Students in the concentration will gain cultural competency while acquiring skills and sensibilities for the practice of ministry in Hispanic communities. The seminary's offerings in Spanish language acquisition will assist students who desire to minister in Spanish-speaking settings but are not yet proficient in the language. Students in the concentration take all their required courses with their M.Div. and MAR peers while using a minimum of four elective courses for the concentration. Courses are taught by the faculty of Southwest. The courses in the concentration are also available as electives for all students. Students who complete the concentration graduate with a transcript that indicates completion of the Hispanic Church Studies concentration.
 Beyond the 20-29 age bracket, the enrollment in the age groups 30-39 and 40-49 have dropped off significantly, with growth among those over 50.
 See for example, Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University, 2009).
 Ryan Clark, “Twilight Breaking: The State of Baptist Theological Education in a Global Christian Era and Implications for the Future” Baptist History and Heritage 2009: 59. These figures refer primarily to programs started in response to the conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention over the last 3 decades.
 The three seminaries involved are Episcopal Divinity School, Bexley Hall Seminary, and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.
 Hugh Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), 83.
 Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally, 90.
 Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally, 97.
 Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally, 98.
 Heclo explains that what is needed is “to stretch the time horizon backward and forward so that the shadows from both past and future lengthen into the present” (On Thinking Institutionally, 109).
 Jeffrey Jones and Robert Pazmiño, “Finding a New Way: A Call to Reconceptualize Theological Education” Congregations (2008): 16-21.
 Craig Dykstra, “Pastoral and Ecclesial Imagination,” in For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry (eds. D. C. Bass and C. Dykstra; Grand Rapids: Eermans, 2008), 41.