A major effort is underway to encourage and promote innovation in more than 200 seminaries across the country, at a time when many of them are grappling with “rapid and profound” social changes. Many institutions face financial challenges, experience stable or declining enrollment, and struggle to adapt to the changing needs and expectations of the communities they train religious leaders to serve.
The Lilly Endowment, an Indiana-based private philanthropic foundation, is leading an initiative to help seminaries remain viable and better prepare Christian clergy for the future by providing large grants to fund seminary recruiting efforts. more diverse students, expanding blended and online course offerings. , and making theological education more affordable, accessible and financially sustainable.
The initiative, Pathways for Tomorrow, was launched last year and encompasses 234 institutions in total. About $96 million has been awarded in 2021, with more grants coming this year.
“Through the Pathways initiative, theological schools will take deliberate action to address the challenges they have identified in ways that make the most sense to them,” Christopher L. Coble, vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment, which focuses on community development, religion and education, said in a press release. “We believe their efforts are essential in ensuring that Christian congregations continue to have a steady stream of well-prepared pastoral leaders to lead the churches of tomorrow.”
The first phase of the initiative provided planning grants of up to $50,000 to institutions. More recently, $82 million was given to 84 theological schools to implement new projects. Several grants of up to $5 million, focused on larger-scale projects involving collaboration and the development of best practices that can be applied across institutions, will be awarded this summer.
Judith Cebula, director of communications at the Lilly Endowment, said the seminaries strive to develop leaders to serve increasingly diverse congregations of varying sizes, and they offer flexible course options for older students with families and explore new financial models.
“The established educational strategies and financial structures that many theological schools have relied on over the past few decades are under severe pressure,” she said in an email. “The endowment seeks to help schools of theology take strong steps to identify and address their most pressing challenges and capitalize on promising opportunities in ways that make the most sense to them as they plan for their future.”
The initiative is a “really, really timely” response to the formidable challenges facing seminaries and provides resources “on an unprecedented scale,” said Frank Yamada, president of the Association for Theological Schools, which oversees the grants. .
Although the number of theological schools overall is growing, 32 have merged, 11 have closed, and seven have withdrawn from accreditation and membership in the association since 2010. These changes have occurred more frequently these years, with a meltdown occurring approximately every three or four months. , said Yamada.
He noted that seminary enrollment has been largely flat for nearly 30 years, with some declines in enrollment at major Protestant institutions over the past 15 years. He believes that a general decline in American religious observance has hampered enrollment growth and resulted in the shrinking size of religious congregations and diminished employment opportunities for graduates, especially for graduates of Protestant seminaries.
A report 2015 by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who identify as unaffiliated with any religion has increased. “Nuns,” as they are sometimes called, made up 23 percent of the population at that time, down from 16 percent in 2007. Young Americans were even more likely to be disassociated from an official religion; 35% of millennials identified as having no religious affiliation, according to the study.
Katarina Schuth, professor emeritus at Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas, said these attitudes make it harder to recruit students and the pandemic has likely exacerbated the challenge by making it harder to recruit. of potential students on campus. Schuth, who held an endowed chair of social science studies of religion at the university, is the author of Seminary Formation (Liturgical Press, 2016), a book about changes in ministry education in the 21st century.
“The potential for people to engage, except remotely, is really dramatically reduced,” she said of the effects of the pandemic. “A lot of programs related to theological education depend on interpersonal interaction…There’s something about getting together and having a weekend together or a few days together where people talk, not just during formal sessions, but also informally getting to know others who are in similar schools or have similar interests. It’s just wildly different.
Faced with these new realities, the seminaries are trying to tap into new pools of students. Many institutions selected for Lilly Endowment grants use the money “to create pathways for students who may have been underrepresented in the past in theological education,” particularly students of color, to better reflect the diversification of congregations, Yamada said.
For example, the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago is using the funds to create a “living and learning community” for a group of Black, Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander and LGBTQ students, among other efforts. Beginning next year, three students will be selected – the number is expected to double in subsequent years – to live together and serve as student leaders, helping the institution improve its outreach to communities of color, expand its work of social justice and to provide more community engagement opportunities for students.
The goal is to “collectively create a more consistent, engaging, and targeted invitation to students from these populations,” said Colleen Kennedy, vice president for institutional advancement at the Catholic Theological Union.
Kennedy said that while Catholic’s student body is racially and ethnically diverse, it lacks young people. As religiosity in the country declines, becoming a priest is an increasingly “counter-cultural” career path less popular among young people today. But the number of Latinx Catholics, for example, is growing, so she sees expanding the reach of Latinx students as a new opportunity to reach younger students.
“We want to be where people from the Latinx youth movement of the Catholic church want to come and study,” she said. “We have a strong need to ensure that young people are leaders in the Catholic Church in particular and are inspired to stay engaged with the church, so we really feel that peers are the best people. to do so, to inspire others. By preparing effective ministers among a population of young people, you are in some way securing the future of the church.
The seminaries also use the funds to make theological education more accessible and affordable by providing new financial support for students, offering less expensive credential options like certificates, and designing long-term fundraising strategies to support institutions “so that the debt is not as negatively impacting these people and the communities they serve,” Yamada said. He noted that students come to theological schools with debts from their years and then get low-paying clergy jobs when they graduate from seminaries.It is now less common for churches to pay for theological education of students, which can be costly.On average, student borrowers from these institutions incurred a debt of $33,537 during the 2019-2020 academic year, according to data of the Association of Schools of Theology.
This is a “critical time when schools are thinking about their future and what are the ways forward for congregational leadership in Christian congregations,” Yamada said. “The endowment has really signaled a pivotal moment by saying that this is the moment these theological schools need to invest in these futures and these pathways into tomorrow.”