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Serving the 90%: The Challenge Facing Theological Education

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Theological educators are trained to look for trend lines, for demographic shifts and changing patterns – both within the life of the church and beyond – as we seek to prepare those called to serve Christ’s church amid a broken world.

The Duke University report, American Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century, noted that the average congregation had just 75 participants, but the average attendee worshipped in a congregation with about 400 regular participants.

Put differently, most congregations are small, but most people are in large congregations.

To better understand this distinction, the authors offered something of a thought experiment: “To get a feel for just how concentrated people are in the largest congregations, imagine that we have lined up all congregations in the United States, from the smallest to the largest. Imagine that you are walking up this line, starting with the smallest. When you get to a congregation with 400 people, you would have walked past about half of all churchgoers, but more than 90% of all congregations!”

This means that the largest 10% of congregations contain approximately half of all churchgoers. So, what are the implications of this for theological education?

The authors state it rather simply: This “means that most seminarians come from large churches (since that’s where most people are), but most clergy jobs are in small churches.”

For most of my colleagues in theological education, this data is not surprising, but its challenges remain daunting nonetheless.

If most seminarians come from large churches (top 10%) and those are likely the contexts to which they envision returning, what about the other 90% of congregations?

What about the average congregation of 75 participants? Who will serve those congregations? Who will minister in those places, the kinds of places where, yes, the Gospel still breaks in, and lives are still transformed?

The answer appears simple: Seminaries and theological schools need to recruit and graduate more ministers to serve the 90% of congregations – and we are all certainly trying.

But here is where the numbers become stubbornly troublesome. The Association of Theological Schools reports that since 2006 total enrollment in theological education has decreased by 9%.

This is at the same time more and more seminaries have moved to an online presence and satellite campuses in an effort to make theological education more readily available.

I can already hear someone saying, “Well, we need to get to college students sooner so they will hear the call to ministry and then attend some form of theological education.” Yet, even that suggestion is fraught with challenges.

The Hechinger Report notes that within the next five years, college enrollment will drop by 15% nationally.

In other words, there will be fewer and fewer students with the requisite degree to earn a master of divinity or master of arts degree from an accredited theological institution.

Thus, the questions remain: What about the average congregation of 75 participants? What about the other 90% of congregations? Who will serve in those congregations?

Baptists are not the only denomination struggling with these questions. Our sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church and PCUSA face similar concerns.

For example, 59% of all United Methodist churches have less than 100 members, with another 34% having between 100 and 350. Similar numbers are reported by the PCUSA as well.

In these congregations, lay leadership has proven critical in addressing ministerial need.

For many years, the United Methodist Church and PCUSA (among others) have given attention to lay ministers, with three-fourths of PCUSA presbyteries using commissioned lay pastors.

In alignment with our congregationalist commitments, Baptist have long relied on the laity to carry out the ministry of the church but perhaps we have not always been as intentional in recognizing or preparing them.

We often refer to these laypersons as “volunteers,” but truthfully, they are not that at all.

Instead, they are persons who have been grasped by God and called into some form of congregational leadership or ministry.

Perhaps our language needs to shift even as our preparation of such leaders must shift.

Rather than “recruiting volunteers,” we need to talk about preparing lay ministers for congregational leadership.

In an effort to address this need of preparing lay ministers and lay leaders, Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, launched a certificate in ministry program. The program is entirely online, with a few optional classes offered on an occasional weekend.

We perceived the need for this form of theological education and ministerial formation, and the response certainly validated that hunch. Last fall, we had 225 students from 22 states and one foreign country enrolled in the program.

We also entered a joint agreement with the Baptist General Convention of Texas to offer an advanced certificate in ministry in children’s ministry; other certificates are forthcoming.

Many of these in our program are laypersons serving in leadership and ministerial roles in their own congregations, and for most, a graduate theological degree is not possible.

The students enrolled in this program remind me of the lay ministers in the small rural church I pastored in Indiana.

In that church, the music director also owned and managed the Ace Hardware store, and the youth director was a local teacher and coach.

And were you to ask either, they would both say two things: “I absolutely felt called to this ministry” and “I am not prepared to do this work.”

For the average congregation of 75, and for many, many other congregations, this remains the norm.

They are being served by God-called laypersons committed to the work and ministry of the church, including pastoral ministry, but individuals yearning for some form of preparation nonetheless.

This has me wondering more and more about the future of theological education. At Truett Seminary, like other institutions, we will continue to work hard to recruit and attract students to our graduate professional degrees (master of divinity, master of arts in Christian ministry, master of theological studies) and advanced degrees (doctor of ministry, doctor of philosophy).

For those preparing for full-time ministry, these programs provide the kind of rich, formational experience and depth of study that will serve them and the church well in a complex world.

But what about the God-called laypersons committed to the work and ministry of the church?

Perhaps we (the local church, denominational leaders and theological educators alike) need to reconsider how we prepare lay ministers and lay leaders to do the work to which they have been called.

This seems like fertile soil for new collaborations between churches and seminaries. But even more, it could reflect a shared commitment to the unfolding of the church in a new generation.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week focused on trends and issues in theological education. Previous articles in the series are:

Churches, Pastors Can Access Tailored Theological Education | David Bronkema

Why We Must Rethink Theological Education in Time of Flux | Lina Toth

6 Ways Seminaries Train Church Leaders on Their Home Turfs | William D. Shiell

Breaking Down Racial Roadblocks in Theological Education | David Cassady

W. Dennis Tucker Jr.

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr. is Professor of Christian Scriptures and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas.