When it comes to training pastors, Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) seminaries compare favorably with North American seminaries generally, according to a comparative data analysis by Baptist Press (BP).
Still, a slight shift of students away from the master of divinity (M.Div.) – the basic pastoral training degree – and toward less rigorous master of arts degrees focused on general theological studies parallels a trend nationally at seminaries and other graduate schools of theology.
“Southern Baptist seminaries are probably the healthiest seminaries among any denominational body in the United States,” Charles S. Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP. “That’s been a really neat thing to watch happen.”
Accounting for all students, SBC seminaries enrolled more than 20,000 people in 2014-15, according to calculations by Kelley, an all-time record.
When undergraduate students are removed from the total, leaving the traditional graduate-level seminary population, there was a total headcount enrollment of 11,636 students at the six SBC seminaries last fall, according to data from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), an accrediting organization for graduate schools of theology.
Two-thirds of those students (66.5%) were enrolled in degree programs that provide specialized theological training for pastors: the M.Div. (43.5%), the doctor of ministry and similar advanced ministry degrees (13.8%) and the doctor of philosophy and similar advanced research degrees (9.2%).
In comparison, 63 percent of students overall at the 272 ATS member schools were enrolled in the same degree programs.
Over the past decade, the percentage of graduate students pursuing an M.Div. at SBC seminaries has held steady – up slightly from 42.5 percent in 2006 to 43.5 percent in 2015, with a high of 49.7 percent in 2011.
In comparison, 41.5 percent of students at ATS schools generally were enrolled in M.Div. programs last fall, a figure that includes markedly more women than are enrolled in SBC M.Div. programs. Nearly 30 percent of M.Div. students generally were women in 2015 compared with 10 percent at SBC seminaries – likely due to Southern Baptists’ belief, as expressed in Article VI of The Baptist Faith and Message, that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Nationally, there has been a 15 percent decline in M.Div. enrollment over the past 10 years, according to a March ATS report. Though the six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries have fared significantly better, they have experienced a 6.2 percent decline in M.Div. enrollment over the same period, according to data from ATS.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and the SBC’s Council of Seminary Presidents, told BP the six seminaries’ focus on pastor training reflects Southern Baptists’ recognition of “the need for a learned and educated ministry, and especially the need for educated pastors.”
“For over half a century now, the M.Div. is the degree specifically designed and well recognized for the preparation of pastors for churches,” Mohler said in written comments. “There will be an entire generation of pastors facing retirement within the next decade, and our SBC strategy calls for the planting of many new congregations.
“This means that we will need thousands of young pastors ready to step into these pastorates, and we need them to be fully prepared and filled with conviction and passion for the Great Commission. We must continue to emphasize the master of divinity and make the training of pastors central to all that we do,” he said.
Two SBC seminaries – Southern and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary – have increased their raw number of M.Div. students over the past decade. New Orleans Seminary has increased its percentage of M.Div. students from 32.2 percent in 2006 to 56.5 percent in 2015.
‘The longer way’
In an apparent shift away from pastoral training nationally, enrollment in master of arts (M.A.) degrees in general theological studies – which require fewer hours than the M.Div. and less study of Greek and Hebrew – has increased 15 percent during the past five years, according to ATS.
If the trend continues, M.A. enrollment will exceed M.Div. enrollment in North America by the year 2022, ATS reported.
Within the SBC, master of arts programs in general theological studies have grown at five of the six seminaries over the past decade, with the largest enrollment increases at Southeastern and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Over the past 10 years, general theology M.A. students have increased fourfold at SBC seminaries. But they remain a relatively small percentage of the graduate students (13.5%).
Southeastern Seminary President Daniel Akin said M.A. growth is attributable in part to “expanded training that we’re doing for laypeople.” There has also been growth among “specialized programs of study” offered through M.A. programs in ethics, apologetics, marriage and family and other fields. Some 18 percent of Southeastern’s total master’s-level students are seeking an M.A., he said.
Still, for local church ministers, “we lift up and make very, very clear that the gold standard for ministerial training is the M.Div.,” Akin said, a sentiment echoed to BP by each of the other five seminary presidents.
Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson told BP the shift away from the M.Div. by some pastors in training “is part of the general educational dumb-down in America.”
“The M.Div. is a longer way,” Patterson said, “and it requires all the biblical languages,” which are “deadly crucial” for pastors. Because “preparation in school is not just academic” but a matter of character formation as well, a decrease in pastors with M.Div.’s could be a harbinger of “more and more … pastors’ having moral failures.”
Kelley said the only pastors for whom the M.A. might be most appropriate are those “with a lot of pastoral experience” whose “life classroom experience” makes up for the M.Div. coursework they will miss.
Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said another cause of M.A. growth is that ATS allowed its member schools to offer entirely-online M.A.’s years before it permitted entirely online M.Div.’s in 2013.
“Once [ATS] made the M.Div. degree online,” Allen told BP, “… many of those online students who were M.A. online students moved to the M.Div. category,” contributing to an increase in Midwestern’s M.Div. enrollment in 2015-16.
Advice for churches
Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, urged churches to note the types of seminary degrees held by prospective staff members and to verify that the emphasis of their training matches the needs of the church.
Many congregations “probably don’t pay any attention to … the degree and the depth of study that [prospective pastors] have had,” said Futral, who has served 18 years as executive director.
Futral said finishing academic training quickly has advantages, but pastors who pursue lengthier and more rigorous courses of study tend to reap long-term benefits.
“I’m not a much different preacher today than when I was a junior in college,” said Futral, who holds an M.Div. and a doctor of ministry degree. But “the discipline of all my preparation in college and in seminary and working on my doctorate is a process that shaped my life.”
Among noteworthy aspects of each SBC seminary’s graduate enrollment over the past 10 years:
Gateway Seminary of the SBC, formerly Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, has seen steady enrollment in both its M.A. degrees in general theological studies and its M.Div. General theology M.A. enrollment moved from 157 in 2006 to 132 in 2015 while M.Div. enrollment went from 379 to 367 over the same timeframe.
“Over the past 10 years, we have customized some M.A. programs for specific needs we discovered among potential student populations,” Gateway President Jeff Iorg told BP in written comments. “Those programs have had some success. Our master of divinity enrollment, however, is not increasing and we expect it to increase more as we focus more intensely on our new location in Southern California.”
Midwestern’s total fall headcount enrollment increased from 595 in 2011 to 1,196 in 2015, contributing to ATS’s designation of the seminary last year as one of the fastest growing in America.
“We don’t want to see a generation of graduates get M.A. and not M.Div. degrees,” Allen said. “The M.Div. is the gold-standard degree that comes with a complete toolkit. So on our campus, we’re very intentional about the priority of the M.Div. degree, and that’s why we’ve seen a recovery of it here.”
Midwestern’s ministry and research doctoral programs comprise 52.7 percent of the graduate student population, the largest total of any SBC seminary by nearly 30 percentage points. Allen called the doctoral program a “niche” for Midwestern.
New Orleans Seminary’s M.Div. population increased by more than 30 percentage points between 2006 and 2012 to 65.5 percent despite enrollment declines in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the campus severely in 2005.
“I’m very grateful that at all six of our seminaries, including ours, we are seeing a growing number of students come,” Kelley said. “… That is very much against national trends. We are seeing people called of God still wanting to get theological education.”
Southern Baptists’ unified program of funding missions and ministry in North America and around the world, the Cooperative Program, “really, really does make a difference. The more expensive we make seminary education, then the less seminary education we’re going to tend to see in our people,” Kelley said.
Southeastern’s M.Div. students have comprised more than 50 percent of the student body each year even as M.A. enrollment increased. Akin noted increases in on-campus students taking courses at non-traditional times and in online students.
“We offer classes six days a week,” Akin said. “We offer classes in the morning, in the afternoon and at night; Monday-only classes; Saturday-only classes; Friday-Saturday classes; hybrid classes. And then we do a massive amount now of distance learning, where people are pursuing their degrees not only from all over the country, but all over the world.”
Southern’s M.Div. enrollment for the full 2015-16 academic year exceeded 2,000, Mohler said, constituting an institutional record and “the largest [M.Div. enrollment] in the history of theological education.” Southern’s fall 2015 M.Div. enrollment was 1,639, according to ATS.
“Our M.A. enrollment has grown over the last decade,” Mohler said, “but the M.Div. enrollment has grown much faster – and this is our goal and strategy. The shift of emphasis in some schools from the M.Div. to M.A. programs can be traced back to the 1970s. It is not a healthy long-term strategy for schools that want to prepare pastors for local churches.”
Southwestern’s total headcount enrollment of graduate students has increased 7.5 percent to 2,590 over the past five years, with more than 800 M.Div. students each fall.
“The seminaries ought to be special ops training schools for Christian ministry and missions,” Patterson said. “… Special ops people in the United States military don’t do less training than the regular troops. They do ever more and more training.”
Overall, the M.Div. students at SBC seminaries comprised 16.5 percent of all M.Div. students among ATS schools last fall.
That should come as no surprise for a denomination that pledged in a 1983 resolution on SBC seminaries “to continue their support of the six Southern Baptist seminaries, to pray for their expanding ministries in preparing God-called persons for more effective ministries, and to encourage the continuing fidelity of the six seminaries in fulfilling their assigned purposes with both freedom and responsibility.”
The ATS data used in BP’s calculations does not present a full picture of God’s work at SBC seminaries because, among other factors, it does not account for undergraduate enrollment and is based on a count of students in the fall semester only rather than the entire academic year. However, ATS data allowed BP to perform a precise comparison of SBC seminaries and other theological graduate schools.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)