Seminaries must adapt to thrive in the 21st century


Western Theological Seminary, in Holland, offers online programs that connect students in Grand Rapids, Holland, Iowa and Texas. Courtesy Western Theological Seminary

For a 150-year-old institution to survive in the 21st century, it’s accepted that some changes have to be made. In the world of theological education, that’s true, as well.

In 2006, seminary enrollment was at a high, the peak of a trend that began in 1997. In those 10 years, enrollment in theological schools across the world increased from 65,361 to 81,180 students, a growth of about 24.2 percent, according to data from the Association of Theological Schools. But that bubble popped in 2006, and since, enrollment has been steadily declining — down to 72,014 students in 2014.

The majority of theological schools have been impacted both by a decline in student enrollment and lower numbers of tithing. However, not all schools have been impacted, and the ones that have been able to evolve are doing better than ever.

“That’s a reality that about two-thirds to 75 percent (of seminaries) are experiencing,” said Jeff Munroe, vice president of operations and advancement at Holland’s Western Theological Seminary. “Our enrollment is the largest it’s ever been, but I think that’s because we’re adapting.”

According to Business Journal research, Western Theological Seminary’s enrollment in 2015 was 275, up a tick from 272 in 2014. In 2006, when that enrollment bubble was about to pop, Western Theological Seminary had 223 students enrolled, according to numbers from the Association of Theological Schools. So while nationally, the number of enrolled students at seminaries across the world had decreased by about 11.3 percent in that time, Western Theological Seminary’s enrollment actually grew by 23.3 percent.

Munroe attributes Western’s growth to the school’s development of a distance learning program, which began around the same time that bubble was at its precipice.

“That’s been one of our strengths because we created an equivalent program,” Munroe said.

“I had a student in Houston, a student in Iowa, in Grand Rapids, in Holland. … They’re just spread out coast to coast and even internationally, and that’s a huge difference that’s happened in theological education. We have adapted, and seminaries in general are changing expectations and opportunities for religious leadership.”

Munroe said while Western’s bread and butter still is preparing students to become pastors, a number of students have plans to use their degree in other ways. Counseling, social work and a number of other careers that utilize a theological education have become more prevalent, he said, and Western has evolved to include programs that suit those needs.

Every morning, Munroe walks past a collage reminding him of how Western has evolved over the past 150 years. In the hallway outside his office is a class picture from every year of the school’s history, beginning with the 1869 graduating class. As the years go on, he sees more diversity in the photographs. From the first student bodies comprised of all white males, to minority and female students entering the frame beginning in the 1950s, it’s clear the student body has evolved, and Western has evolved with it.

“What your traditional definition of what a student is has changed,” Munroe said. “If you’re looking for a 26-year-old white male to come live on campus, then, yes, there are fewer. But if you’re open to a second-career minority student interested in distance learning, then you’re going to find your students.”

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