Allen is one of an increasing number of divinity students who don’t plan to become pastors. Instead, they envision using their degrees to “minister” in any number of professions, from filmmaking to medicine to nonprofit management.
“I see what I’m doing as a form of ministry,” said Allen, 36. “Particularly with parents whose children are dying. I approach the situations more with my spiritual eyes open. This isn’t just a medical event taking place.”
She said she studied not only the theological ideas of suffering, but also more practical topics, including how churches can more directly help congregants improve their health. She plans to work closely with Winchester churches on health programs, particularly for childhood obesity.
About 41 percent of master’s of divinity graduates expect to pursue full-time church ministry, down from 52 percent in 2001 and from 90-something percent a few decades ago, according to the Association of Theological Schools, the country’s largest such group.
Americans, particularly young ones, are becoming less religiously affiliated, and many see churches as too focused on internal politics and dogma and not enough on bettering the outside world. Institutional religion doesn’t have the stature it once did, and pastor jobs are fewer and less stable.
The skepticism about religious institutions has led to a broadened concept of what it means to minister. Like Allen, seminary graduates today use the words “ministry” and “calling” to describe their plans to employ their understanding of theology in a new career or to use their degrees to bring more purpose to what they are already doing. And seminaries are busily trying to accommodate them, creating new degrees for careers in such areas as urban ministry and psychology.
“Millennials really think people my age have screwed it up,” said Shaun Casey, founder of the new urban-ministry program at Wesley, where 65 percent of graduates go on to full-time church ministry compared with 85 percent 20 years ago.
“They look at the institutional church and say, ‘I’m happy to change the world with the church’s help, but if the institutional church gets in my way or makes it harder, I’ll join [a nongovernmental organization] or nonprofit.’ There’s a fair amount of impatience with institutional bureaucracies.”
Rebecca Cole said “a call to community” led her to seek a master’s at Wesley. The 28-year-old grew up in an nonreligious home in Rhode Island but got involved with campus ministry in college and went on to work for a faith-based group, running a preschool for at-risk children.
“If I felt my faith was driving my work and I’m going to claim this, I need to know more about it,” Cole said of her decision to go to Wesley, where she studied community organizing along with the New Testament. “I needed to know more about the Bible and where that all came from. I felt a deep sense of calling, but I didn’t know what that meant.”