The rate of increase in enrollment of Southern Baptist theological seminaries has fallen off sharply in the current academic year, according to statistics just released.

The six Southern Baptist schools in recent years have had a combined growth rate of nearly 1,000 students annually. The enrollment increase of the schools this year was only 43 students.

Reports of the sharp decline in fledgling preachers for the nation's largest Protestant body came only a few days after another disturbing statistic: a decline, for the third year in a row of baptisms. In Southern Baptist congregations, baptism is the portal through which most new members enter the church.

Commenting on the dramatic drop in seminary growth, a church spokesman said, "It will take two or three more years to see whether this is really a trend or whether this year was just a fluke."

The Southern Baptist decline is still considerably smaller than that of some other mainline Protestant bodies. United Methodist seminaries suffered a 1.7 percent enrollment decline and United Church of Christ school enrollment was down 3.6 percent.

Even though women ministers are still highly controversial in the Southern Baptist fellowship -- each local congregation is free to decide whether it will admit a woman to its pulpit -- Baptist seminaries reported a significant increase in women students. Women now make up nearly one-fifth of all Southern Baptist seminarians.

Seminary training is not an absolute requirement for Southern Baptists; each congregation is free to call whomever it chooses. In recent years, however, seminary-trained clergy have increasingly become the norm for most congregations.

Four Southern Baptist schools are among the five largest theological seminaries in the world. Southwestern in Fort Worth and Southern in Louisville rank number one and two; the nondenominational evangelical school, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., is the third largest. The Baptists' New Orleans Seminary and Southeastern in Wake Forest, N.C., rank fourth and fifth.