Paced by an influx of women, record numbers of Protestants and Roman Catholics are enrolling in graduate level studies of religion to prepare for ordination, teaching or other professional service in the church.
A study by the Association of Theological Schools shows that the number of men and women enrolled in theological study reached an all-time high of 49,611 last year in the 194 schools of the association, which includes both the United States and Canada. The figure represents a 63 percent increase in enrollment over the past decade.
The 10,830 women students made up nearly 22 percent of the total enrollment last year, a threefold increase during the decade.
That surge was largely the result of falling barriers, according to Marvin J. Taylor, associate director of the association and editor of a report on the survey. Women's interest in theological study had always been there, he said, but the opportunity had not.
Another key factor in the schools' enrollment growth, Taylor said, was the recent trend among many to schedule night classes for employed persons interested in serious study of religion, whether for a career change or for personal growth.
Seminaries have benefited from the addition of such people, he said, because they "bring a dimension to the classroom that the typical seminary student doesn't bring."
The schools in the association include virtually all institutions in the United States and Canada offering graduate level courses in theology -- master's and doctoral studies as well as the traditional three-year course that most mainline churches prescribe as preparation for the ordained ministry.
Of the women students preparing for the parish ministry, the 209 United Methodists -- the nation's second largest Protestant body -- were the biggest single denominational group. But the United Church of Christ had the highest proportion of women students among its seminarians -- 40.6 percent -- followed by the United Presbyterians, with 30.8 percent. The UCC has ordained women for more than a century, the other two for several decades.
The number of black students -- 2,205 -- was more than double what it was 10 years ago. The five predominantly black seminaries in the association accounted for more than a quarter of that total. Black women, representing nearly 19 percent of the total, "have been coming to seminary at a slightly faster rate than black men," the report noted.
Enrollment of Hispanic-Americans leaped from 264 in 1972 to 894 in 1980, with the number of Hispanic women students, 134, increasing nearly ninefold.
Seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant body, more than doubled their enrollment in the past decade, a reflection both of continued growth of the communion and its emphasis in recent years on professional academic training for its ministers.
Nearly 5 percent of Southern Baptist candidates for ordination were women, down from 6.3 percent the year before. Southern Baptist churches ordain women on a local option basis; congregations in the deep South, where the denomination is strongest, tend to disapprove of women clergy.
Interdenominational and non-denominational seminaries also doubled their enrollment during the decade. Least growth was registered in seminaries of the Protestant Episcopal Church -- 2.1 percent -- and Lutheran Church in America -- 5.2 percent.
Even though the Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women, 22 percent of the 6,074 students in Catholic graduate level theology schools in 1980 were women. While the number of male seminarians eligible for ordination has steadily declined during the decade, from 6,426 in 1970 to 4,187 last year, "overall, Catholic schools have tended to hold their own" in total enrollment, Taylor said.
"What has happened in many Catholic schools is that where the ordainable degree population has been down, the non-ordainable degree population has been increased," Taylor added.
Exact figures on total growth in Roman Catholic seminary enrollment during the decade are not available, since Catholic membership in the ATS grew from 42 to 50 institutions during the decade. The organization began in 1936 as an accrediting agency for graduate theological education among Protestants. Catholic schools did not participate until the mid-'60s, after the Second Vatican Council encouraged cooperative relationships with other Christians.
According to Taylor, the association includes in its membership all graduate-level schools of theology except for one Catholic school -- which is in the process of joining -- and four or five conservative evangelical schools. Bible colleges, traditionally the training schools for fundamentalist churches, and "which are by definition undergraduate institutions," said Taylor, are not included.
Growth in the number of women faculty members and administrators has not kept pace with their increased numbers in the student body. Women last year made up 7.9 percent of full-time faculty members, in contrast to 3.2 percent 10 years ago. Part-timers have increased much faster, from 6.9 percent in 1971 to 16.3 percent last year. "Perhaps the substantial numbers of women currently in graduate doctoral studies will have a positive impact on this situation in the near future," the report suggests.
Women made up 18.8 percent of the total administrative force last year, up from 12.2 percent a decade ago. Sixty percent of all women administrators were in the registrar's office, a role traditionally held by women.
While professors of theology are generally accorded prestige and respect within the church community, they are not well paid. The average compensation during the 1979-80 academic year for a full professor, the top of the profession, was $31,701, including the value of housing allowances, pension contributions and other fringe benefits. Furthermore, the average salary increases over the previous year failed by nearly $1,000 to keep up with the rise in the cost of living.
These figures reflect Protestant salary scales only. Priests and nuns who make up most of the faculty of Catholic institutions receive substantially less.