Alethea Allen, a Virginia resident, graduated this week from Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest Washington after years of divinity classes. But she has no intention of becoming a minister.
Instead, Allen plans to keep practicing as a pediatrician in the Winchester area. Her seminary training, she said, will help her be a better doctor.
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.”
On Thursday, she started a job on Capitol Hill with the advocacy arm of the United Methodist Church.
Seminaries have an incentive to appeal to nontraditional students because enrollment has been declining across all areas of Christianity, said Chris Meinzer, the group’s senior director of administration.
People are also busier, he said, and don’t necessarily want to spend the money and the time on an extra degree, which at many churches isn’t a requirement to be a pastor. Seminaries are responding to the concern with shorter, more-flexible and less-expensive programs. (According to the Association of Theological Schools, the average annual tuition for a master’s of divinity degree ranges from $10,000 to $16,000.)
The enrollment of U.S. schools in the theological association — the country’s largest such group — went from 74,352 in 2004 to 69,426 in 2013.
In addition to rising secularism in society, experts say, the traditional job of pastoring a church is more challenging as congregations become less committed and more fickle. Often, too, graduates have other ideas about how they want to use their degrees.
The association data don’t include a significant part of American Christianity — denominations that don’t require advanced degrees or individual independent churches.
Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., has seen the percentage of graduates likely to head into traditional ministry decrease. But the evangelical school has simultaneously boomed, with 4,800 full-time students (including those online), making it one of the largest in the world.
Part of the school’s success has come from its willingness to meet students where they are, with programs dedicated to psychology, intercultural evangelizing and popular culture, said Fuller spokeswoman Mary Hubbard Given.
Among recent Fuller graduates is Daniel Long. As a child and in college, he made films, acted and wrote. He’d considered becoming a pastor when he entered seminary and took preaching classes, but he constantly found himself framing sermons as narrative stories. His favorite class was “Theology and Hip Hop Culture.” He realized that telling stories was his ministry.
Long, 30, and his wife (they both recently graduated from Fuller) now run a media company that makes short films, graphic designs and Web sites. His films and writing explore the common challenges of young people.
“People always ask, ‘Where’s the correlation between story and seminary?’ To me, they are both about how to ask deep, human questions,” he said. “Jesus’s ministry was in his acts, things he did. He healed people.”
Long said that at one point, he was less committed to the institutional church.
“There’s a common phrase: ‘Love Jesus but hate the Church.’ I went through that when I was younger but realized: If Jesus is the head of the Church, how can you love the head but hate the body?”
Hubbard Given said she believes that Americans are increasingly interested in spirituality and faith even if some struggle with their feelings about institutional religion.
“I think it’s more common for people to think theologically about their vocation. Interest in theology is on the increase,” she said in explaining the school’s growth. All the choices for graduates, she said, make seminary education “a bit like pre-marriage counseling. People often think they want one thing when they start but [then want] something else when they leave.”
That’s just what happened with Wesley graduate Drew Colby. The child of two Methodist pastors who grew up in Richmond, Colby decided that pastoring was totally off the table as a career. He’d seen how congregants put pastors on pedestals, and he thought that church institutions were hypocritical, talking about Jesus but not living like Him. They focused too much on personal salvation and not enough on caring for others, he thought, historically not fighting hard enough against segregation and slavery.
A singer and musician, Colby, now 27, had wanted to be a conductor but unintentionally became involved in youth ministry at a rural Northern Virginia church and increasingly interested in theology. He went to Wesley thinking that he might be interested in music ministry and found his talents were in such areas as leadership, communication and creating relationships.
Basically, pastor things.
So he switched paths, and later this summer he will begin his first full-time assignment as a pastor.