The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Theological seminaries see enrollment rise during the pandemic

For the first time since 2006, more Association of Theological Schools members saw their student populations increase than decrease

Chaplain Kevin Deegan prays with covid-19 patient Esperanza Salazar, as she speaks with family members remotely, in a Los Angeles hospital in February. Theological schools have seen increased enrollment during the pandemic, especially among people interested in counseling and pastoral care. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Yarilynne Esther Regalado, 23, decided to pursue a master’s of divinity at Union Theological Seminary in New York after interning in clinical pastoral education in Boston. Her experience during the pandemic led her to think about the role of church in people’s lives.

“My passion for medicine and spirituality collided as I witnessed how my patients’ theology touched them in ways that brought them harm or hope within a hospital room,” Regalado said. “Trauma-informed care, grief work and deep reflection painted the complex picture that characterized this unique experience.”

More than 2.7 million covid-19 cases have been reported in New York state since the start of the pandemic, flooding hospitals and graveyards, according to The Washington Post. With so many lost, some New Yorkers have found themselves at an inflection point for engaging in big questions of faith, meaning and purpose, leading to a demand for guidance. The increased need for religious workers has stirred an interest in theology and an uptick in theological school enrollments. More than half of members of the Association of Theological Schools reported a rise in enrollment compared with 2019, according to a December 2020 report from the association.

“The pandemic has really sparked something in terms of feeling a sense of urgency around questions of faith, particularly when life is sort of shifting in ways that we haven’t seen before,” said the Rev. Tamara R. Henry, vice president for academic affairs and academic dean of New York Theological Seminary.

The biggest enrollment jump has been in pastoral care and counseling.

“The amount of lives lost due to covid left many people spiritually helpless and desperate for a sign of hope,” said Betul Maden, 24, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. “Many people found peace in praying to God, goddesses, Buddha and many other forms of the divine.”

As covid patients are denied visits from their families, these hospital chaplains provide vital comfort

Religion has been an important part of Maden’s life for as long as she can remember. She grew up attending a Sunni mosque in Brooklyn and became more immersed in theology as she saw constant references to religion in the texts she read in English classes. During the pandemic, she noticed that many religious groups shifted to online services, leaving people feeling a bit disconnected. She applied for Harvard Divinity School and was accepted.

“The pandemic has left people isolated away from their religious groups and society overall. This meant a significant need for people to step up for their community, to guide people into becoming a part of the congregation and not part ways with their beliefs overall,” Maden said.

The switch to online education, the need for more chaplains and the increased interest in theology are some factors boosting theological enrollment nationwide, according to Chris Meinzer, senior director of administration and chief operating officer at the Association of Theological Schools.

“It was a decent flip,” said Meinzer, citing numbers from the fall of 2020. “For more than a decade, we had schools that were about 45 percent showing growth, and 55 percent would have declined year over year. In the new academic year, following the pandemic, I found that 54 percent of ACS schools grew and 46 percent declined.”

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion also saw a slight uptick in rabbinic enrollment compared with the pre-pandemic rates.

“We enrolled 30 new students in the rabbinic program last year and 26 of whom were beginning in the first year of our program,” said Rabbi Adam M. Allenberg, senior director of recruitment and admissions at Hebrew Union College. “Many of them were people that we knew for a long time. But some were very new to us. It wasn’t like some kind of epiphany or revelation for them, but we did have new students.”

Chaplains were in high demand during the pandemic. Melanie Cicalese, 32, made the tough decision to work for New York Presbyterian-Queens Hospital when it requested extra chaplains for its staff as coronavirus cases were on the rise and as Queens became the epicenter of New York City’s outbreak, with more than 1,000 cases per day.

“My son was 10 months old at the time, and I feared bringing covid back home, but I decided to help out,” Cicalese said. “Hospital care team members would gather in a circle to distribute their roles, and I would be standing right with them giving them spiritual support.”

Cicalese’s journey started in May 2020, right after she finished her studies at the New York Presbyterian clinical pastoral education program. Today, she grabs a cup of coffee every morning from a truck parked in front of the New York Harbor hospital in Manhattan, where she works now. She takes the elevator to the 16th floor and enters her office overlooking the East River, where she prints out a list of patients she will visit for the day.

“Death or impending death brings life into focus,” she said. “What and who are truly important become more evident, as well as unresolved problems. My role is to be a spiritual presence.”

Rabia Gursoy is a writer based in New York.