Two questionnaires from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) bookend the seminary experience. The first, the Entering Student Questionnaire (ESQ), captures data provided by more than 5,600 incoming students, while the second, the Graduating Student Questionnaire (GSQ), reflects data supplied by 6,300 departing graduates. If interpreted wisely, they can offer insights for the decision makers who are trying to ensure that a school’s mission, programs, and messages are in sync.
The ESQ and GSQ are invaluable sources that can inform administrators and boards as they recruit new students, form current students, and raise funds from graduates and friends.
Among the most important revelations:
Future plans of entering students. About 40 percent of incoming seminarians have specific plans to pursue congregational ministry, and an equal number plan to pursue ministry in a setting outside a traditional congregation. Another 8 percent are interested in congregational ministry but are unsure what form their ministry might take.
Future plans of graduating students. Until the revision of the GSQ last year, the survey showed that about 40 percent of graduating students planned to head into full-time congregational ministry. This year, with slightly revised questions, that percentage has increased to almost 55 percent.
Fluidity of vocational calling. At least 40 percent of incoming students, and at least 35 percent of graduating students, plan to pursue a vocation outside parish ministry. But it’s important to remember that the plans of any particular student may change once or even several times during an academic career.
Data from the Association of Theological Schools should always encourage the boards and leaders of theological schools to compare their own schools with the reported information. What is happening at your own seminary? What percentage of incoming and graduating students plan to serve in congregations? Why are they attending seminary? To what other vocations do they feel called?
Across North America, seminary taglines employ words like “equipping,” “training,” “teaching,” “educating,” and “transforming.” And indeed, most people believe that the purpose of theological education is to teach, train, and equip people for ministry.
But the data suggest that theological schools are already doing more than just training future pastors. We should recognize that half of our students — even a great many who are enrolled in M.Div. programs — are going to do something other than lead a local congregation. And almost 20 percent of our students, incoming and graduating alike, are unsure of their vocational direction.
While seminaries are training future pastors, the preparation of students for full-time Christian ministry is only a subset of a broader mission: developing people who will be ready to serve Christ — in the church and in their lives, whether in a paid or unpaid capacity, whether full time or part time. At some schools, this understanding of “theological education for all” has percolated through the whole institution, but at others, it’s a new idea.
How can we connect with and develop students who have no plans to become pastors? Some schools are already doing this well. But at other institutions, curricula and enrollment management processes may need to be updated. Perhaps communications with current and prospective givers may need to be refreshed so that they reflect reality more accurately.
In my own experience, when presented with the data, givers start to question the institution — “Why aren’t you doing what you are supposed to do?” Next, they question North American culture, and then they worry about the well-being of the church.
Eventually, they seek understanding.
My recommendation for helping givers understand the broader mission of our seminaries is twofold. First, we need to think about the “Five P’s” to which Gary Hoag and I referred in “Practices that Foster Generosity” (In Trust, Spring 2014, page 10). Second, we need to think differently about our governing boards.
When most seminary leaders and fundraisers think about raising money, we consider what we want from the giver. That’s why we are concerned about the reaction of the giver to the news that many seminarians do not plan to pursue full-time pastoral ministry.
But what if we changed the order, considering instead what we want for the giver? “We do not need to worry about the money,” wrote Henri Nouwen. “Rather, we need to worry about whether, through the invitation we offer them and the relationship we develop with them, they will come closer to God.”
The Five P’s can guide our conversations with current and prospective givers alike. First, we focus on the person with whom we are speaking and learn more about his or her passion. Next, we ask permission to share what God is doing in and through our institution and invite that prospective giver to participate in that work. Finally, we ask him or her to seek God’s guidance through prayer.
Such conversations help givers develop personal connections between what God is doing and where God is asking them to participate. By using this framework, the conversation is rooted in the work of God and focused on the heart of the giver. Rather than selling an idea or a mission, we are inviting participation.
Many governing boards include clergy as members because pastors understand the day-to-day implications of seminary work. Having been through the process of theological education, they put that work into practice, gaining insights that can be valuable to the seminary community.
But it’s myopic to assume that pastors are the only people for whom seminary training is valuable. Seminary grads who are not in congregational ministry can provide a broader understanding of the work of the theological school and can help everyone, including fellow board members, remember whom the seminary serves.
Does your institution administer the Entering Student Questionnaire and the Graduate Student Questionnaire? If so, you may use the findings of both surveys to guide you in your strategic planning.
Read your data. Where are your incoming students planning to serve after graduating? Where are your graduates planning to serve?
Compare your data to your mission statement and marketing communications. Do the interests and expectations of the student body align with what the institution says about itself?
Analyze the structure of your curriculum. Does it reflect your students’ plans for ministry, or is it built solely to prepare students for congregational ministry?
Review your fundraising philosophy and messaging. Do they align with the realities of your enrollment?
Revise your mission, messaging, and programs, based on the data, if your answers to these questions suggest that revision is needed.
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