Despite reports about declining church attendance in the US, the number of people training for ministry continues to grow in many schools, according to a recent report from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).
Enrolment has increased at 100 schools belonging to the ATS in the past five years, with some programmes growing by more than 50 per cent.
The ATS report shows that 12 of the 273 ATS member schools have grown by 50 per cent or more and 34 schools have grown by 25 per cent or more.
The ATS has a commission that accredits graduate programmes at theological schools across the US and Canada for courses preparing people for professional leadership in Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Included in the top 12 fastest-growing theological schools is the University of Notre-Dame's department of theology and four Baptist seminaries. They range from small schools, such as the Northwest Baptist Seminary in Langley, British Colombia, with a 2014 enrolment of 34 students, to Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary which enrolled 804 graduate students last year.
However, enrolment across all 273 ATS member schools has declined 5 per cent since 2009, according to a report released in February, from 75,096 to 71,449.
This decline is largely seen as a response to the financial crisis, as fewer people are now taking occasional courses without working towards a postgraduate degree – a trend which explains the peak in 2006 when there were 81,180 students. Degree completion has increased since the boom. The longer-term view also shows that more people are now enrolling in graduate theological programmes than in 1999.
The latest report shows a notable increase in online theology courses, with 18,500 people choosing to study this way in 2014, in comparison with 13,750 in 2009.
One school that can testify to the benefit of online training is the Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, Texas, which enrolled 68 students in 2014 – a 94 per cent rise since 2009. The dean, Philip Attebery, said that the growth was primarily about convenience, having seen a large increase since the development of online courses.
Midwestern is the fastest growing seminary with an enrolment of 500 students or more (12 per cent of ATS member schools). President of Midwestern Dr Jason Allen said that although the school had developed the recruitment system and focused on marketing, he thought its theological stance was also central to its growth.
"While these steps have doubtlessly helped, I believe the most important steps we've taken are convictional and missiological," Allen said. "We have repurposed the institution to give its very best energies to serving the local Southern Baptist Church. Our doctrinal convictions and our missiological clarity both have accelerated our growth."
Other reasons for growth include changing course structures and new degree programmes. ATS executive director Daniel O Aleshire said in the report: "The reasons that some schools have enjoyed extraordinary enrolment growth during the past five years are idiosyncratic. Each growing school has its own success story to tell."