Seminaries Have Changed A Lot In 30 Years Says Outgoing Theological Schools Director

May 15, 2017

There is no longer a predictable path for religious leaders, said Rev. Daniel Aleshire. When he went into seminary, it was typical to grow up following one denomination, attend the seminary of that denomination and then become a leader of a church. Now, the 69-year-old said, the path isn't as direct -- some people start later in life, some earn a master’s of divinity degree online and some don’t want to become the leader of a church.

Aleshire is retiring in a few months, after 21 years as the Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools. The Pittsburgh-based organization accredits 270 religious graduate schools in the U.S. and Canada that enroll approximately 74,500 students.

In his time at the ATS, as the typical student has changed, seminaries have tried to change with them.

90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider spoke with him about how schools of religion have diversified during his tenure.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SARAH SCHNEIDER: There are multiple studies showing that overall fewer people are participating in religious organizations and that's especially true for millennials. So how should seminary prepare people for that?

DANIEL ALESHIRE: We're at a moment where every generation of attendees of American congregations and parishes are attending differently. But we also know is that patterns of affiliation in the culture, in general, are declining. And what we're trying to do in theological education is to make sure that that person's been educated for ministry, understands what's going on understand the issues of generational differences and then seek to identify patterns of ministry that would be open and inviting.

SCHNEIDER: Is part of the problem diversity? Is it a lack of diversity? Do you need people in the church that look like you? And so that you can identify and feel safe and comfortable there.

ALESHIRE: If we only have about 30 percent of our students who are under 30, then they're out on ministry. Millennials aren't going to find religious leadership that looks like their age cohort. I don't know whether that influences attendance patterns at all. In other ways, we do have a lot of diversity in theological education. About 30 percent of all of the students enrolled in ATS schools are women. About 37 percent of all of the students in ATS schools are either persons of color or international students.

SCHNEIDER: Is that a big change from when you started this?

ALESHIRE: That's changed over the last 30 years. That percentage of students of color has almost doubled in the last 30 years. We take great delight in that, because the change that's going on in theological education reflects the change going on culturally. So part of the "Will there be leaders that look like the persons who are engaged in communities of faith?" is going to require an ever larger increase of leadership of racial ethnic persons.

SCHNEIDER: Is attending a theological seminary still relevant?

ALESHIRE: The only regret I have about completing 27 years with this organization and retiring is that I won't be around for the excitement of the next 10 years in this or in this community of schools.

The United States has the highest percentage of regular church attendees of any liberal democracy in the world. So, somewhere between 20 to 25 percent of the American population will probably be in in in church or synagogue or mosque or some community of worship on some regular basis there are very few places in this culture where 20 percent of the people show up at the same kind of place.

These are very different communities of faith. But I'm confident because even though certain attendance is declining, this is still a country that thinks about religion and that many of its citizens think religion is an important ingredient for a meaningful and whole human life.

So there's a great deal of change going on and when there is change, there's new energy emerging, there is some energy that may be subsiding, but my hope comes from looking at the pictures the whole. Are seminaries relevant? Yes. As long as there's religious energy in a culture, people will want religious leaders who understand the history and text of their tradition who know how to do the work, who know how to be pastorally present and seminaries will help those leaders develop that capacity.