August 1, 2016

What are America’s Largest Seminaries?

Thanks to figures collected by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), it’s possible to compile full-time student enrollment among accredited schools to get a better picture of the largest seminaries in the United States.

Latest reports from the 2015-16 academic year reveal an interesting picture: students seeking training for church ministry in the United States are largely attracted to evangelical Protestant seminaries, a trend that hasn’t changed much over the past twenty years.

A note regarding data collection: this compiled list is only a comparison of full-time students enrolled in seminaries accredited with the ATS. The ATS does provide a head count enrollment total which includes part-time students. But since full-time enrollment is the most stable measure of seminary size, this still accurately represents institutional attainment.

The evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary ranks largest with 1,542 full-time enrolled students during the 2015-16 academic year. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary follow closely behind with 1,438 and 1,356 full-time enrolled students, respectively.

Seminaries Table 1

While all of the ten largest seminaries in the country are evangelical Protestant, it’s interesting that half of those schools are Southern Baptist-affiliated. Five of the six theological seminaries associated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are among the top ten largest in the country. Meanwhile, the SBC-affiliated Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary barely missed the list with 705 full-time students enrolled.

Fluctuations between America’s top ten largest seminaries during the 2015-16 and 1995-96 academic school years are surprisingly narrow. Only Reformed Theological Seminary, Presbyterian Church USA-affiliated Princeton Theological Seminary, and United Methodist Church-affiliated Candler School of Theology fell out of the top ten.

Seminaries Table 2

Since the 1995-96 academic school year, Princeton Theological Seminary has seen 30 percent fewer full-time enrolled students. Reformed Theological Seminary saw a 33 percent decrease to 547 full-time students while Candler School of Theology experienced a 39 percent drop to 414 full-time students.

There were a few positive changes. Since 1995-96, the evangelical Wesleyan-rooted Asbury Theological Seminary experienced a 50 percent increase in full-time student enrollment. “They are drawn to Asbury’s distinctives of a high regard for biblical authority and commitment to preparing women and men for evangelistic ministry,” wrote Dr. Tom Tumblin, Dean of the Asbury seminary Beeson International Center for Biblical Preaching and Leadership, in an article for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. “Our faculty includes world-class scholars who have rich field experience and embrace God’s call to go, disciple, baptize and teach.”

Midwestern Theological Seminary sprung into the top ten largest seminaries with an inspiring 136 percent increase in full-time student enrollment since 1995. Similarly, evangelical Gordon-Conwell also moved up among the largest seminaries with a 57 percent increase in full-time students over the past two decades.

Of course, we can’t ignore the significant decline in full-time enrollment among Fuller, Southwestern, Trinity Evangelical, and several others that have transpired over the course of twenty years. Explanations may vary as to the reasons. Perhaps America’s slowly-recovering economy after the 2008 recession played a role or society’s growing discomfort with Christianity and hostility towards the public role of the Church makes an impact on student’s career choices.

It’s hard not to notice the smallest Protestant Seminaries in the country while collecting ATS figures.

Among the smallest accredited Protestant seminaries in the nation are three Episcopal seminaries: Bexley Hall Seabury-Western Theological Seminary Federation with 17 full-time students enrolled, General Theological Seminary with 34 full-time students, and Episcopal Divinity School with 35 full-time students. IRD’s Jeffrey Walton reported Episcopal Divinity School will no longer grant degrees after the coming academic school year. “A menu of recycled 1960s-era liberation theology themes garnished with radical sexuality and gender studies proved unappealing to prospective seminarians,” noted Walton.

Meanwhile, it’s two Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-associated seminaries that reveal another interesting contrast among evangelical institutions. Unlike the chart-topping conservative SBC-affiliated seminaries, the more liberal CBF-affiliated Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond counted 42 full-time students and Baptist Seminary of Kentucky had only 31 full-time students in 2015-16.

In 2006 Dr. Russell Moore, then senior vice president and dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, predicted CBF would fail because of “the disaster of CBF’s seminaries and divinity schools,” according to a Baptist Press News report. “Unlike SBC seminaries, which are held accountable by the congregations of the Southern Baptist Convention, the CBF seminaries and divinity schools are accountable only to a donor base of nostalgic Baptist liberals.”

Outliers such as the orthodox Reformed Episcopal Seminary with its 24 full-time students do exist. Not to mention even the most conservative evangelical seminary isn’t completely immune to theologically misleading faculty and other problems.

However, the consistency in seminary choices over the past twenty years corroborates most full-time students called to ministry prefer orthodox Christianity to liberal trend followers.

27 Responses to What are America’s Largest Seminaries?

  1. Palamas says:

    Chelsen, a couple of things to note here. One is that Reformed Episcopal Seminary serves a small denomination, so a small student body is to be expected. The second is that the decline at Fuller may well have something to do with an increasing reputation for slipshod, if not liberal, scholarship.

    • rdrift1879 says:

      Yes, I would not classify Fuller as Evangelical.

    • Rob Arner says:

      Yes- RES is almost 150 years old, and has served as THE seminary of the very small Reformed Episcopal Church for that time. However with the REC now joining the Anglican Communion via the ACNA, RES is now attracting more students from a much broader base and is poised for significant growth in the future. They recently became accredited with the ATS less than five years ago for the first time in their 100+ year history.

  2. Namyriah says:

    Also, the ELCA is merging two of its seminaries (the ones in Gettysburg and Philly)
    The UCC’s Bangor Seminary closed in 2013
    The UM’s St. Paul School of Theology abandoned its campus in 2013 and took up residence in the Church of the Resurrection.
    McCormick (PUCSA) had to give up its Lincoln Park campus and relocate to shared facilities with the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.
    Colgate Rochester Crozer, the product of several mainline seminary mergers, now has only 90 students.
    The Disciples’ Lexington Seminary fell on hard times and had to sell its campus to the U of Kentucky and relocate to a smaller campus in 2009.
    Louisville Presbyterian Seminary presented The Vagina Monologues on campus in Feb 2016., during the seminary’s “V-Week.” Glad to know the PCUSA is in such good hands.

    My own denomination’s (PCA) seminary, Covenant, has 363 full-time students, according to ATS. I’ve heard Covenant is growing but have no data on that.

  3. Roy Miller says:

    I’m an RTS grad (from back in the day when there was only one campus), so I’m wondering if having three main campuses and two or three smaller campuses is what has hurt RTS.

  4. BL428 says:

    Please note that the author incorrectly spelled the name of Dr. Tom Tumblin.

  5. Gregg says:

    I would have liked to have seen honorable mentions to the largest Catholic and largest Orthodox seminaries in the country – not even the Top Ten, but just the largest one of each. Both would pale in comparison to the largest Protstant seminaries, but it would add an ecumenical dimension, which I think this journal tries hard to maintain.

  6. DannyBoyJr says:

    The UMC should divest from ultra-liberal seminaries like Claremont and Iliff. We’re wasting our members’ donations by giving it to non-performing schools that teach post-modernism rather than the Gospel.

    I looked at the list of UMC-funded seminaries and most are drifting towards liberalism. I think we should re-assess our relationship with these seminaries, and to explore possible collaboration with our more evangelical Wesleyan sister denominations like the Nazarenes, Wesleyans, and CoG:Anderson.

    • the_enemy_hates_clarity says:

      That should be part of the conversation if and when the UMC splits. We send far too much money to liberal seminaries (the right amount is $0). Asbury, (I know we don’t give them $) and United are the only two that I am aware of that we should be supporting.

      In Christ,

      The Enemy Hates Clarity

    • Earl of Kensington says:

      You can make a yearly petition to your annual conference asking UM seminaries to be accountable to the Book of Discipline.

  7. John Dyer says:

    Thanks for a great article.

    I would like to mention that its worth looking at the difference between head count and full-time equivalent (FTE). You’ll find that mainline and catholic schools tend to have 80-100% full-time, while many evangelical seminaries have moved from 75% or so in the 1990s to under 50% today. This is partly because students attending evangelical seminaries don’t always intend on going to full-time ministry, so they study part-time, but also because over the past 20 years evangelical seminaries have embraced distance education (extension sites and online classes) at higher rates.

  8. Daniel McCarthy says:

    There are other factors at work as well. I know a ton of outstanding pastors that never got their MDiv. The growth of non-denominational churches has contributed to this factor. The growth of Pentecostal churches is a major factor as well. Finally, the growth in the internet has made access to information much easier, so many people do not see why they have to study at a divinity school.

  9. xnlover says:

    It is worth noting, too, that of the seven schools on both lists, the full-time enrollment in 1995-96 was 9,996, while in 2015-16, it was 8,154, a drop of 1,842 students. The number enrolled in the top 10 in 1995-96 was 12,273, while the number in 2015-16 was 10,925, a drop of 1,348 students. Beyond that, the trend might well be explained by Jonathan Haidt, who says that we tend to gravitate toward those whose teaching supports our intuitions and to deny the validity of that which contradicts them – sort of an “itching ears” kind of thing, no matter where one is on the theological spectrum. The challenge, however, whether one is conservative or liberal, is to address the growing “none” population that sees the Church as a hindrance to the development of healthy social relationships rather than a purveyor and supporter of them. Our internecine rivalries are harming our witness to the wider world.

  10. random thoughts says:

    The article confuses full-time students and full-time-student equivalency. Many seminary students today study part-time. A school with 100 full-time students and 200 half-time students will have a head count of 300, but a full-time equivalency of 200 (100 + 200/2). The article keeps describing these schools enrollment as so many “full-time students.” A closer look at the data will demonstrate that this is not correct.

  11. Earl of Kensington says:

    I guess the larger question is why are all of those denominations in decline?

  12. Jim says:

    Wonderful article, Chelsen. Great factual reporting and good analysis. Jim Robb

  13. Lori Harri says:

    Thank you Chelsea for a relevant article. It would be nice to see Catholic and Orthodox in this comparison as well. As ecumenical YWAM, we are always surprised when “theologians” have no clue that church history includes Catholics!

  14. mbarker12474 says:

    This statement needs further analysis and scrutiny:

    “A note regarding data collection: this compiled list is only a
    comparison of full-time students enrolled in seminaries accredited with
    the ATS. The ATS does provide a head count enrollment total which
    includes part-time students. But since full-time enrollment is the most
    stable measure of seminary size, this still accurately represents
    institutional attainment.”

    I imagine that an analysis of web-based or off-campus enrollment, and part-time enrollment by mid-career or retired students, would reveal quite a bit. Including some further distinctions between mainline / social gospel oriented students / denominations and their evangelical counterparts.

  15. RGB Rao says:

    In schools that flourish, one thing I have noticed is that the Profs often do preach at very many local churches. These are not simply churches located near the school but also distant ones.

    I think that this is good because it helps them understand what are some real world problems that the person in the pews is going through and it keeps them out of being in an ivory tower mode.

    In Christ Jesus,

  16. Meg I. says:

    Well, after the mess at Princeton Seminary in the last few months with pulling the Kuyper award away from Timothy Keller, I think we are seeing a “sign of the times” which your blog does an excellent job in pointing out – seminaries that don’t stand on truth are collapsing. Matthew 7:24 – 27

  17. Robb Redman says:

    This left out Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, which is not a member of ATS. Total enrollment is ~10,000, mostly in fully online programs.

    • Danny Moore says:

      Update from Liberty’s Website: Since June 2018, the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity has been an associate member of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Candidacy status with ATS was granted in February 2019.

  18. Rev. James Arthur says:

    I am a graduate of two ats seminaries. my education there was one of the most positive experiences of my life and ministry.
    today, marks a very sad and loss of one of the most wonderful
    persons in earth’s history. the passing of Dr. Billy Graham. may God bless his soul.

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