americas largest seminaries

September 23, 2019

What are America’s Largest Seminaries in 2019?

Correction: This post originally defined FTE as full-time students enrolled when ATS actually defines FTE as full-time equivalent enrollment or “the number of students who would be enrolled if all students were attending full time.” However, the data is still the same. For clarity, I am including a chart below comparing the total headcount from degree-granting institutions for the 2018-2019 academic school year. 

In August 2016, I set out to understand the state of Protestant seminaries in the United States by evaluating student enrollment among accredited schools. The results revealed that students seeking training for church ministry were overwhelmingly attracted to orthodox, evangelical Protestant institutions. Meanwhile, the smallest accredited Protestant seminaries in the nation included three Episcopal seminaries and two Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) seminaries.

What of those rankings today? I wondered if there have been any significant changes in attendance at America’s largest Protestant seminaries over the last four academic years. And what of those small, progressive seminaries? How have they fared over the last three years? Had they seen miraculous growth or a continued decline?

Given that Fuller Theological Seminary fell from the number #1 position, a progressive Baptist seminary shuttered its doors, and a Seventh-day Adventist school now ranks among the top 10 largest seminaries, there are, indeed, changes worth noting here.

Reports made available through the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) provide data for member schools from 1975 until the 2018-2019 academic school year. To be counted in this evaluation, seminaries must be ATS-accredited and degree-granting institutions and not departments or houses of studies within universities. Also, this compiled list is only a comparison of full-time equivalent enrollment (FTE) in seminaries in the United States that serve Protestant denominations.

Notably, today, the top three largest Protestant seminaries in the United States are Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated institutions. This is an interesting change from 2015-2016, when Fuller Theological Seminary claimed the #1 largest position, with 1,542 full-time students at the time.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is now the largest Protestant seminary in the country, after a 20 percent rise in FTE between the 2015-2016 and the 2018-2019 academic school years. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary experienced an impressive 32 percent increase in FTE between those same academic school years.

Nearly all of the top 10 schools in 2015-2016 experienced growth except for Fuller and Trinity Evangelical Theological Seminary. Fuller, an interdenominational Protestant school, saw an 18 percent decline in FTE between the 2015-2016 and 2018-2019 academic years. Trinity actually saw an increase of 43 full-time students between 2016 and 2017 before experiencing a slight ten percent decline in FTE between the 2015-2016 and 2018-2019 academic years.

Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary–the seminary associated with Andrew University in Berrien Springs, Michigan–moved into the #10 position, after a seven percent increase in FTE between 2015-2016 and 2018-2019.

While the six SBC-affiliated seminaries were (and still are) among the largest in the U.S. back in 2016, two liberal CBF-affiliated institutions were among the smallest. Baptist Seminary of Kentucky enrolled 31 full-time students in 2015-2016. That number was down to 24 full-time students in 2018-2019.

Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR) is a sadder story. BTSR was the first stand-alone seminary started as a progressive Baptist alternative to the six SBC institutions. In 2015-2016, BTSR had 42 FTE. By 2018-2019, that number dropped just a bit to 35 FTE. However, in November 2018, BTSR announced that it planned to close “due to financial pressures,” according to Baptist News Global. On June 30, 2019, BTSR officially closed its doors.

Liberal mainline Protestant denominations continue to claim seminaries with the lowest FTE attendance. The Episcopal Church-affiliated General Theological Seminary recorded 33 FTE last year. The Disciples of Christ-affiliated Lexington Theological Seminary had 37 FTE and the ELCA-affiliated Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary recorded 42 FTE students during the 2018-2019 academic year.

Outliers still remain. For example, the plant-confessing chapel at New York’s Union Theological Seminary made headlines last week. Union is a historically liberal, interdenominational seminary. While one would like to think such plant-confession foolery does not attract students, Union reported a modest 219 FTE attendance last year.

Predicting the future of Protestant denominations in the United States seems simple when analyzing seminary data overall. Orthodox, evangelical seminaries affiliated with denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention are experiencing significant growth in enrollment, while liberal counterparts shut their doors. Meanwhile, the country’s Protestant seminaries with the lowest enrollment numbers reflect the decline of their associated liberal mainline denominations

Latest ATS reports continue to affirm my findings from three years ago: most full-time students called to ministry prefer orthodox Christianity to liberal trend followers.


18 Responses to What are America’s Largest Seminaries in 2019?

  1. Jeff says:

    The cost to attend the various seminaries probably should be part of the analysis. SBC seminaries are among the lowest cost, especially if housing is compared between Louisville or Ft. Worth, and New York or Los Angeles. Not to say that theological orientation does not matter.

    • Brad Pope says:

      Wouldn’t the cost only be relevant if the cost of those seminaries had changed? Otherwise it seems the change in FTE would be very much related to the progressive orientation of the ones in decline. The trend is very consistent with the trend of church memberships and certainly with the trends in attendance. It’s very logical that progressive/more secular churches would not be doing as well because they are competing with other secular options and service opportunities whereas traditional churches have something unique to offer, the unadulterated gospel.

    • Steve says:

      The article provides a link to the all the data including tuition and fees; if you think there’s a valid point to be made by analyzing those numbers, feel free. I tend to think there’s no point.

      • Steve says:

        Mind you, my focus is on the Episcopal Church. I count 9 accredited Episcopalian seminaries, and the full time enrollment at all of them is underwhelming. Without listing them all (I can if you want), I’ll proffer that the largest of them is Virginia Theological Seminary; the number of full time enrolled there is 138. Doesn’t seem like the Episcopal Church has much of a future with numbers like that.

      • JR says:

        Fuller = $20k per year.
        Asbury = $16k per year.

        The Baptist ones are all under $10k per year.

        For comparison, a graduate degree from Louisville University (in the same town as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) runs $26k+ per year for an out of state student – more than double the MDiv cost.

        The cost of seminary (like the cost of college in general) has to be a factor. I don’t know that it’s the most significant one, but I’d lean more towards that than the particular theological bent of the institution.

        • Steve says:

          If you want to be Episcopal clergy, you go to the Episcopal seminary. Where you want to be hired is going to be the biggest consideration. If you think the seminary will get you where you want to go, you will find the money. Most of these prices don’t look like they’d deter anybody. Looks like the Episcopal seminaries are in generally the $15k tuition range (I’m assuming per semester) and isn’t it only for three years? Not bad for a profession with good pay and benefits (in theory at least).

  2. Lawrence Kreh says:

    I lament the slight but significant decline of Fuller in California. It has been a source of great evangelical ministers, not only for evangelical Presbyterians but for other denominations. Perhaps that is partly due to the rapid secularization of California and the west coast and the decline of many churches here, evangelical as well as progressive. We need a strong Fuller seninary.

    • MJ says:

      Fuller’s forte has always been offering a solidly evangelical education for those seeking ordination in the mainline (oldline?) denominations. With the collapse of those churches, despite many efforts at renewal from within, perhaps there are simply fewer students coming to Fuller from those churches.

    • John says:

      Fuller has rapidly shifted from focusing on scripture the past decade to focusing on politics. The traditional stance of inerrancy is not as defined by the school anymore and they taken up a lot of partnerships with Mormons and others recently. I too lament their stray. Still some good professors among the mix, but leadership is clearly astray from orthodox theology these days.

  3. David says:

    Many colleges have experienced a decline in liberal arts students as people seek more job-oriented degrees. One does not have to go too far to note the closing of churches and declining attendance. These do no bode well for future employment and one has to support oneself. I recall a prediction made many years ago that given current trends, there would be one Episcopal priest for each parishioner. Of course, current trends change and stretching out the line on the chart has serious limitations. A more relevant question would be is there a shortage of clergy who require a livable income?

    • Steve says:

      Generally speaking, in the Episcopal Church, it doesn’t matter how little you are willing to work for; if you don’t have a seminary degree, you’re not going to be clergy, and if you didn’t go to an Episcopalian seminary, good luck getting through the discernment process. In my experience people going through the Episcopalian discernment process go to Episcopalian seminaries. I understand that standards may have already been relaxed in a few dioceses where membership numbers are particularly bad, such that they allow unpaid lay ministers that haven’t been through seminary. Kind of calls into question the whole idea of the importance of seminary education. Frankly, I’d rather have the typical 10 year old conduct a service than the typical Episcopal seminary graduate; at least the 10 year old will stick to the prayerbook.

  4. Lee D. Cary says:

    Anyone have stats on the percentage of students at the top 10 seminaries that are employed by upon graduation by independent, non-denominational congregations?

  5. Mark Lau Branson says:

    The author apparently confuses the common abbreviation “FTE,” which means full-time equivalent, with the label used in the article “Full time enrolled.” These do not mean the same thing. FTE counts as 1 FTE.

  6. Sandy Grant says:

    Chelsen, thanks for your article.

    I think you may have mistaken the meaning of FTE. It stands for “Full Time Equivalent”. Not for “Full-time Enrolments”.

    So for example, the data for Southern Seminary for the last year refers to

    1,731 as FTE Students. But right next to that it records HC, which stands for Head Count, as 3,237.

    In other words, Southern does not have 1731 full time students. It has a mix of full time and many part time students.

    The information I have heard (from an Australian seminary principal, who toured seminaries in US and UK), is that the number of full time students is declining at most seminaries, although the number of part time students is rising at many.

    This could be a very significant change, if true.

  7. The Rev. Jeff Williams says:

    Unfortunately, this does not give a true picture of all Protestant ministerial preparation. There are now many seminaries and Bible colleges training thousands of ministers in accredited online degree programs, from Liberty University to Piedmont International University. There should be some listing of those statistics as well.

  8. Donald says:

    Chelsen – So what are the Top 50 schools? Where can we get such a link?

    • So true, Donald. Many seminaries and conservative graduate schools that are not ATS accredited are not mentioned. TRACS and ABHE accredit many institutions that have graduate seminary programs. Some ATS seminaries are faithful to God’s Word, but many are not.

  9. Test Vu says:

    With the launch of the online programs, it makes sense that there are fewer and fewer FTE students. Only looking at the FTE numbers and making a conclusion that “most full-time students called to ministry prefer orthodox Christianity to liberal trend followers.” are not very accurate.

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