Bible education: What’s the cost?
For many preachers — or would-be preachers — pay is…
Enrollment in Bible and ministry programs at universities and preaching schools associated with Churches of Christ has declined, a survey by The Christian Chronicle found: Fewer students are preparing to preach.
The culture at large contributes to the downturn, according to deans and department chairs, as does the way churches often treat preachers — and the cost of becoming one.
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But the decline extends beyond Churches of Christ, evidenced by the closing nationwide of seminaries across a wide swath of Christian denominations.
Nor is it limited just to seminaries and Bible programs.
Postsecondary enrollment remains down about 1.2 million undergraduates — or 7.6 percent — compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
And then there’s the propensity of 18- to 21-year-olds to change career plans — about a third will change majors at least once in the first three years of college, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Others finish a degree but wind up working in a different field.
That happened to Stephen Chesney, a graduate of Harding University in Searcy, Ark. He completed a degree in Bible and ministry in 2020 but wound up working in information technology and was preparing to move to Edmond, Okla., for a new job when he spoke with the Chronicle.
The native of Rock Hill, S.C., said his training at Harding was “really, really good,” and he felt well prepared to enter ministry when he graduated.
But he did not expect how difficult the job hunt would be, particularly in trying to find “a good theological match.”
Though he was raised in Churches of Christ, Chesney said “some key issues” created tension, particularly around the role of women and use of instruments in worship.
“I found myself in interviews that would go well, and I’d been open and honest about what I believe and why, and they’d become contentious, and they didn’t want to move forward,” he said. Conversely, one church wanted to move forward but “wanted me to teach something I didn’t believe, and I couldn’t do that — it wouldn’t be a good elder/minister relationship.”
Ten universities and two preacher schools responded to an informal survey by the Chronicle. They represent a disparate group in terms of size, location and perceived lean on the liberal-to-conservative continuum among Churches of Christ:
The common theme was that numbers are down. And while the numbers don’t tell the whole story, they do tell a story.
At Abilene Christian University in Texas, the Graduate School of Theology has the largest graduate enrollment among universities associated with Churches of Christ at 165, though it’s down 11 percent from 5 years ago. And overall undergrad enrollment is down 16 percent. But of 110 enrolled in undergraduate Bible degrees, 36 are in the Christian ministry track, which is the most common choice for those planning to preach. That track is up 50 percent over five years, from 24 to 36, according to Rodney Ashlock, chair of ACU’s Bible, Missions and Ministry Department.
Ashlock is careful to qualify those numbers, however. “Some students may want to go into preaching, and some don’t know what they want to do, and this is the broadest one.”
Other tracks and majors are more vocational, ranging from biblical text and biblical languages to worship or youth ministry.
Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., has 105 and 70 in undergrad and grad Bible programs, respectively, making it the largest undergraduate program emphasizing preaching among those responding.
Most universities don’t have a major or track that’s exclusively dedicated to preaching. Majors for students preparing to preach have names like Bible, Christian ministry or biblical text. Other majors like missions, youth ministry or family ministry are generally understood to be nonpreaching tracks.
To be fair, the names of majors in other fields are not good vocational descriptors either. A biology major, for example, might be preparing for medical school or wildlife management.
Mark Blackwelder, dean of FHU’s College of Biblical Studies, attributes a decline between 2007 and 2017 to economic woes and less support from families and church leaders.
“Even many Christians do not express admiration for preachers and other ministers. Instead, children often hear criticism and disapproval. This is bound to make an impression.”
“I hear more parents encouraging their children to pursue more lucrative career paths,” Blackwelder said. “Further, even many Christians do not express admiration for preachers and other ministers. Instead, children often hear criticism and disapproval. This is bound to make an impression.”
Naomi Walters, chair of the Department of Theology and Ministry at Rochester University, attributes the loss there and elsewhere to, among other things, a decline in religious affiliation and congregational involvement across American Christianity. The Michigan university has 15 students in its preaching major, down from 31 five years ago.
Walters faults the “polarization of American theological/political discourse” as a significant cause.
David Calhoun, a sophomore urban ministry major at Rochester, has seen that downside: “the judgment and pride that runs rampant in the church, through gossip, backbiting, tradition, oppression.”
But he hasn’t let that change his mind. Calhoun was encouraged by the elders of Oakland Church of Christ in Southfield, Mich., and by his mentor Terrence McClain Sr. to attend Rochester. He returned to college at age 39 because, he said, he felt a call from God and because of the encouragement he finds “when people find God and hope is reignited in their life.”
Brandon Reynolds, an ACU graduate this spring, tells a similar story from a distant part of the country.
Reynolds grew up in New Mexico and has always planned to preach. But he sees the dark side of church life and acknowledges it’s discouraging.
“I’m just seeing how much everyone hates everyone — it really, really breaks my heart. It’s almost like there’s a blindness people don’t understand that leads them to hate their brother or sister because of what they say or think.”
“I’m just seeing how much everyone hates everyone — it really, really breaks my heart,” Reynolds said. “It’s almost like there’s a blindness people don’t understand that leads them to hate their brother or sister because of what they say or think.”
He’s undeterred, however, and hopes to preach part time or full time at a small church in or near Abilene while pursuing his Master of Divinity degree. But he doesn’t plan to return to New Mexico and wants to find a more conservative region to raise his family.
Academic leaders also have concerns about the way ministers are sometimes treated by churches.
Garrett Best, chair of the Bible Department at York University in Nebraska, said, “We are getting very few students interested in going into ministry, but if we do manage to get students interested in being Bible majors, they do not want to preach or lead a church.”
Out of York’s six Bible majors, he knows of only one who intends to preach.
Preaching schools have taken a hit as well. Paul Dowell, vice president of residential studies at Sunset School of Preaching in Lubbock, Texas, attributes the decline to fewer churches sending students.
“Also,” he said, “a lack of emphasizing the value and importance of preaching within our congregations, which would result in more of our brethren considering the call.”
Related: Bible education: What’s the cost?
Sunset enrollment totals 64 across its undergrad, grad and certificate programs. That’s down 30 percent from five years ago and less than half the number enrolled a decade ago.
Enrollment has also declined at Bear Valley Bible Institute in Denver, the other preaching school surveyed. Overall enrollment is down about 14 percent in five years.
But Garrett Akin still was drawn to leave his Tennessee home and move with his wife and three young sons to Denver for his first foray in postsecondary education. Bear Valley’s two-year program does not require previous college hours for admission.
“I had grown up preaching for some congregations, and it was something that was always in the back of my mind, but something I had suppressed and said it wasn’t for me, wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted,” Akin explained.
“One day I was preparing a lesson, and for some reason I chose to do it on apathy, and as I was studying I started crying on the couch — I realized I’m the apathetic one not doing everything I can for God, and that lit a fire.”
Jeff Cary, dean of the Alfred and Patricia Smith College of Biblical Studies at Lubbock Christian University, said he has seen Bible majors face resistance from their families and people in their churches. As a result, most Bible majors at the West Texas school have not planned to pursue preaching careers.
His list of reasons for the general decline, not just at LCU but across the board, are part of what he calls a move toward a post-Christian and secular society.
Students have witnessed significant strain in the lives of preachers they know, Cary said.
“Preachers don’t hold the same social standing in our culture and churches as they once did,” he said. “In fact, it has become quite the opposite in many cases.”
Rochester’s Walters echoed that thought, citing “visibly unhealthy congregational treatment of ministers” in terms of salaries, benefits and expectations.
Benjamin McCullough, a freshman pulpit ministry major at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., comes from a tiny church that has been without a preacher for several years. He hopes to change that when he graduates.
“I don’t want to see my church doors close. It’s terrifying. I grew up in that church, I know every person there and what they had for dinner last night. It would be a sad day to see those doors close.”
These days his home congregation, the Coffeeville Church of Christ in Mississippi, has about 35 to 40 “on a good day.”
The congregation once averaged Sunday attendance of 50 to 60. But then a minister left after 11 years there to help his own home congregation that was in danger of closing.
Since then Coffeeville has had a couple of full-time ministers, McCullough said, “but no one stuck around.”
“It’s taken a big toll on our congregation,” he said. “I don’t want to see my church doors close. It’s terrifying. I grew up in that church, I know every person there and what they had for dinner last night. It would be a sad day to see those doors close.”
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