How Are We Doing?
The Effectiveness of Theological Schools as Measured by the Vocations and Views of Graduates

By Barbara G. Wheeler, Sharon L. Miller, and Daniel O. Aleshire

Free copies of the report can be ordered from the Center for the Study of Theological Education at (212) 662- 4315 or by e-mail at The full report is also available online at

The graduates speak

Auburn Center research reveals what theological school graduates say about their preparation for ministry

Perhaps the most important question that theological schools face is whether they are preparing their students adequately for the challenges of congregational leadership. A new report published by the Auburn Center for the study of Theological Education offers some answers.

How Are We Doing?: The Effectiveness of Theological Schools as Measured by the Vocations and Views of Graduates distills research on two principal concerns: What do graduates do after they graduate, and how well does their theological training prepare them for their work?

The report assembles:

  • Findings from surveys of graduates from Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish seminaries who earned M.A., M.Div., or similar degrees from 1990 through 2001. 

    • Data from the Entering Student Questionnaire and Graduating Student Questionnaire, both conducted annually by the Association of Theological Schools in the U.S. and Canada (ATS). 

    • Enrollment data provided by ATS member schools.

The results of this research are mostly encouraging. Notably, alumni, especially those who enter congregational ministry, are largely satisfied with their preparation and give theological and rabbinical schools high marks for effectiveness.

Theological education and vocation

How Are We Doing? affirms schools' current success in fostering students' vocations. It states:

"Taken together, the findings reported so far show that theological schools are doing their job as measured by the vocational trajectories of their graduates."

Highlights include:

Almost 90 percent of graduates rated their vocational preparation as "positive" or "extremely positive." The same percentage said they "definitely" or "probably" would attend theological or rabbinical school if they had it to do over again.

Interest in congregational ministry increases during theological education. Contrary to popular opinion, many students develop a vocational call to congregational ministry during their theological education. Only half of the students entering M.Div. or equivalent programs in 1996 planned to enter congregational ministry. But by 2000, two-thirds of the same cohort recorded congregational ministry as their first vocational choice.

Attrition in the first years of ministry is low. About 10 percent of 1995 M.Div. graduates left full-time ministry during their first 10 years after graduation, while about 5 percent of graduates of the class of 2000 left the ministry in the first five years. Overall attrition from ministry is about 1 percent per year -- a notably low figure.

M.A. programs do not discourage ministerial vocations. More than half of surveyed M.A. graduates served in some kind of ministerial position after graduation, and for those in professional M.A. programs (such as pastoral care or religious education), 58 percent are now ordained or licensed.

Most graduates who do not enter ministry choose closely related vocational fields. Of those graduates who are not now in ministry, 15 percent instead work in nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, or are pursuing further studies. Of M.Div. graduates, 10 percent are now in related fields. Only 7 percent of all graduates are in business or other nonreligious positions.

Different types of schools supply different types of religious leadership. Two-thirds of graduates of denominational schools enter congregational ministry, while fewer than one-half of graduates from nondenominational theological schools do. The graduates of nondenominational schools are more likely to enter other forms of specialized ministry, nonprofit work, or education.

The study reveals some sobering findings:

The number of students indicating an interest in congregational ministry is decreasing. ATS data suggest that older students are more likely than younger students to enter congregational ministry after graduation. But the population of younger students is on the rise. The pool of likely congregational ministers may therefore be shrinking.

Women encounter more obstacles in religious professions and are less likely to enter and stay in ministry than their male counterparts. Even within those denominations and traditions that do ordain women, men appear to enter and advance in ministry more easily than women.

Preparation for ministry

When asked about how well their theological school prepared them for ministry, respondents were generally positive, with some caveats.

They generally rated their experiences in traditional academic subjects positively, but practical fields were marked lower. Bible and theology courses received the highest marks, while courses in church administration and polity, along with studies in world religions, ranked lower.

The Auburn Center found that when they discussed results from the research at a meeting of theological school deans, few present were surprised by the high marks received by the traditional disciplines. The deans offered varying interpretations for the low rankings received by subjects in the practical fields, with some suggesting less experienced teachers and poor pedagogical methods and others proposing that many students were less motivated to engage the practical material than the traditional academic disciplines.

Current jobs for 1990 - 2001 theology graduates who are not serving in congregations. (SOURCE: "HOW ARE WE DOING?," PAGE 12.)

The report uncovers a distinction between what theological schools are good at providing and what graduates say they need. For example, respondents listed "understanding of religious heritage" as the most effective part of their seminary education, while areas such as "understanding cultural context," "personal and spiritual formation," and "ministerial and public leadership" were judged least effective. But when asked to rate how crucial these areas are to their work since graduation, most respondents rated leadership and understanding cultural contexts as more important than understanding religious heritage.

"There is a discrepancy … between what theological schools are best at providing and what practitioners say is most crucial in ministry," the report states.


In light of its findings, the report offers four broad recommendations.

Theological schools should increase support of vocational discernment with an emphasis on congregational ministry as a professional option. The topic of vocation should be addressed explicitly, the report says, with more emphasis placed on congregational ministry as a vocational option for students. This is especially important as increasing numbers of younger students enter theological education.

Better support systems for women preparing for ministry should be implemented. Even though women comprise 34 percent of all theological students and 50 percent or more in many mainline schools, women who enter congregational ministry still face significant obstacles.

More attention should be paid to teaching courses within the practical fields of ministry. Matters of pedagogy -- matching teaching methods with subject matter -- should be examined to improve the practical ministry courses where possible.

Finally, theological schools and their sponsoring churches or denominations should cooperate more closely for better understanding and effectiveness. Denominational officials and theological educators should nurture closer relationships in order to develop realistic expectations for ministerial preparation.

Looking ahead

For all the valuable insight this report offers, it calls for further analysis in at least one related area. In an increasingly globalized student body, the education of international students, whether preparing for leadership in their native contexts or in North American immigrant communities, should be examined. The effectiveness of theological education for these growing communities will be a pressing concern in coming years.

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