I had just finished a presentation of research results at a meeting of seminary presidents. The focus was students — in particular, the pathways by which they came to seminary. Both survey research and more than 250 interviews with master’s-level students (identified by one of 24 seminaries as their “best”) led to the same conclusions: Most students who end up in seminary have had some form of ministry in view for a long time, usually since childhood. In the words of one member of the research team, “The pathway to seminary is the long, slow nurture of faith in community.” In fact, the research team even called these subjects “Pathways students” for short. 

The news was in some ways disappointing to the heads of theological schools. Quite a few of them harbored the hopes that falling enrollments could be bolstered by attracting “non-traditional” students — persons who had no interest in professional ministry, but who might find a broad-based program of theological studies enriching as they pursued other vocational goals. Our research suggested that this category of prospective students is not large. If this conclusion is correct, many institutions will face a crisis. The traditional pool of prospective students is getting smaller, because the age structure of the population has changed and because religious affiliation is declining, and if there are limited prospects for students from sources never tapped before, theological schools will soon have excess capacity. As one president of a long-established school said recently, “We may run out of students long before we run out of money.”  

Research team

Interviews for this project were conducted by Scott Chalmers (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago), Jeannie Kenevan (St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary), Anastasia Kidd (Boston University School of Theology), and Robert Saler (Christian Theological Seminary).

 Four of the presidents who heard my presentation approached me when I finished and invited me to join them to talk about a question one of them had raised: “How about the ones who got away?” Surely, this president suggested, there were quite a few persons who had finally decided not to go to seminary but whose backgrounds, up to the point of that decision, closely resembled those of the Pathways students I had been describing, who came from stable, church-affiliated families; were heavily involved in church youth activities as children and teens; and entered college with firm religious commitments and a determination to do good in the world.       

Why did these biographical twins of the Pathways seminarians take different vocational routes, and what pursuits attracted them? The four presidents asked whether our research project could be extended to explore this question. They were curious about both a basic research question — what difference does early religious formation make in adult choices? — and the practical question of whether the “ones who got away” form a potential recruitment pool. We agreed to work together on a modest research probe. The participating schools included:

  • Boston University School of Theology (United Methodist)

  • Christian Theological Seminary (Christian Church [Disciples of Christ])

  • Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

  • St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary (Catholic)

We were unable to recruit an evangelical seminary to join the project.  

The plan for the project was simple: At each school, a designated researcher asked the best master’s students for the names of friends who had deep faith commitments but had either not considered ministry as a career or had considered it and rejected it. Twenty-one of these friends, evenly divided among the four institutions, agreed to be interviewed. The interview subjects ranged in age from 22 to 36, with a median age of 28. Two-thirds were women.         

The 21 interviewees, as the project design anticipated, turned out to have profiles very much like those of the Pathways students:

  • Two-thirds of the 21 came from “very religious” families and another third from families in which one parent was “very religious.”

  • Most (85%) were heavily involved in church and religious activities through high school. Church camp was very important for some of them.

  • Two-thirds had been on short-term mission trips or service projects.

  • Two-thirds attended religiously affiliated colleges.

There were only two notable differences in the early lives of the Pathways students and those interviewed for this research probe. The 21 were somewhat more likely to have divorced parents, and they were less likely to report having specifically considered pastoral ministry at an early age or having been “tapped” by adults as a potential minister.

After high school, the reported experiences of the 21 interviewees and the Pathways seminarians diverged: The 21 interviewees struggled to find religious community in college, and their participation in campus religious life tended to taper off in their upper-class years. They were also much less likely to mention influential religious figures who helped shape their vocational directions. Significantly, the 21 did not report finding, either during or after college, a cohort of peers who respected and supported an interest in ministry. Such a circle of peers was a critical factor in the decision of many of the Pathways students to explore the option of seminary.          

Religious formation, however, still seems to have played a critical role in the vocational decisions of the 21 interviewees. The most striking finding of this informal research probe was this: Almost all the interviewees were engaged in an altruistic profession or in charitable volunteer activities that they defined as ministry.

  • About half explicitly defined their current work as a “ministry,” and several objected to equating “ministry” with the work of clergy only.

  • Another quarter said that they chose their current work to support themselves and their families more dependably than they could do in professional ministry. Two of these said that their volunteer work in the church is their ministry; two others are still considering seminary and professional ministry later, when their earning needs are not so acute.

  • The remaining quarter were the only ones who got very far away from religiously motivated service. These five said they were alienated from the church or professed doubts about the faith (but two of them nevertheless described their current work as “ministry”).


Three-quarters (15) of the interviewees were currently or formerly employed by a nonprofit organization or in the public service or health fields, while most of the six in the for-profit sector also had a sense of vocation about their work. (See the bottom of page 21 for details about their work.)

Clearly, the 21 interviewees formed a distinctive group, more concerned about the welfare of the world around them than most college graduates and oriented to goals other than comfortable living and financial security. Given the early religious formation of all of them and the continuing church commitments of the majority, they would appear to be good prospects for seminary and ministry. And indeed, most said that they had considered seminary, though many only briefly. What deflected them?

  • Half of the 21 discovered (usually in college or during an internship or first job) some other profession or pursuit, like social service, teaching, or a medical occupation, that fulfilled their strong sense of religious calling.

  • Two were still considering seminary. One, in a profitable field, reported feeling “emptiness” for not answering the call; the other, an advocate for the homeless, might go to seminary when her children are raised.

  • Two had secular jobs, largely for financial reasons, but defined themselves “in ministry” because of their work as lay volunteers in congregations. One, a former religious education director, ran a medical office as paid work and took up a volunteer role in her parish to set an example of volunteering for her children.

  • Two reported that they have yet to decide on the form their call should take. One was torn between social justice work and dentistry; the other was working as a cashier while volunteering at a church camp.

  • As noted earlier, five reported becoming alienated from their faith or religious community. One, who is gay, thinks the church would not be accepting of his leadership; another is transgender and is drawn to ministry but is wary of prejudice in the religious world. Both are working in organizations that serve gay, lesbian, and transgender youth. The other three are in secular, nonprofessional jobs: One reported leaving the church in light of the clergy abuse scandal; another said she was discouraged by her church’s policies on women in leadership; and a third ran afoul of the law while a teenager and has served time in jail.

One motivation for this research probe was to discover whether persons like the 21 interviewees might constitute a pool of prospective students at a time when traditional sources are producing fewer applicants and non-traditional students with limited church backgrounds and affiliations may not materialize. Notably, some of these 21 might not be good candidates for seminary, because their religious communities are not open to the leadership of women or gay persons. Unless this changes, seminaries that educate for these churches may not be able to attract more than a handful of students in these categories.

But what about the others, who do not face barriers to religious leadership, who have been deeply formed in religious traditions and church life, and who are intent on finding purposeful work and community commitments — what might spur them to explore a call to seminary and pastoral ministry? Conclusions from just 21 cases have to be drawn with care, but the patterns in the cases point to some directions for further inquiry.

College, and the period just after, seem to have been the vocational pivot points. Right at that time in life, many of the 21 interviewees found a profession to fit their talents and to satisfy their desire to make a contribution. Indeed, recognizing the critical importance of these young adult years, colleges, universities, and campus ministries have been placing special emphasis on exploration of vocation. Volunteer service opportunities under religious auspices are a significant part of this movement, and several of the 21 interviewees found their vocation — in health care or teaching — in such programs.

Still others found their niche in a first job. In almost every case, the decision about “what to do when I grow up” was not made in the abstract. Personal experience that meshed with aspirations and talents formed the basis for vocational choice.

It is unlikely, therefore, that the three-quarters of the 21 interviewees who are either firmly committed to another pursuit or unsure about future occupation would have been attracted by aggressive marketing appeals from theological schools — the most common measure that seminaries use to increase enrollment. Rather, the data collected for this probe suggest that programs during or just after college that offer experiences in pastoral ministry might steer some people toward professional service in the church. Theological schools, or perhaps groups of schools in concert with their denominations, might deepen their recruitment pools by creating additional opportunities for college students and recent graduates to explore theological study and ministry.

Currently, most seminaries offer brief weekend programs for prospective students, but what made the difference for many of the 21 interviewees, and what might have helped those who have not found a direction, is intensive immersion: not just hearing or talking about what is entailed in seminary studies and pastoral ministry, but actually experiencing them.

Such programs might take the form of internship placements during summers or the post-college period, perhaps with an academic component that provides a taste of what theological study is like. Obviously, designing and conducting intensive programs takes time and requires considerable funding. Would such programs yield sufficient numbers of prospective students to merit the investment? The high “yield” in seminary applications from seminary-based programs for high school students suggests that such programs can steer promising young people toward pastoral ministry. At a minimum, further research and innovative experiments seem to be warranted — research on both the Pathways students and on their peers who got away, and innovative experiments with programs that introduce young adults to pastoral ministry as a vocational path.


Read more

Research on pathways to seminary is summarized here.

The full report on pathways to seminary has been published in an Auburn Center report titled “On Our Way: A Study of Students’ Paths to Seminary,” available here

Research on enrollment challenges is summarized here.

Current employment of the 21 who got away

  1. Coast Guard officer
  2. Fundraiser for service center for gay and lesbian youth
  3. Lab technician in pro-life clinic
  4. Administrator of nonprofit for single mothers
  5. Pediatric physical therapist
  6. Forensics expert for a law enforcement agency
  7. Teacher of English as a second language
  8. Occupational therapist
  9. Social justice intern
  10. Teacher of at-risk youth
  11. Health advocate for gay teenagers
  12. Teacher and volunteer religious education director
  13. Social worker in corporate philanthropy
  14. Physician
  15. Advocate for the homeless

Of the remaining six, only two became professionals in for-profit fields (advertising, computers). The others were engaged in non-professional work that they described as a stop-gap until they could decide on a vocational direction (ad copywriter, restaurant manager). Two others had clerical jobs but “callings” elsewhere (artist, web designer for a church camp).


Barbara G. Wheeler is the former director of Auburn Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education.

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