Seminary: not just for ministers

U.S. Theological schools attract a surge of non-traditional students

As theological schools cope with intense financial stress, they’re getting a much-needed boost from unconventional students. Enrollments are rising in several corners of theological education as people with no interest in pulpit ministry come to regard the training as a powerful career enhancer. After 20 years without a net increase, enrolment at 118 Bible colleges climbed one per cent in 2008 and three per cent in 2009, according to Ralph Enlow, president of the Association for Biblical Higher Education, while Iliff School of Theology, a United Methodist school in Denver, enrolled 102 new students this year, up from 77 last year and almost twice as many as in an average year (53).And at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, new student enrolment is up 23 per cent—from 125 in 2008 to 154 in 2009—as classes add more Catholic laywomen and laymen with no plans for ordination. “More people see this as an entrepreneurial venture,” said Graduate Theological Union Dean Arthur Holder. “They’re saying, `I want to start something. I want to start a new kind of church, a virtual religious community that meets online, or an urban retreat centre…’ They’re not expecting the denomination or church organization to do this for them. They want to get the training, the skills and the knowledge (so that) they can create it as they go along.”

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