The survey of 2,512 entering Protestant, Catholic and Jewish seminary students is among the most comprehensive looks at the future of American clergy and includes one surprising figure: Barely half are planning to work as congregational pastors or rabbis.
Fifty-six percent of rabbinical students and 40 percent of mainline Protestant seminarians plan to work in local congregations, while only 35 percent of Catholic and 28 percent of evangelical students have similar plans. Female students are also less likely to train for congregational ministry.
In another surprising finding, half of those who will occupy church and synagogue pulpits have switched denominations or faith traditions. More than half of seminary students are over the age of 30 -- significantly older than their peers in law or medical school. Half of all seminarians are women, and most have worked as professionals for at least 10 years before entering seminary.
The bulk of students come from the white middle class and are evenly spread out between urban, suburban and rural backgrounds. Nine out of 10 students say they are attending their first-choice school -- partly due to high acceptance rates at most seminaries -- while one-third say they have "inadequate" finances.
A major divide develops, however, between older, professional students and younger students straight out of college. Younger students tend to be better educated, but older students have their own strengths, according to the report.
"The older students who now dominate theological education bring dimensions of quality, especially commitment and diversity, that younger students lack," the report said. The report continued, "Younger students often lack interest in and commitment to ministry, especially congregational ministry, and although they more often grew up in religious communities, they are currently less involved in church life."
Seminaries need to attract the best from both groups, the report said, by raising admissions standards to become more selective and helping to make pastoral life attractive to those who might not otherwise attend. "Religious communities cannot assume that a professional degree from an accredited theological school guarantees genuine promise for ministry," the report said.