Student ministers – there's more of them but not at every college

The number of people studying full-time to become ministers or pastors is increasing, but it is a patchy recovery. An earlier survey by Eternity saw a gentle decline across the sector from 2012, so upticks in enrolments will be welcomed.

At the reformed evangelical end of the spectrum, Moore College told Eternity earlier this year that they “have more than doubled the full-time undergraduates in first year on campus”.

Moore also reported: “All up, we have 95 new students (non-continuing), if we include those studying part-time.”

A very different Anglican College, St Francis in Brisbane, reports an increasing “equivalent full-time study” load, from 20 in 2018 to 29 in 2020 (or 40 students rising to 65). About 13 are studying to be ordained ministers. College Principal Jonathan Holland says he expects “that number to at least double next year, given the rather healthy numbers in ’discernment’ at the moment”.

Victorian numbers have understandably been hit by the severity of COVID outbreaks in that state.

“This has been largely due to Victoria being shut down in much of 2020 and diocesan authorities being unable to run selection conferences,” Ridley Melbourne’s Richard Trist tells Eternity. He’s expecting 2022 to be the year when things normalise.

The Australian College of Theology, a consortium that links 17 colleges, tells Eternity it “appears that overall we won’t achieve an increase in enrolments this semester, following relatively strong enrolments in Semester 2, 2020.” But one unofficial source revealed on a podcast that a small number of the 17 colleges recorded an increase.

Some colleges pointed out that people make up their minds about what they are going to do, as they study. Sydney Missionary and Bible College’s (SMBC) Karen Moller points out that “we don’t talk in terms of numbers, but are delighted to say that a significant proportion of SMBC graduates (both men and women) work as pastors and in pastoral ministry, particularly where need is great around regional NSW and throughout Australia.”

Like many colleges, SMBC had graduates who serve as missionaries (some of whom will show up in Eternity‘s new Missionary Diaries each week) .

Here are three other colleges reporting a year-on-year increase:

  • Alphacrucis, the big Pentecostal college with campuses across Australia, is a standalone provider like Moore College. Alphacrucis tells Eternity: “In terms of student numbers, we’re pretty stable based on last year – with just a slight increase.”
  • Tim McBride from Morling College (the Baptist institution that now spans Sydney and Perth) tells Eternity: “Our impression among this year’s intake is that there is a small increase in the number of students considering this, compared with previous years.”
  • One college in the group linked to Charles Sturt University, United Theological College, reports a real uptick: “I am pleased to report that, notwithstanding the strange times of COVI and recent government fee increases for university study in the humanities, student numbers are up 10 per cent at UTC this year,” Principal Peter Walker informs Eternity.

The Federal Government’s changes to Higher Education funding for Arts-related courses could have affected numbers across the sector, but doesn’t appear to, reports Jane Foulcher, Associate Head of School, School of Theology, Canberra Campus, Charles Sturt University.

“Our numbers are remarkably steady,” she says about the Charles Sturt group overall, which includes St Mark’s National Theological Centre, Canberra;  St Barnabas College, Adelaide; St Francis Theological College, Brisbane; and Ming Hua Theological College, Hong Kong.

Peter Sherlock is Vice Chancellor of the University of Divinity, a consortium based in Melbourne. He tells Eternity what has influenced that institution’s numbers: “My anecdotal observation is that there is not an uptick in numbers in the traditional mainstream churches, though there is a surprising resilience in maintenance of numbers relatively to what I expect the next census will tell us about religious affiliation.”

He adds: “In the 1970s and 1980s there was a massive shift towards lay people studying theology for its own sake and for personal growth (though often this lead to specific ministry vocations). While we still have many students in this category it’s not a growth area.

“For the past ten years, growth for us has been in new areas of professional development, from religious education for church schools to spiritual care in health and community settings, to spiritual directors and professional counsellors.

“My suspicion is we will see continued growth for some years in ‘spiritual’ professions, usually involving self-employment or employment outside the traditional church setting.”

In Eternity‘s informal survey of student numbers, colleges which reported an uptick (or perhaps a resilient rebound) – and there will be others we were unable to reach – do serve churches. Good examples are Moore, St Francis and the United Theological College.

If it is true there has been a drought of ministers, and there’s been persistent reports of that, there are definite signs it is breaking.