Fewer full-timers heading to ministry

There’s a growing drought of “theologs,” people studying full-time degree courses with the aim of paid ministry. This is despite more people than ever before studying theology online, part-time, or simply out of interest.

“It’s a global pattern – the number of full-time theological students has been in decline for the last five to ten years,” says Mark Thompson, principal of conservative evangelical Moore Theological College in Sydney.

“It is clear that the theological education market has not really grown.” – Bernard Doherty, Charles Sturt University School of Theology

Thompson is giving Eternity the benefit of a study tour he did in the first half of 2019. “Part-time, distance and online study are increasing. The decline is in undergrads. Postgraduate study and particularly doctoral study are also on the rise.”

From a Pentecostal perspective, Alphacrucis College’s Mariella Demetriou describes a declining pool of theologs across the board, particularly in the traditional churches. The category of what ‘theological education’ is has also shifted from a compliance requirement (a barrier into ministry) to a leisure pursuit (something done by older people in a search for meaning).

Demetriou says: “While many of our students might well want to go into professional ministry, as the available places are taken up by in-house megachurch training and the declining mainstream, most will need to find something else to do in addition to their voluntary work in churches and NGOs.”

Many of Australia’s independent colleges, such as Sydney Missionary and Bible College and Melbourne School of Theology (MST),  grant degrees from a consortium called the Australian College of Theology (ACT).

After rising by 10 per cent in the past decade, ACT’s official enrolment numbers have been steady over the past five years. But because many more people have been studying part time, “if head count (actual students) is used instead of EFTSL (Equivalent Full-Time Student Load), then there has been a 10-year net increase of 24 per cent and five-year increase of 7 per cent,” says Paul Yeates, ACT’s Director of Risk and Compliance. Despite this, ACT’s trend line has begun to dip.

“The decline in 2018 has been more significant and indications from semester one, 2019, are that we will also see a decline this year,” says Yeates.

There has also been a change in the types of courses studied by full-time students who want to be ministers. “If I take it to mean three-plus-year FTE awards (for example, BTh, BMin, MDiv, MMin), then there has been a decline over 10 years (-2 per cent) and five years (-11 per cent),” Yeates comments.

“In recent years we have observed a trend towards the shorter course offerings, such as diplomas but also graduate certificates and graduate diplomas.”

Another key provider is Charles Sturt University School of Theology, which links five teaching partners (St Mark’s National Theological Centre, Canberra; United Theological College, Parramatta; St Barnabas College, Adelaide; St Francis Theological College, Brisbane; Ming Hua Theological College, Hong Kong).

As with ACT, their overall picture is complex, with those training for ministry mixed with those studying theology for personal growth.

“In general, student numbers have remained fairly steady, though it is clear that the theological education market has not really grown,” Bernard Doherty, Course Director, School of Theology at CSU tells Eternity.

“There has been a longer-term decline in those offering themselves to train as full-time ministers and the last five-to-ten years appears little different here.

“My feeling is that there’s a tendency among churches to see greater decline than is sometimes the case.

“There is more of a shift to para-church ministries like chaplaincy and various lay ministries rather than the traditional congregational pastor.”

Looking through the federal government stats for the degree-granting institutions reveals a clear decline for the bachelor-level courses ministers do.

ACT’s enrolments in bachelor-level courses have been declining since 2013, with a 17 per cent dip 2013 to 2017. (2017 is the latest result on the DET website)

The University of Divinity’s bachelor level courses showed a 22 per cent decline 2012-2017. Moore College’s 2012 to 2017 bachelor figures on the DET site show a decline of 16 per cent.

Moore, while offering a range of options, maintains a focus on students studying full-time and face-to-face to become full-time, face-to-face ministers. There has been a decline from 318 full-time equivalents in 2013 to 198 in 2019. This may reflect a period in which the college was not promoting its part-time options.

This situation contrasts with CSU, for example, where Doherty describes a different student body: “Theology students tend to be, on average, older and more established than those studying in other areas and more likely to have significant work and family commitments, so the flexibility of part-time study is actually a positive draw-card and, arguably, more realistic than the traditional seminary model of full-time residential formation.”

There are some bright spots. The Baptists’ Morling College in Sydney has had a good year in 2019 for theologs, and the Presbyterians in Victoria have a bumper crop of exiting students – but it’s only six.

In the US, the decline in theologs has reshaped colleges. Fuller Seminary is selling its Pasadena campus to downsize in Ponoma, 50 kilometres away. It has also slimmed down from eight to six campuses. Liberal seminaries have been hit; Episcopal Divinity School left its close relationship with Harvard to become part of Union Seminary in NYC; Andover Newton is now embedded into Yale.

Locally, Pentecostal Harvest Bible College in Melbourne, and Tabor Tasmania have been taken over by Alphacrucis. Tabor Victoria became Eastern College and has moved onto the campus of Melbourne School of Theology.

For those considering studying to be a minister – there’s good news.


So why are there fewer theologs? Thompson gives five reasons.

1. “Massive cultural change: increasingly aggressive secularism has been compounded by scandals among church leaders and the abuse recorded by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, so that a Christian minister is no longer so respected.”

2. “Some churches have become more inward looking. The natural reaction when under attack is to circle the wagons, try to stem the haemorrhage, and take our eyes off the mission outside our patch. We fear ‘we can no longer afford to send people out.’

3. “Technological change: You can get entire degrees online from the US. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has graduated its first Aussie who has never set foot on their campus.

4. “Financial strictures: the cost of theological education, accommodation and tuition along with the opportunity cost of studying.

5. “Pressures on theological education from government regulation.”

Eternity is tempted to add a couple more – which apply particularly to Thompson’s college.

1. The Phillip Jensen effect. While chaplain at UNSW and more recently as Dean of Sydney, Jensen was an ace recruiter for Moore. He definitely boosted the number of students seeking to be ministers.

2. Sydneysiders have a long path to Anglican ministry – an undergraduate degree, a couple of years in the apprenticeship system called the Ministry Training Strategy (which they need to fundraise for), three or four years at Moore. That’s eight or nine years. The drought of theologs is established throughout the Anglosphere. The picture in majority world countries is different. But after consulting with leaders of the huge Southern Baptist Theological seminary, Oak Hill College in London and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Moore’s Thompson found all of their leaders to be optimistic about the mission of training ministers.

And for those considering studying to be a minister – there’s good news. First, you will be welcomed with open arms at any college in Australia, assuming you meet its standards. Fee Help still works for most students. Fewer theologs means less competition for jobs. And the Australian community is not running out of yet-to-be-Christians who need to hear the gospel.