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What is the Same and What Has Changed?

Currents of Change


I identify three currents of change that will impact how Christian leaders are formed after the COVID-19 global pandemic. Theological schools are currently undergoing dramatic changes to their business/organizational models, their educational models, and in terms of the students that theological schools serve. I will explore how the pandemic has affected these areas of change, but let me make one over-arching statement that applies to all three areas.


Theological schools were already undergoing significant changes before the pandemic. The global pandemic did not initiate the changes that we are currently seeing among theological schools. The pandemic has accelerated many of them. For example, the use of online delivery in schools was already on the rise; but in 2020, one hundred percent of ATS schools were in some form of distance learning, with the vast majority of schools doing online instruction. The pandemic also provided a short-term window of opportunity in enrollments. In other ways, the pandemic has altered the way that we think about work and community.



Current 1: Return of Pre-Pandemic Trends in Enrollment


The first current of change is a reversion to pre-pandemic trends. During the last three major financial disruptions in the United States—the Dot-Com bubble (2000–01), the 2008–09 Great Recession, and the most recent financial disruption, the COVID-19 global pandemic—ATS schools experienced short-term, one- to two-year bubbles of enrollment growth. In 2020, the first year of the global pandemic, ATS schools reversed an almost decade-long trend. Since 2011, about 45% of ATS schools were stable or growing, while 55% of schools were declining in students. That is, for about a decade a majority of ATS schools saw declines in enrollments. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, 55% of ATS schools saw growth or were stable in head count enrollment, while 45% of schools saw declines.


The reason for these short-term bubbles of enrollment growth are likely tied to the re-evaluation of vocational aspirations among people during financial disruptions (for example, because of the loss or changes of a job). During what some scholars are calling the great resignation or the great retirement, as in other times of financial stress, many people went back to school. However, also similar to developments during the two earlier financial disruptions, enrollments reverted back to previous trends. Early reports from ATS schools on 2021–22 enrollments are already bearing this out. With just over 80% of schools reporting, 44% of schools have shown enrollment increases or enrollment stability while 56% of schools have seen enrollment declines.[1] Thus, enrollment patterns are reverting back to the trend of the previous decade in which the majority of ATS schools were not growing but declining.


What are the implications for Presbyterian Church U.S.A. schools like Columbia Theological Seminary? Mainline Protestant (MLP) seminaries have seen significant enrollment declines since 2005, whereas Evangelical Protestant schools have been relatively stable during the last decade. This trend probably explains why we continue to see an increase in mergers and schools becoming embedded in universities/colleges at the rate of one merger every three to four months. While MLPs continue to have the largest endowments in ATS schools—about 75-80% of the top 20 endowed schools are MLP—their enrollments have been declining at a much higher rate than the average ATS school.


One take away for Forming Christian Leaders for an Endemic Era related to this first current of change, especially for PCUSA schools, which have the largest endowments of any denominational family, is that Mainline Protestant, free-standing seminaries need to rethink their business / organizational models while also thinking about which communities of faith they will serve. We are not in an era, any longer, where the eight PCUSA seminaries are vying for a deep and rich national pool of Presbyterian candidates for ministry. Seminary student populations have become increasingly local. Seminary students are often more influenced by things like theological fit and proximity than by whether or not a seminary is from their sponsoring denomination. What does it mean for PCUSA seminaries to form and educate leaders given that enrollment trends are reverting back to what they were in the several years prior to the pandemic? With large endowments, the PCUSA schools will have longer runways than most schools. However, steeper enrollment declines also suggest that PCUSA seminaries will have to rethink their business model, which is driven by assumptions of a mostly residential, MDiv, full-time student population.



Current 2: the Impact of Online/Hybrid Delivery on Teaching


The second current of change that emerged from the global pandemic was the adoption of online teaching and learning. ATS schools, like many institutions of higher education, responded to the pandemic through online teaching or various forms of distance education. During the first year and half of the pandemic, the United States Department of Education (USDE) temporarily loosened requirements for online education. Those schools that had already been approved to do comprehensive distance education were in a better position to continue their educational missions. Some of these schools experienced little disruption to their teaching and learning. Other schools responded with emergency online delivery as opposed to planned or designed online learning.


The impact that the dramatic move to online learning had on ATS schools was profound. Even after many schools reopened their campuses, most continued to offer courses online. During the pandemic, 100% of ATS schools did some form of remote/distance learning. Currently, of the two hundred sixty-two accredited schools in the Commission on Accrediting of ATS, two hundred forty-three are now approved for distance education—two hundred twenty-five for comprehensive distance education and eighteen for limited distance education.[2] Almost 93% of schools are approved for distance education, and 86% are approved for comprehensive distance education.


This current trend among ATS schools is raising questions around, at least a couple of areas:


  1. What does online learning mean for student formation?
  2. What does an increase in online courses mean for a school’s learning community?


A related question is being asked about those who work at theological schools. With the emergence of the possibility of remote work, how can schools create and sustain a mission-oriented work culture?


What are some of the implications of this massive migration of theological education to online spaces? Communities of faith are wrestling with these same issues that theological schools are facing. A similar question is being asked in churches and for church leaders: “How do we create vibrant Christian communities given the increasingly hybrid nature of faith communities?” The Hartford Institute of Religion Research just released a study of the impact of COVID-19 on congregations.[3] 80% of churches now have a hybrid worship offering with persons both in-person and online, while only 15% are worshipping exclusively in-person. It is clear that the pandemic has affected American congregating. How will theological schools equip leaders to empower congregations to lean into these significant changes that are affecting communities of faith?



Current 3: the Move Toward 2040 Diversity Among ATS Schools


The third current relates to the students that ATS schools are currently serving and will be serving increasingly in the near future. ATS schools have been becoming more diverse in terms of their students for three decades. Since the early 1990s until now, racial/ethnic and visa students have grown from 25% of all ATS student to 45% in 2021. Since 1992:



It is also clear that this increase in racial/ethnic students will not be an enrollment “boom” for all theological schools. Schools have been adapting their curricula and faculty composition to better serve these populations, though faculty diversity has lagged way behind student demographic shifts.


In January of 2021, the Lilly Endowment launched the Pathways for Tomorrow initiative, which was designed to “help theological schools strengthen and sustain their capacities to prepare and support pastoral leaders for Christian churches.” This initiative had three phases:



In total, since 2021, the Lilly Endowment has made an unprecedented $209 million investment in theological schools and supporting organizations. Most of the Phase Two projects have focused on future streams of enrollment. 70% of the Pathways schools are focusing on enhancing future enrollments. Two-thirds of the schools are focusing on underrepresented students of color communities. These new streams of enrollment will require schools to do adaptive work if they are to serve student of color populations effectively. Schools are partnering with local communities, denominational judicatories, and supporting organizations more intentionally so that these students can be formed well for the leadership that communities of faith need.


These are shifts for which we have been waiting a long time in theological education. However, this is a significant adaptive challenge for schools that have not historically served communities of color. Moreover, I don’t think we are going to see an overall increase in enrollments that will sustain North American theological schools for the long-term. These are absolutely where the mid-twenty-first century student trends are heading in North America, but it will be a crowded educational space with many offerings from an increasing number of schools.


Here are some additional concluding thoughts about which theological schools can think theologically, since theological thinking is what theological schools do best.


How do we understand Christian community in an endemic world when communities of faith are increasingly hybrid and yet most of us are wired to be in-person? Are there ways for us to think about hybrid embodiment within our theologies of incarnation? This is something for which people of faith are not always adequately formed; and yet, people of faith have an increasing expectation and demand for community offerings to be more flexible and online?


How do we understand diversity within Christian community in an endemic world as we shift to a time when theological students and communities reflect better the diversity for which many of us hoped at the turn of the millennia, a time when there will no longer be a racial-ethnic majority (ATS schools will reflect these realities well before 2040)? However, current society continues to demonstrate that racism and American/Euro-centrism persist in our institutional structures, curricula, and ways of being community. How can schools form faithful and adaptive leaders who can lead congregations into these systemic and demographic changes faithfully? How can communities of faith be faithful witnesses in an increasingly polarized U.S. context around issues of race and racism?


All of these currents of change are happening during a tsunami of leadership transitions. At the end of every summer, ATS has an article in its online newsletter, Colloquy Online, on new chief executive officers (CEOs) and chief academic officers (CAOs) in ATS member schools. In a typical year, this article will include maybe a dozen or two-dozen new leaders. In 2021, there were one hundred new CEOs and CAOs at eighty-four ATS schools. In the 2022 article, it listed eighty-three new CEOs and CAOs at seventy-four ATS schools. We are in the middle of the highest number of transitions in the top two positions at ATS schools in the Association’s one hundred and four-year history.


To say that the COVID-19 global pandemic has accelerated change in theological schools is an understatement. Within these currents of change, there are several opportunities and challenges for theological schools; but that is part of our church’s history and tradition, indeed it is a theme of our very faith. It is in times of crisis and change, when God’s church and theological schools are often the most creative. Transformation often happens in the midst of significant challenge. Our faith traditions teach us that God’s creation happens within the midst of chaos not in the absence of crisis (e.g., Genesis 1). May it be so for this season of transformation in theological schools.

[1] See Chris Meinzer, “ATS Schools Report Fall Enrollment Numbers, Colloquy Online (October 2022), https://www.ats.edu/files/galleries/ats-schools-report-fall-enrollment-data.pdf.
[2] According to the ATS Commission Policies and Board Procedures, “Limited distance education approval is required before a school offers any courses online and limits a school to offering less than half of any degree online. Comprehensive distance education approval is required for a school if it plans to expand its online offerings so that half or more of any degree could be completed online” (p. 19, IV.F.1.).
[3] See Scott Thumma, et al., Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations: Amdist and Beyond COVID-19 (https://www.covidreligionresearch.org/).