Seminary students have a reputation for taking theology seriously. But would they relocate from, say, New York City to Mississippi for a better doctrinal fit?
“Seminarians are not relocating to go to seminary,” said Ligon Duncan, president of the Jackson, Mississippi–based Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). “Many are choosing to attend regional institutions with which they have less theological affinity in order to stay in the same city.”
That’s one key reason why RTS has formed a new partnership with Redeemer City to City, a church-planting network founded in 2001 by Tim Keller. Now RTS students based in New York won’t have to choose between a local school and a Reformed one. (It also has six other extension campuses.)
For some, the choice not to move is financially driven, said Duncan, given that student loans and the collapsed housing market “have made it impossible for many students to relocate.”
But that’s not the only motivation driving the trend. “I see in the younger generation a strong desire to be more connected to the local church and not to uproot from a church in which they’re planted,” he said.
Such was the case for Ken Patterson, a second-year RTS student and pastor at Grace International Church in Baltimore. After several years in ministry, Patterson realized he needed seminary education. But he couldn’t find a good fit in Baltimore and didn’t want to move. After learning about the RTS campus in Washington, D.C., a 90-minute commute from his home, he visited a class there.
“I learned more in that three-hour class than I had ever known about the apostle Paul,” he said.
Other schools still report strong student interest in traditional residential programs. The on-campus student population at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, has grown 11 percent since 2009. Most of the students there have moved from out of state. But an increasing number are taking classes at the school’s five extension centers or through online classes, said Amy Whitfield, director of communications. Today nearly a quarter (23%) of students live outside a 120-mile radius from campus.
About half the students at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, are from out of state. Over two-thirds (68%) of the incoming class is from out of state, with more than a fourth coming from non-contiguous states. Few have chosen the school based on its location alone, said director of admissions Sherri Brown.
The Master’s Seminary at John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, reports the same. Half of its master of divinity students come from out of state, and nearly 1 in 5 come from another country.
“We have a strong discipleship component that we cannot export or put into an online format,” said Rich Gregory, assistant to the president. “And the fact that we’re tied to a local church mandates that our students be on campus.”
But theological fit is still important for seminarians. Deborah Hearn-Chung Gin, director of research and faculty development at the Association of Theological Schools, said theological perspective is a top reason students choose a school.
“If I see a waning trend, it is in denominational affiliation,” she said. “Though it’s still one of the most frequently indicated top reasons students select a school, there is a steady decline.”
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is seeing both trends, says president Dennis Hollinger. Most students at Gordon-Conwell’s main campus in Hamilton, Massachusetts, are not from New England, while most students at extension campuses in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida, live within an hour’s drive.
“It reflects the patterns of a post-denominational society,” said Hollinger. “People are not choosing churches based on denominational affiliation, and that is trickling down to seminary students.”