Would-be seminarians struggle to pay tuition

Father Peter Williams (left), the vocations director at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas, speaks with St. Paul seminary students John Wehrly and Jake Anderson. St. Paul Seminary is bucking trends. Its enrollment numbers are up, while national numbers suggest a downturn in enrollment.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

John Druckemiller is the kind of guy you would easily expect to find his way into a seminary. He's had a rough stretch of employment the past couple of years, and he's always had the goal of attending seminary.

Druckemiller served as a pastor for an evangelical church, which he could do even though he never went through seminary training. But lately, that lack of training has kept him from landing one of the few pastoral jobs available in the bad economy.

Now, instead of shepherding souls, he's cobbling together part-time jobs -- including a gig in the meat department of a Target store in Lino Lakes.

"It was definitely a humbling experience. Instead of being the person in charge and overseeing things, [I was] being asked to step in and handed a box cutter, and someone would say, 'This goes there.' It was quite a change," Druckemiller said.

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Seminaries around the country expected to see their classrooms fill up this past year. They figured people who lost a job and who felt called to ministry would choose to enroll, just as they had in past recessions. But in Minnesota, some seminaries are seeing the opposite -- the bad economy is hurting their enrollment.

Druckemiller is applying to Bethel Seminary, an evangelical school in St. Paul. He'd like to get a master's of divinity and get back to pastoral work. But the $10,000-a-year tuition could be a barrier.

"To be honest with you, unless there's a lot of financial aid, I won't be able to do it. I've got two daughters in college right now and my son is in high school, going to college in the fall. Things are stretched as far as we can stretch them. It's going to take a miracle to be able to afford to go," Druckemiller said.

John Druckemiller
John Druckemiller of Lino Lakes would like to enroll at Bethel Seminary, but he's not sure he'll be able to afford tuition.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Joseph Dworak, the admissions director at Bethel Seminary, has been seeing a lot of people like Druckemiller lately -- people who feel hindered from attending because of finances.

"Last year was the first year that we saw over and over people who were accepted and ready to go who bailed out and stopped the process," he said.

Normally, about 80 percent of students who are accepted to Bethel show up. Dworak says that changed last year. Only about two-thirds ended up attending.

Nationally, seminary enrollment has slipped about 6 percent over the past three years, according to the Association of Theological Schools.

Dworak says that's been a big surprise for seminaries all over -- and contrary to how things have gone in the past.

"I think that in past recessions, that was the common wisdom even for us in the seminary world was that people would go back to school to get retrained and have a different skill set," said Dworak.

A forthcoming article in the journal Applied Economic Letters makes that case, too. The article shows that in the past decade or so, as the unemployment rate went up, so did seminary enrollment.

Seminary classmates
Doctoral students at Bethel Seminary attend a lecture covering the philosophical tradition in Western culture. Enrollment at the school dropped last year. Officials think it's because of the bad economy. From left, Ken Polley, Samuel Vansiea, and Sheree Jones.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Dworak is convinced that the Great Recession has scrambled past trends. He says economic distress is the most common reason why people don't come.

"Last year it overwhelmingly started being the economy: I've lost a job, my spouse has lost a job, this is not the right time for us to do this," Dworak said.

But the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, Daniel Aleshire, isn't so sure. It's not clear why people are choosing not to enroll.

"We don't have any data about why it's different this time and whether it's the recession driving the decline or whether it's other factors that are influencing theological school enrollment," said Aleshire.

Aleshire says trends in the various denominations complicate the picture. Evangelical seminaries have tended to fare the best, while mainline Protestant and Catholic seminaries have seen greater downturns. But not every seminary fits neatly into a pattern.

A couple dozen seminarians and nuns bend their heads in prayer during Mass at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity. It's on the campus of the University of St. Thomas.

The school has defied national trends for Catholic seminaries with its recent spike in enrollment. Officials say point blank: the economy is not a factor. They cite some distinctly non-economic drivers for the boost, including what one official called "increased Eucharistic adoration."

Father Peter Williams deals with potential seminarians. He says he has fielded the occasional inquiry about priesthood from men battered by the recession. Some lost jobs, some went through bankruptcy. Williams says that can raise some questions about admitting people.

John Wehrly
First-year student John Wehrly (foreground) attends early morning Mass at St. Paul Seminary. Wehrly completed law school last May and decided to pursue seminary instead of a law-related job.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"It's always a difficult place to determine whether a man's call is authentic. You don't want a hint that this is a way out of a troublesome situation he's found himself in," Williams said.

Rather than fleeing financial misfortune, Williams said, many candidates over the past couple years were leaving more lucrative jobs on the table. Among them, 24-year-old Jake Anderson, a second-year seminarian. Anderson studied business and economics in college and went on to work for a consulting firm, but he gave up that job as his spiritual life deepened.

"I really started taking my faith more seriously, and as such my interest and passion for what I thought I always wanted to do, decreased," he said.

Since then, Anderson's received several more job offers that he's spurned. He says he does worry a bit about what will happen to his resume if for some reason he should change his mind about seminary.

But at least Anderson won't suffer too much financially in the meantime. The Catholic Church picks up the tab for his tuition. And while he'll only make about $20,000 a year in his job, the overall shortage of Catholic priests means he's likely guaranteed employment.