The future of ministry is passing into younger hands— at least at Duke.
Nationwide, virtually all denominations have seen a “graying” of the clergy as fewer students enter seminary directly from college. According to a national survey of clergy in 2001 by Pulpit & Pew, a research project based at Duke Divinity School, only 6 percent of pastors who entered ministry within the past decade were ordained at age 25 or younger. Nearly 80 percent were over 30 when they entered ministry.
Because older clergy have fewer years to serve, this trend threatens to worsen projected clergy shortages that are becoming a problem for congregations of all sizes and denominations.
Although students range in age from 21 to 68 and include many talented second-career men and women, Duke Divinity School’s student body has long been among the youngest in the nation. But both this fall and last, incoming students have been even younger, pushing the median age for all students from 26 to 25.
With a median student age of 22.5, these first-year students are a decade younger than most ministerial students at Association of Theological School (ATS)- accredited schools in the U.S. and Canada. The percentage of M.Div. candidates under 30 at ATS seminaries has remained stable at 28 percent since 1993.
In addition to youth, the divinity school’s entering class brings an impressive combination of academic achievement, proven leadership in missions and other service, and commitment to local church ministry—all evidence of the school’s strategic plan to raise the bar for a new generation of pastors.
“We in theological education across the country have too often ‘settled,’” says Dean L. Gregory Jones. “Relatively passive patterns of recruitment weakened the prospect of attracting the most promising and gifted students, who have chosen other professional fields such as law, business or medicine, rather than ordained ministry.”
Identifying and equipping gifted young men and women to lead and sustain excellent congregational ministry— the centerpiece of the divinity school’s $10 million Lilly-funded Learned Clergy Initiative—is crucial, adds Jones.
“At Duke, we are committed to recruiting the most gifted people we can find,” Jones says. “We want to educate and form them in ways that nurture their passion for the Gospel and for pastoral leadership.”
This year’s entering class was selected from the most competitive applicant pool in the school’s history: a record number of nearly 4,000 inquiries resulted in 613 applications for fewer than 200 spaces in four degree programs. As a result, the divinity school’s acceptance rate over the past two years has dropped to 50 percent. Previous years had been consistent with or higher than the ATS average of 80 percent.
The increasing number of applications led Director of Admissions Donna Claycomb D’00 to recommend an end to rolling admissions. Applications for fall admission now will be compared and contrasted with offers of admission made following three deadlines – November 1, February 15 and April 1 – for the M.Div., M.C.M., and Th.M. degree programs. January admission, typically a small class of around 20 students, has been discontinued. The February 1 deadline for August admission to the master of theological studies degree (M.T.S.) remains.
The goal, says Claycomb, who works with an admissions committee of faculty and students, is to “mold an exceptional class of individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, denominations, life experiences, geographical locations, theological perspectives and learning environments— all of whom are ready to be transformed.”
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