A Difference as Duke: Younger Students Hearing, Heeding God's Call
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.”
While the divinity school’s presence at the center of a top-ranked research university with one of the country’s best college basketball teams makes Claycomb the envy of other seminary recruiters, she takes nothing for granted. Claycomb is familiar with the statistics: Of more than 6,000 students who entered ATS member-schools in fall 2002, just 22.4 percent had considered theological education before college. Compared with law students, who typically decide on legal careers by age 20, people considering ministry are usually age 25 or older.
Once she became admissions director in 2001, Claycomb sensed that the divinity school needed to expand upon its well-known reputation for rigorous scholarship. “Everyone knew Duke was a great place for academics,” she says. “I wanted them to know that this was also an intentional community dedicated to transforming ministry through the formation of disciples for Christ.”
By the summer of 2002, she had developed new recruitment materials to tell that story. The colorful coordinated materials showed prospective students what to expect at Duke, from daily worship and weekly spiritual formation groups to classes and conversation with top-ranked faculty.
Claycomb expanded the recruiting schedule to add colleges and universities that had not been visited before while also tapping into schools with Lilly Endowment Inc.-funded Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (www.ptev.org). Since the fall of 2000, this program, administered through the Fund for Theological Education, has awarded more than $176 million in grants to 88 colleges and universities across the nation. Each has designed a unique program to encourage student exploration of vocation and call to ministry.
The impact of another program for youth, also funded by Lilly Endowment, has yet to be measured. The Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation welcomes 50 high school students to campus each summer for a two-week residential experience based on the baptismal covenant.
Claycomb has served on the staff of the youth academy for two summers, recognizing that “some youth will experience a call to ministry through this transformative experience. It’s never too early to begin developing relationship with young people, whether they are in college or in high school.”
She also asks faculty to keep recruitment in mind, particularly when visiting universities where they meet prospective students. And while the national Alumni Network for Student Recruitment (ANSR) team gathers annually in Durham to discuss strategies for attracting the most gifted students, Claycomb recognizes that all alumni are recruiters—whether in the pulpit, the classroom, or some other form of ministry.
Landing top recruits often comes down to the bottom line: financial aid. The Divinity Fellowships have helped. Awarded annually to 12 incoming students with outstanding promise for parish ministry, these three-year, full-tuition scholarships are funded for five years of entering classes (2000-05). Each Divinity Fellow also serves a summer internship at one of 15 Teaching Congregations across the nation selected for outstanding pastoral leadership and innovative congregational ministries.
“The impact of these fellowships on the future of ministry is virtually incalculable,” says Claycomb. Duke is currently working to identify resources that will help endow and so continue the fellowships, which end next year. Also among Duke’s draws are opportunities for interdisciplinary study. There are options in theology and medicine (including parish nursing), a joint M.T.S. and J.D. with Duke Law School, and the new dual M.Div./M.S.W. with the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Claycomb’s recruiting is grounded in her own experiences at Duke, and in her sense of the position as a ministry. “When (Associate Dean) Greg Duncan approached me about the job, he said, ‘Don’t come unless you can see this as a ministry,’” says Claycomb, who did not feel ready to leave her appointment at First United Methodist Church in Hendersonville, N.C.
“Now I realize what an amazing ministry this is,” she says. “I often say that the church has enough mediocre pastors leading enough mediocre congregations. We want people who are eager to be prepared for exceptional ministry that truly makes a difference. It’s a privilege to recruit students who are ready for such a critically important endeavor.”
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