Do seminary grads burn out quickly?

You often hear people lament the high dropout rate of those entering vocational ministry, particularly in their first few years.In a post earlier this week, John Ortberg repeated the statistic that “90 percent of people who enter vocational ministry will end up in another field.” I’ve heard similar comments to the effect that 50% of more of seminary grads will drop out of ministry within the first five years.

Those are pretty startling claims. If people are burning out of ministry that quickly, then we are doing something desperately wrong.

The problem is that it’s not true.

Actually, I can’t say for sure whether Ortberg’s statistic is true, since his comment refers to anyone who enters vocational ministry, not just seminary graduates. But, seminary graduates as a whole have a good track record for staying in ministry over the long haul. As Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, says:

Persons educated for ministry tend to end up in ministry, stay in ministry, and believe that their education provided good preparation for what they are doing.

Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools (Eerdmans, 2008), p. 131.

Indeed, according to an Auburn Center study conducted in 2008, “nearly 90% of M.Div. graduates go immediately into some form of professional religious service,” only 5% of those will leave vocational ministry within the first 5 years, and only 10% within 10 years. So, the actual rate at which M.Div. graduates leave vocational ministry is only 1% per year on average.

The rates for women in ministry are somewhat different with fewer entering vocational ministry upon graduation and more dropping out in the first five years (the study suggested a number of possible reasons for this, but did not resolve the question). But even here the vast majority stay in vocational ministry for the long haul.

So, according to the numbers, at least, seminary grads fare very well in both the short term (5 years) and medium term (10 years). I haven’t seen any studies yet that go beyond 10 years, but I also haven’t seen anything to suggest a change in this pattern. So, it seems reasonable to conclude that seminary graduates as a whole tend to enter vocational ministry and remain in vocational ministry at very high rates.

So, although we still need to  pay close attention to how we’re preparing people to face the demands of ministry over the long haul, we can at least do so with more confidence than pessimism.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on January 14, 2011, in Ministry and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thanks for sharing. My guess is when you poor 30K + into an education you know is not a money maker, but merely because you are scared out of your mind that lack of preparation could ruin the lives you Shepherd, and you want to be the best servant to the church you can be, you are less likely to walk away once it gets tough in the vocation for which you prepared.

    I usually worry about the rising stars who build cute churches due to fancy rhetorical skills and charismatic personality. With those talents why not walk away from the pastorate to be a motivation speaker or a business mover-and-shaker?!

  2. I’d like to see that change for women.

    • Amen. I don’t think it matters if you’re an egalitarian or a complementarian. We should want to see everyone well-trained in and well-placed for effective ministry. And, given evangelicalism’s spotty record in that area, this needs to be an area of continued focus.

  1. Pingback: Vocational Endurance: Another (Possible) Benefit of Seminary Training « Near Emmaus

  2. Pingback: statisitical support for theological education? « συνεσταύρωμαι: living the crucified life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: