At least you can hang your degree on the wall in a nice frame!

I am a few months away from completing my Master of Theology (Th.M.) degree from Western Seminary in Portland, OR. I have a MA in Biblical and Theological Studies from the same institution and my undergraduate program majored in biblical studies. It has been my goal to begin doctoral work in 2013. I’ve done my best to prepare.

That said, I am concerned. At first I wanted to go to the UK until I talked to two students there who did not receive scholarships because they are from the United States, who cannot work because of the state of the British economy, and who are spending about twenty thousand U.S. dollars a year on their education. It is not far-fetched that many students who follow this path will come back to the United States seeking a job with somewhere between sixty and one hundred thousand dollars of debt.

Marc Cortez wrote a post today that should lead to fear-and-trembling for such people. In “More Bad News on the Ph.D. Job Market” he notes that the Association of Theological Schools reports the following:

1. ATS school report a constant decline in students. They expect the decline to be another 1-2% this year. It doesn’t seem like a trend that will reverse itself any time soon.

2. If enrollment declines then so does employment. “In 2008 ATS schools hired 420 new faculty. In 2009 they hired 339. By 2010 the number was down to 226. That’s an almost 50% decrease in just two years.” Furthermore, “That number, by the way, includes anyone who had previously worked at a non-ATS school, which would qualify as a “new hire” in ATS terms. So the actual number of new PhDs hired by ATS schools in 2010 is probably less than 200.”

3. Institutions will need to make decisions about hiring full-time professors. It is likely they will choose adjuncts. Let me add that this isn’t the only option though. For schools with an online learning component you do not need an adjunct if you’ve recorded the class in recent years and that same course taught once by a professor can be offered over and over again. People who are expecting to have two careers until a full time position opens may be replaced altogether.

4. There are a little over two hundred job openings right now in ATS institutions. This doesn’t account for other colleges and universities, but it is a scary statistic none-the-less. Most graduates should not expect BIOLA University, Lincoln Christian University, North Park University or other “Christian” institutions to come to their rescue.

5. One person commented noting that many schools want to hire “in the family”. This could make it difficult for students who did their work as an outsider in a particular institution. Graduates may feel the pressure to affirm things they don’t believe deep inside for the sake of finding a job with an institution willing to take them as long as they maintain the confessional stance of the school.  This may not bother some, but if your the student taking the minority positions in your seminary classes be forewarned that you may not have a home after you obtain a doctorate.

On the other hand, Jim West sees a silver lining among the dark clouds: It will return academically minded people to local pulpits. In his post “Where Marc [Cortez] See Cause to Lament, I See Reason to Rejoice” he writes the following:

“…the Church (in all its flavors and manifestations) needs MORE theologians occupying pulpits.  For too long gifted persons skilled in theological method have fled the church for teaching positions.  This has left the church, in many places, bereft of theological guidance and left to the mercy of the ignorant, untrained, pseudo-pastors called to fill pulpits that ought to be filled by trained theologians filled with the Spirit and gifted with insight into the practical and applicable meaning of Holy Writ.”

Marc Cortez provided a helpful response in a comment:

“I agree completely that we need to do a much better job encouraging our best minds to stay in (or pursue) the pastorate. But it’s still a bad thing for those who have already entered doctoral programs (or just completed them) with their hearts set on teaching. I can see the downturn as a good thing if (and only if) it encourages people to pursue the pastorate as a primary vocation rather than a fall back strategy that they only pursue when their real dream doesn’t work out. Having a whole flood of people like that hitting our churches could be a real problem – especially if you consider that the PhD route really isn’t the best way to train people for the demands of the pastorate.

“So yes to well-trained theologians in the pastorate. But no to a flood of disillusioned and disappointed academics in the pastorate.”

West argues that we have people like Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and Todd Bentley preaching and teaching in churches because the thoughtful minds have abandoned the pulpit for the lectern. I think this is an oversimplification since it fails to take into account that the things people like Osteen and Bentley preach is the stuff people want to hear. Likewise, we have educated pastors like Mark Driscoll (MA), John Piper (Ph.D.), and others whose education has not prevented them from saying some equally disturbing things.

Yet the basic proposal is worth considering: Is the declining job market of academia good for the church?

In part, I think another question needs to be asked: How can we continue providing pastors with higher education opportunities? 

First, there would need to be a shift in the prioritization of “residency” over against remote learning.

Second, there would need to be a restructuring in cost. It is one thing to ask someone to pay ten to twenty thousand a year if they hope to become professors. I’m not sure that this is good for people entering the pastorate.

Third, we need to rethink how we allow students to do research if they won’t be on campus all the time. There needs to be more resources online, maybe seminaries and universities creating more online libraries.

I am sure there is more to consider!

What do you think? If we have less people pursuing professorships is this good news for the pastorate? If we have more pastors with Ph.D.’s do we need to rethink how we ask these students to obtain their education?