Bad Economy: Go Find God, Seminarians Rising

Everyone, it seems, has a "Plan B." You've had the conversation yourself with your spouse and probably with friends over dinner. In the event you can no longer be a journalist—or an investment banker, lawyer or literary agent—what will you be? A livery-cab driver? A yoga instructor? A bartender? Where would you like to take shelter from this recession?

Some of you—admit it—are dreaming of the ministry. This yearning could be an escapist fantasy, a wish to contemplate divine abundance in an environment of scarcity, to wrestle with abstractions in the midst of relentless pragmatic concerns. Or it could be a calling to help others. Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, thinks enrollments will be up for 2009. "I would anticipate that we would experience some positive enrollment effect from an economic downturn of this size," he says. After two years of flagging enrollment, applications at a number of schools are on the rise. The Dallas Theological Seminary has seen a 10 percent increase in applications over last year, as has Yale Divinity School. At the Jewish Theological Seminary, the number of people applying to the Ph.D. program has doubled. At Oblate Seminary, in San Antonio, Texas, the number of young men training as diocesan priests has tripled over the past five years. Yale dean of admissions Anna Ramirez says that many of the applications she's reading mention a need to "re-evaluate" things. "Maybe people are getting religion in the face of the materialist empire, maybe jobs are scarce out there," adds Harold Attridge, Yale's dean. "Divinity school looks good, especially if there's financial aid and i-banking isn't as attractive as it was a while ago."

Historically, applications to seminary and divinity school rise during tough times. "A significant surge in vocations to priesthood and religious life followed World War II, where our society was grounded in seriousness, the spirit of self-sacrifice and the willingness to follow a dream," wrote Sister Mary Ann Walsh, of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an e-mail. "Vocations plummeted after the Vietnam War, when young people grew disenchanted with institutions." After 9/11 and the last economic downturn, enrollment at seminary surged 8 percent, according to ATS.

Being a cleric in the 21st century is entirely different, though, than it was 50 years ago. Divinity School is no longer a straight and narrow path to the ministry—and the ministry is no sinecure. For one thing, many ministers earn too little to repay their student loans—one explanation for the low enrollment in the traditional master's programs that lead to ordination, says Barbara Wheeler, who studies enrollment trends at Auburn Seminary. Also, the status bestowed upon the local pastor is no longer automatic: too many sex and money scandals have had a corrosive effect on the reputation of the clergy as a whole. And with endowments shrinking at churches and other charitable institutions nationwide, ministers—like everyone else—will have to make do with less. At Yale, just about half the students become ordained ministers. The rest go on to other kinds of charitable or pastoral work. Frederick Sievert, for one, wants to write a popular book about God. Formerly president of New York Life Insurance, Sievert went to Yale Divinity School not out of crisis, but because he was retiring and it was his dream. But as his retirement account shrinks, Sievert finds himself increasingly engaged with his studies. "You turn to God sometimes when it's so grim," he says. He has never been so fulfilled in his life.