Congregations always have turned to leaders without seminary training in times of clergy shortage, and when they are too small or poor to be able to afford a full-time, seminary-educated leader. But some observers of American religion wonder if congregations increasingly turn to leaders without seminary degrees, not because of clergy shortages or financial necessity, but because more people now believe that seminary training is not necessary for effective congregational leadership. Most broadly put, is the ideal of an educated, professional clergy losing ground in American religious culture?

An important initial observation on this subject is that congregations overwhelmingly hire seminary graduates as their main or head clergyperson if they can afford to do so. Overall, 84 percent of churchgoers attend congregations led by a seminary graduate; over 90 percent of congregations with more than 200 people in them are led by seminary graduates. And the long-term trend in American religion is towards more rather than fewer congregations led by seminary graduates, even in religious traditions and denominations that traditionally disdained seminary education for their leaders. As E. Brooks Holifield put it in his 2007 book, God’s Ambassadors (Eerdmans), “no previous generation of ministers since the American Revolution contained such a large percentage of college and seminary graduates” (p. 332). So, if there is growing disenchantment with seminary education, it is not strong enough to dislodge the seminary-trained, ordained clergyperson as the norm for primary congregational leaders.

Perhaps, though, congregational disenchantment with seminary training appears in their selection of ministerial staff other than the main leader or head clergyperson. The National Congregations Study gathered educational information about the “full-time ministerial staff” working at each congregation in the study. “Full-time ministerial staff” are those who, in the words of the relevant survey question, “would be considered ministerial or other religious staff, such as youth ministers, other pastors, pastoral counselors, directors of religious education, music ministers, and so on.” Respondents were told not to count secretaries, janitors, school teachers, or other full-time employees not primarily engaged in religious work.

The graph above gives the percentage of seminary graduates among the secondary full-time ministerial staff within four broad job categories. To keep this analysis simple, it includes just the staff at congregations with 2 or 3 full-time ministerial staff. (About 1 in 4 churchgoers attend a congregation that has 2 or 3 full-time ministerial staff.) The graph shows the percentage of seminary graduates just among the 2nd and 3rd staff people—that is, not including the head person in each congregation. The percentages are slightly higher if we include seminary students as well as seminary graduates, but the pattern is the same.

The important point here is that assessing the extent to which denominations and congregations value seminary training for ministerial staff other than the head clergyperson requires distinguishing between generalist and specialist ministerial staff. “Generalists” are people with job titles such as “assistant minister” or “associate pastor”—titles implying that they perform the full range of ministerial tasks. About 1 in 3 secondary full-time ministerial staff members are generalists in congregations with up to 3 full-time ministerial staff members. Congregations, especially large ones, also have many different types of specialist ministers. The two most common are youth and religious education staff, on the one hand, and musicians, on the other hand. The “other” category includes other kinds of specialists, those with job titles like Minister of Administration, Coordinator of Family Ministries, Hospital Pastor, and so on.

As the graph makes clear, the vast majority (76 percent) of full-time secondary ministerial staff have seminary degrees when those staff members are generalists. But only a minority of the specialists are seminary graduates. Twenty-nine percent of the full-time education/youth staff and 18 percent of the full-time music/arts staff have seminary degrees.

Of course, these observations do not settle the question of whether or not the ideal of a seminary-trained, professional clergy is losing ground in American culture. They do show, however, that seminary training remains the norm for the all-purpose pastoral role. Seminary training is not the norm for specialist ministers. I’m speculating here, but perhaps the perception that more and more congregations disdain seminary-trained leaders reflects growing employment of specialist ministerial staff among very large congregations rather than growing disenchantment with seminary training for leaders who are expected to be pastors in the full sense of the word.