The online Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a growing number of students are responding to a perceived call to ministry, reversing a two-decade trend. The shift seems to reflect changing cultural values as well as the fruit of a major financial investment by the Lilly Endowment.

The trends certainly needed reversing, if churches are to have qualified leadership. In the years after World War II, about the same number of college students went into ministry as into medicine, according to the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary, in New York. By the mid 1980s, however, while 15 percent of college graduates went into medicine, just one percent entered a seminary or divinity school.

Concerned with that bleak picture, the Lilly Endowment put up some major money in grants for colleges “to help students explore the relationship between faith and work, to encourage talented students to consider entering Christian ministry, and to prepare the faculty and staff members to help students think about work in new ways,” according to the Chronicle.

Between 2000 and 2007, Lilly shelled out $176.2 million to 88 church-related colleges.

One of the main challenges has been to get ministry on the radar screen of prospective students when other professions are so much more lucrative, mainline churches are less influential, and fewer pastors are seen as important leaders or intellectual heavyweights.

A major part of the effort has been to help students recognize that ministry is meaningful work. Grant participants have taken various paths toward that end, and appear to be having some success. Anecdotal evidence presented in the article suggests that more recent college graduates are choosing to pursue theological education, which could bring down the average age at many seminaries, where less than one in three students are in their twenties.

Lilly’s effort is boosted by a contemporary trend in which younger adults seem more likely to be involved in volunteer work and more attracted to service-oriented professions whose rewards are more than financial.

As a former pastor (26 years), it’s sad to think that so much effort is required to convince potential pastors that ministry is “meaningful work.” The happy thing is that the program appears to be getting traction.

Now, perhaps, the Lilly Endowment can help seminaries and divinity schools keep pace by developing programs for students who want to do meaningful and ministry-related work, but not in traditional church settings.

Otherwise, many of those fresh-faces may not stick around.

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