In May 2002, the Wake Forest Divinity School will grant degrees to its first graduates. Founded in 1999 and offering the master in divinity degree in an ecumenical full-time program, the school has attracted students from as close as North Carolina and Virginia to as far away as Colorado and Africa.
Twenty students from seven different denominations are expected to make up the Divinity School’s first graduating class in May. Classes began Aug. 29 for these third-year students and their classmates – 26 second-year students and 24 new first-year students. In all, the school has 70 students representing 11 denominations.
In its third year of existence, the Divinity School continues to buck national trends in theological education, said Bill Leonard, dean of the Divinity School and professor of church history. While seminary enrollment has continued to drop dramatically nationally, the numbers at the Wake Forest Divinity School remain steady. More than 90 percent of students who entered the Divinity School in 1999 are expected to graduate in May. Nationally, theological schools have an average graduation rate of about 65 percent.
“In the years of permanent transition in American religious life, we hope to prepare students for ministry amid changes in churches and communities,” Leonard said. “The trends in theological education informed the choices that we made as we intentionally created a program that we believe will best prepare students for the parish ministry and related vocations.”
The national trends in theological education – decreasing enrollment and falling graduation rates – continue today according to a 2000 study done by the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education. In the fall of 2000, the center surveyed 2,500 theological students entering master’s-level programs to find out what the future held for denominations facing clergy shortages nationally. (Wake Forest Divinity students were not surveyed.)
The Auburn Center found that seminarians’ average age was 35 and that these students returned to school after working in various professions. Most did not have a liberal arts background and had not come from strong undergraduate programs. The study also showed that the students were attempting to fit part-time seminary study into schedules that already included full-time jobs.
In contrast, the Wake Forest Divinity School’s average student age is 33. Most of the students came to Wake Forest less than 10 years after graduating from a variety of undergraduate programs. One other element that sets the school apart is the low faculty to student ratio, which is 9 to 1.
David Brown, a Greenville, S.C. native, came to the Divinity School in 1999 just months after graduating from Clemson University.
“I was first drawn to Wake Forest because of its reputation for academic excellence and the way that the Divinity School was folded into the greater university community instead of being isolated like a seminary,” Brown said. “Once I got here, I began to value the broad ecumenical experience that the Divinity School offers. Learning about other students’ denominational theologies has been enriching, and I’m sure that exposure to other traditions will make me better prepared to minister in a world where denominational lines are blurring.”
Brown spent this summer working in the Clinical Pastoral Education Program at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. He spent 20 hours each week working as a chaplain on one of the trauma floors and 20 additional hours in the classroom.
“The opportunity to work with all kinds of people ranging from 15-year-olds to one patient who was 101, who were facing problems caused by car accidents, gunshots and other traumas was priceless,” Brown said. “I saw a lot of people from all kinds of backgrounds who probably wouldn’t show up in church, but who responded to my ministry. It was incredibly inspiring.”
Brown and his class will spend their final year at the Divinity School in classes and internships. Some will go into church ministry after completing the ordination process in their denomination, while others will continue their education elsewhere to earn doctoral degrees. Others will go into vocations related to the ministry including social service and missionary work. But first, they will participate in a year of new developments at the Divinity School.
A new course, “Spirituality and the Holocaust,” will be taught in February and March by the first Carpenter Professor of Jewish Studies, Carolyn Manosevitz. Diane Wudel, a former professor at Averett College in Virginia, has also been hired as the school’s first full-time New Testament professor.
In April, eminent theologian Jurgen Moltmann will present the annual Margaret A. Steelman Lecture. Moltmann’s many books include, “God for a Secular Society : The Public Relevance of Theology,” and “How I Have Changed : Reflections on Thirty Years of Theology.”
Other recent developments at the Divinity School include a $55,700 grant from the Wabash Foundation to study issues of Baptist identity in theological education for a new generation of churches and ministerial students. Programs in Baptist and Presbyterian studies were begun in 2001.
The Divinity School will also host conferences throughout the year. They include one about religious liberty titled, “Church and State in America: Issues of Freedom, Politics and Religion in a New Century,” and another about the use of music in worship titled, “When Bedrock Shifts: Tracing the Church’s Theology and Spirituality Through Congregational Song.”
For more information about the Divinity School, visit its Web site at www.wfu.edu/divinity/.