Education

Seminary draws nonreligious students with social justice

Alexis Morin saw herself as an unlikely candidate for a seminary. For one thing, she wouldn’t call herself religious, per se. She describes herself as “spiritual but not religious” or “spiritually fluid” and finds herself drawn to multiple faith traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism.

Now she’s earning her master of divinity degree, with a concentration in Buddhism and interreligious engagement, at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She wanted to learn about theology and spirituality, and as a longtime activist working with first-generation college students, she was drawn to the seminary’s focus on social justice issues.

“I think I had questions in my mind before I applied to seminary, like, ‘Is this allowed? Do you have to have to belong to a congregation or denomination? Is someone going to find me in the hallways and be like, wait, how did you get here?’” she said. “But what I found at Union was a lot of affirmation and encouragement, even from faculty and students with a firm sense of their religious identity and no pressure to convert or come up with a tidier answer.”

Enrollment at Union Theological Seminary has held steady at a time when many other mainline Protestant theological schools are losing students. Campus leaders partly credit the rising—and surprising—demographic of students with no religious affiliation. They recently launched new social justice initiatives that they hope will continue to attract these students.

The application period for an online social justice master’s program, starting next fall, is currently open and aimed at students, religious or secular, who want to pursue careers in diversity, equity and inclusion work or bring a social justice lens to their current jobs. The seminary is also in the process of launching a new Center for Community Engagement and Social Justice, which will host public events and speakers on racial justice and other topics and build relationships with local community organizations.

“We don’t require you come here with any religious knowledge,” said the Reverend Karmen Michael Smith, the inaugural director of the Center for Community Engagement and Social Justice at Union. “There are no prerequisites that you do any work in the church. There are no prerequisites that you have studied religion and that you know the various books of the Bible and know how to exegete texts. We ask that our students come open … We give them the tools to take scholarship and faith and mix them together and reimagine how social justice is done in the world.”

The Reverend Serene Jones, president of Union, said the number of students at the institution who don’t identify with any one faith has steadily increased over the last 15 years. (She estimates they make up about 40 percent of the student body.) The seminary made a pivot to providing a multifaith education around that time and now offers coursework in Buddhism, Islam and Indigenous faiths. Union also has a partnership with the neighboring Jewish Theological Seminary, which allows students to register for courses there. She believes the de-emphasis on one faith in academic programs has drawn spiritually inclined students, as has the seminary’s reputation for focusing on social justice and spirituality.

Student activists working on combating societal and global problems “want an education where you’re not only learning more about the issue that you want to pursue, but you’re asking the deeper questions about why it’s there and what kinds of cultural and spiritual shifts have to take place to change society,” she said.

Jones also finds that activists frequently experience feelings of “burnout,” which she believes an education focused on spirituality can uniquely address by encouraging students to think broadly about what beliefs drive their social justice work.

“The work of social change is relentless, and you very rarely experience ecstatic successes,” she said. “So, if you don’t have a bigger framework for thinking about the ethical and moral reasons for why you’re doing the work, it’s very hard to sustain it over the long haul.”

Smith said attracting students who see themselves as spiritual but not religious is a point of pride. He sees students who come to Union because of an interest in social justice, as “people of faith,” whether or not they have any religious affiliations.

“They believe in something higher or greater than themselves,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t believe in anything [religious], but they have a pursuit of something greater than themselves. And they come to Union because we don’t make you believe in anything. And we’re not trying to make you be anything.”

He wants the new social justice master’s program to open up access to that kind of education to more students. The program is designed for working, part-time students, who may not be able to afford to live in New York City, with evening classes online that can be completed in less than two years or up to three years. Students will learn from seminary scholars, including Cornel West, the public intellectual and former professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and now the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at Union.

Smith emphasized that social justice has always been a part of the seminary’s mission. He noted that the institution was created at a time when seminaries were limited to rural areas, so it was founded to serve urban students who didn’t have ready access to a ministerial education.

“Social justice is the gospel,” he said. “Union has been doing this for a while, and we are continuing to move forward with it. I understand that it is very in vogue for everyone to say, ‘We’re doing DEI work, and we’re doing social justice work now.’ Union has been doing this work for over a century … and the latest iteration of that is our master of arts in social justice.”

Jones said serving spiritual but not religious students is part of the motivation for expanding the seminary’s social justice programming.

“They’ve left religion behind, but they haven’t left the spiritual yearning and the big questions behind,” she said.

She also believes these students have helped the institution stave off enrollment declines as the number of aspiring clergy members—and the jobs available to them—dwindle nationally. Union Theological Seminary enrolled 236 students in fall 2021, up from 231 students the year before. Enrollment data from the Association of Theological Schools show a high of about 400 students in 1985 and a low of 207 students in 2004, but in the last five years, enrollment has been on a fairly steady upward trajectory.

Americans, particularly younger Americans, are less religious than they used to be. Three in 10 adults don’t consider themselves affiliated with a religion, according to a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center. An earlier Pew study in 2015 found that young people were driving the trend; only 35 percent of millennials identified with a religion at the time.

Some seminaries have suffered for it, especially schools from mainline Protestant traditions, said Jo Ann Deasy, director of institutional initiatives and student research at the Association of Theological Schools, a membership organization for seminaries. These institutions have faced enrollment struggles in the last decade relative to evangelical peer institutions as some Protestant churches lose membership. More than half of mainline Protestant seminaries had enrollment decreases in fall 2021, according to a report by the association.

Union has so far avoided “the dramatic losses of some seminaries, who are so tightly tied to ministerial training that they don’t have the ability to broaden the scope of what they do,” Jones said.

Ellie Hutchison Cervantes, a master of divinity student who describes herself as a “seeker” and “Christian adjacent,” said she was attracted to Union because of its activist alumni and its reputation for scholarship on faith and social justice. She grew up in an evangelical community but eventually felt disillusioned with its attitude toward non-Christians, which led her to question whether she belonged there. But she believes she still “can find some value in aspects of the tradition and narrative and Scripture” and thinks the new social justice program will appeal to prospective students like her.

“It is a specific offering that is less tied—at least in name and title—to religion or theology but still offers spiritual grounding,” she said.

Deasy said other seminaries have also noticed an increase in students who identify as spiritual but not religious and have made efforts to continue attracting them by offering new degrees and credentials beyond the classic master of divinity. The seminaries are also increasingly providing certificate programs, continuing education courses and master’s degrees in various subjects, such as social justice or spirituality and ecology, that draw a more religiously diverse student body, she said.

A fall 2021 survey of 4,500 students attending seminaries in the association revealed that 16 percent of students described themselves as nondenominational, and 5 percent marked the box that read “other” and filled in the blank with a host of answers, ranging from non-Christian faiths like Baha’i or Buddhist to responses like “agnostic,” “atheist,” “questioning,” “spiritual nonreligious” or “mystic.”

In general, about 18 percent of Americans describe themselves as spiritual but unaffiliated with a religion, according to a 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute. This group skews younger, with 56 percent below age 50, offering seminaries a potential new pool of prospective students.

Deasy noted that as some seminaries double down on training clergy and others work to expand their programs and serve the “spiritually curious,” seminaries over all are stretching the boundaries of what a theological school is and whom these institutions serve. She sees that diversity as healthy growth.

“I think it’s exciting to see theological schools trying to do what they’ve always done, which is trying to provide leadership and space for spiritual growth and knowledge and exploration and training and skills that reflect, for the schools, their faith commitments,” she said. “But many of those commitments are for the common good.”

Jones believes the presence of these students, and creating programs that appeal to them, ultimately benefits the more traditional aspiring ministers at Union.

“Rather than driving ministry students away, it actually is appealing to ministry students, because they’re going to have to—in their congregations, in their communities—engage all of these issues. It’s going to serve them well in their jobs,” she said.

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