Project SDA clergy: part 1

A revealing study and profile on those who enter the ministry.

Jack Bynum, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.
Douglas Clark, Ph.D., is dean of the School of Theology at Walla "Walla College.
George Hilton, Ph.D., is a professor of mathematics and director of institutional research at Pacific Union College.

Many are called but few are chosen" (Matt. 22:14). As of June 30,1991, there were 11,626 active ordained ministers serving the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 1 Numerous others have also felt "called to the ministry" but were unable to respond because of familial, economic, educational, or other social constraints.

To learn about the ministerial students who actually become pastors and those who do not, in 1987 the authors solicited input and support from the heads of the religion departments at the 11 Adventist colleges and universities in North America, and also the presidents of the Southwestern Union and Oklahoma Conference. The enthusiasm and research orientation of these individuals and their assistance, plus the consider able contribution of Oklahoma State University, combined to make this re search a reality. We three authors are also grateful to the ministerial student subjects who graciously participated in the project. This is the first in a two-part report on a scientific study of Adventist ministerial students and their success in finding employment as pastors.

Beyond the formal criteria for ad mission to the official ministerial ranks (for example, prescribed character and commitment, theological orthodoxy, and educational prerequisites), an informal filtering process also functions to select, rank, and assign those ministerial aspirants who manage to graduate from an Adventist college or university (see Table 1). Thus the life chances for an individual to attain a denominationally sponsored ministerial appointment are influenced by many less visible social and demographic variables.

The research methodology

The targeted population for this re search project was the entire cohort of 82 senior ministerial students enrolled during 1987. Although the cost factor and difficult logistics of a worldwide study limited our focus and generality to North America, the use of an entire group of subjects sharing a common temporal experience helped to avoid several possible sampling errors and maximized the validity and reliability of our data base.

Near the end of the 1986-1987 academic year—when their immediate occupational future should have been clear—each of the 82 students received a very carefully designed survey instrument. This questionnaire was structured to elicit a wide variety of in-depth demo graphic, attitudinal, background, and life experience information reflective of the following research questions.

1. Exactly who are our future ministers? Where do they come from and how are they recruited?

2. What are their career motivations and aspirations? How do they perceive the focus of their ministry?

3. Where do our new ministers stand on contemporary religious and social issues prominent in the church? And do their attitudes and values regarding these matters change over time? If so, what is the direction and strength of such changes?

4. Is there any evidence that God still calls individuals to the ministry today as dramatically and miraculously as is of ten recorded in the Scriptures (e.g., Isa. 6:8,9; Acts 9:1-18).

5. Are there any identifiable patterns of family background, personal experience, attitudes, and behavior among new ministers that might enhance later prediction and problem-solving in their unfolding lives and careers?

The respondents were guaranteed individual anonymity. Data was assembled at Oklahoma State University by the principal investigator, who searched for overall patterns and trends among responses. This proved to be a sound research strategy, and intensive follow-up at the various schools finally resulted in a 100 percent respondent participation in the survey.

There were 127 questionnaire items that probed for information on scores of variables relevant to the minister's calling, convictions, and career. The findings reported here represent only a small portion of the data collected, which should provide a rich source for longitudinal comparisons within this and with other ministerial groups, as well as within and between the various Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities.

The research findings

Table 1 summarizes the first after graduation occupational assignments for the 1987 group of ministerial students. Note that their occupations are divided into six categories: full-time pastors/ evangelists in denominational employment; seminary study; other Adventist employment such as teachers, literature evangelists; non-Adventist employment; non-Adventist graduate or professional school study; and unemployed. The data reported in Table 1 is also statistically controlled for each of our colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

The occupational divisions of Table 1 are a useful format for the organization of data and are not intended by the researchers to represent any hierarchy of social status (though such a belief may exist in the church). Nor are the categories of the typology totally or permanently discrete. For instance, we can safely assume that at least some of the seminary students will ultimately find employment as Seventh-day Adventist ministers.

As an immediate interpretation, it appears that those 1987 ministerial students/graduates attending some colleges were more likely to enter "full-time Seventh-day Adventist ministry" than those attending other schools. For example, 80 to 100 percent of the ministerial students graduating from colleges B, E, and K immediately entered full-time professional ministry of the church. On the other hand, 38 percent of graduates from the ministerial course at college A and only 11 percent of those graduating from college D promptly entered full-time ministry. Similarly, some Seventh-day Adventist institutions of higher education saw a larger proportion of their ministerial students/graduates go directly to the seminary. If these are typical patterns each year, they could signify a stronger encouragement for seminary graduate work at some Adventist colleges or in some geographic regions. Or perhaps the absence of immediate ministerial employment in some areas makes seminary attendance a more viable option.

In addition, the Table 1 data shows that some Adventist colleges and universities had a larger proportion of their 1987 ministerial graduates "unemployed" and without any vocational or educational prospects than at other schools. Is it possible that the college one attends could be a major factor affecting the probability of becoming an Adventist minister?

Table 2 offers a partial demographic profile of our 1987 ministerial student group as well as for each occupational subgroup that finally emerged from the group. An examination of Table 2 data suggests the following commentary on these selected variables.

Average age. The mean (X) age for the 1987 cohort of 82 ministerial students was 30 years at the time of their graduation from college. It is clear to numerous observers that many current enrollees in the Seventh-day Adventist ministerial course are somewhat older than the typical ministerial student a generation ago. Twenty to 35 years ago when the authors attended Adventist colleges, most ministerial students were in their early or mid-20s—thus indicating a general pattern of college matriculation soon after graduation from secondary schools. The data from this study suggests that older men—with families, backgrounds in other occupations, and adult conversions and affiliations with the church—significantly increased the average age of 1987 ministerial students.

Race. Fifty-eight (70.7 percent) of the 1987 graduating ministerial students were White, 17 (20.7 percent) were Black, 4 (4.9 percent) were of Asian back ground, and another 2 (2.4 percent) represented ethnic His panic groups. 2 It would be interesting to compare these percentages with the racial/ethnic composition of the total church membership served by the 11 Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities. While 36 of the 58 White graduates (62 percent) went directly into the ministry, only 3 of 17 Black graduates (18 percent) did so. Both of the His panic students (100 percent) and two of the four Asian graduates (50 percent) immediately entered the ministry.

Marital status. Just 52 of the 82 ministerial students (63 percent) were married at the time of their 1987 graduation. This finding surprised the authors, in view of the fact that the subjects averaged 30 years of age. The rest were single, although a sizable portion were engaged to marry— probably waiting to complete their education prior to marriage. Nonetheless, of the 43 who entered full-time ministry upon graduation, 11 (26 percent) were still single (and unengaged). With 28 of the 52 married ministerial students (54 percent) and 11 of the 20 single (and unengaged) graduates (55 percent) going directly into full-time ministry of the church, marital status does not appear to be as significant a factor at the beginning of one's ministry as it may have been at earlier times in our church's history.

Gender. The vast majority of the 1987 ministerial students/graduates were male—80 of 82 (97.6 percent). One of the two females planned to en roll in the seminary; the other was unemployed as of the end of the summer of 1987.

Social class and status of family of origin. Social scientists have typically utilized one or more of three basic and closely associated variables in determining the social class and status of subjects (that is, level of formal education, occupation, and income). In this study, the occupation of each subject's father was used as an indicator of class and status. The data indicate that only 3 of the 82 senior ministerial students could be classified as of upper-class family origin. All three of these graduates went directly into full-time ministry. The far right column of Table 2 shows that even if we add the 11 sons of Seventh-day Adventist ministers and teachers to the middle-class category (giving us a total of 31), the majority of ministerial groups come from lower working class backgrounds (47 subjects or 57.3 percent). As indicated with the three upper-class ministerial graduates, additional evidence emerges that supports a correlation between social class and immediate placement in the full-time ministry of the church. Some 61 percent of the 31 middle-class students (including the sons of Adventist ministers and teachers), compared with nearly 45 percent of the 47 lower-class students, were recruited promptly into the ministry upon their graduation.

Educational background. Just 28 (34 percent) of the 82 ministerial students in the 1987 graduating cohort had earlier graduated from a Seventh-day Adventist secondary school. On the other hand, 50 (61 percent) of the cohort were the products of public high schools.3 The comparatively low percentage of our new ministers in this group who can point to an Adventist academy as part of their educational experience is a remark able and troublesome finding that deserves serious etiologic attention.

College academic performance. Ten (12.2 percent) of the graduating ministerial students in our group of subjects reported that A was their most common grade during the last two years of college. Forty (48.8 percent) declared that B was their most common grade, and 32 (39 percent) responded that their most common grade was C. From this data, it appears that not only do few ministerial students achieve the highest level of academic performance, but, paradoxically, traditional scholarship (as demonstrated by the high grade-point average) may actually be a handicap for those aspiring for immediate placement in the full-time ministry of the church. For instance, in this cohort, 4 of 10 (40 percent) of the A students, 23 of 40 (57.5 percent) of the B students, and 16 of 32 (50 percent) of the C students were hired directly into full-time ministry. An equally surprising finding that begs for interpretation is that 7 of the 11 graduates (64 percent) heading for the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary declared that C was their most common grade.

A number of additional, informative insights regarding our 1987 ministerial student cohort emerged when statistical comparisons were made with two other groups of male college seniors who were not ministerial students. Table 3 summarizes these comparative analyses.

A surprising set of findings is depicted in the first, second, and fourth items in Table 3. Less than half (49 percent) of the ministerial students had one or both parents affiliated with the church. On the other hand, 82 percent of the Seventh-day Adventist non-ministerial group came from families in which one or both parents were affiliated with the church. Another disturbing statistic: Only a little more than a third (34 per cent) of the Seventh-day Adventist ministerial students in this study were products of Adventist secondary schools— compared with 78 percent of our Seventh-day Adventist non-ministerial control group in Table 3. Finally, the parents of the ministerial students were characterized by divorce or widowhood much more than the subjects from either of the two control groups.

From these comparisons, we could conclude that the ministerial students are much more likely to come from non- Adventist homes, public high schools, and parental relationships broken by death or divorce than their Adventist classmates in the non-ministerial control groups. It is also interesting to note that nearly a third of these ministerial students whose parents were non-Adventist declared that one or both parents were members of the Catholic Church.

Our ministerial students were baptized at an average age of 18 years— probably reflecting the early non-Seventh- day Adventist background of many in the cohort. This is also related to the cohort members' older average age of 30 as college seniors. Nevertheless, nearly half (48 percent) of the ministerial student group indicated that they had decided on a future ministerial career while in secondary school. Thus, pre-professional career counseling might be profitable at the academy level for potential ministerial students.

According to Table 3, the senior ministerial student group did not produce the highest academic grades, compared with members of the two control groups. On the other hand, a comparison of the same three groups shows that the ministerial students were much more involved in extracurricular college activities. It may be reasonable to conclude that the leadership and social skill development that can be derived from participation in extracurricular activities is recognized by ministerial students as a vital component of their college training—perhaps of equal importance with more-academic pursuits.

A comparison of the data in the seventh and eighth variables in Table 3 reveals that the student group at the state university was much more politically active than the two Adventist groups, as measured by participation in a recent national election. An exception to this general pattern was demonstrated by the ministerial students at Canadian Union College—most of whom voted in their last national election. While a significant number of U.S. ministerial students seem to be apolitical, most of the remainder split their support between the Republican and Democratic parties.

The remaining items in Table 3 may be quite positive in their implications. While the ministerial student respondents slept and ate a little less than members of the two control groups, they also perceived themselves as healthier and happier than did their corresponding numbers in the other groups.

Overall, the research team was very favorably impressed with the Seventh-day Adventist ministerial students in our cohort. They often came out of adversity and difficult circumstances and had dis played considerable fortitude and commitment to their ministerial calling. In a later article we will explicate their responses to a number of important religious and social issues paramount in the world and church today. At the same time we will identify several inspiring, supernatural, and often miraculous aspects related to their calls to the minis try.

1 Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (Hagerstown,
Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1992).
p. 4.

2 One subject did not respond to this question.

3 Several members of the cohort did not report
their secondary school background.

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Jack Bynum, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.
Douglas Clark, Ph.D., is dean of the School of Theology at Walla "Walla College.
George Hilton, Ph.D., is a professor of mathematics and director of institutional research at Pacific Union College.

April 1993

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