Just how are our seminaries stacking up these days? (by William Thornton)

Editor’s Note: A separate post called “Seminary Infographics” has been posted that demonstrates some of the data that William and Bart have been discussing. 

When I visited seminaries back in 1978 prior to enrolling, I went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary which was touted as the largest seminary in the world. Put together bold-talking Southern Baptists and tall-tale Texans and you’ve got a recipe for some heavy, heavy trash talking. Largest IN THE WORLD! Largest IN HISTORY!

Impressive, though I chose not to attend.

How are things looking these days? Well, it depends on the measure but let’s look at graduates and compare our six seminaries of 2003 with those of 2012:


2003         2012
Golden Gate                      180          249
Midwestern                          80          141
New Orleans                      448          617
Southeastern                     333          333
Southern                            409          556
Southwestern                     649          455

One wonders exactly what they are touting out at Southwestern these days, the seminary not being the world’s largest, not even the largest in the SBC, not even the second largest in the SBC by this measure. Still, over four hundred grads is a huge seminary; nonetheless, although graduates may vary from year-to-year, SWBTS clearly is a declining seminary. In contrast, Southern is a growing seminary. Someone can play the Calvinist card here if they wish.

I admit to being out of touch with seminaries (see the note below about these figures) and there may be some wrinkle in this of which I am unaware but any way you slice it Southwestern is a declining seminary and New Orleans and Southern are growing seminaries. There are other measures to use in looking at seminaries.

One figure I would like to see is how many graduates of each of these institutions receive a graduate level degree and how many receive an undergraduate degree or diploma.

[Note on source: The source for these figures is the SBC annual reports. I was given the figures by a researcher and have not fact-checked them all. I did check a few by the SBC annuals that I have in my possession. If there are errors or omissions, perhaps a number-geek reader would inform me.]


  1. Jeff says

    SWBTS was still the largest until the late 1990s. Southern hired more well-known scholars, and it benefited from Mohler’s visibility in the media and the rise of new Calvinism. At SWBTS, under Hemphill, it didn’t have much of an identity, and under Patterson, it had too much a “Baptist Identity” – it got an image of being Landmarkist, Dispensational, and anti-Calvinist, and it became too associated with unpopular new policies at the IMB around 2006-2007. I think that New Orleans has grown because of the Atlanta Campus, which attracts a lot of Southern Baptists who live in that area.

    • says


      I was at SWBTS during the switchover from Dr. Hemphill to Dr. Patterson. It was bad. I’m not a Patterson fan, I don’t think he’s an evil mastermind, just heavy handed, but the handling of the handover was awful. Dr. Bullock, Dr. Stookey, Dr. Sands, and several others were all casualties of the takeover. That doesn’t even begin to get into the mess with Dr. Klouda.

      I disagree with your assessment that SWBTS didn’t have much of an identity under Dr. Hemphill. The identity was one of missions focus and a desire to teach a variety of theological positions rather than just one. The BOT didn’t like it and fought it the whole way. Go back and look at what happened when they made Dr. Crutchley a dean. The man was perfect to lead the Theology department from just reading to actually living theology. He lasted less than a year I believe.

      Dr. Patterson has some good points, but he has not equipped the Seminary to keep up with the changing world that we live in. He’s doing his best, but I truthfully think that SWBTS will continue to shrink until he retires and is replaced by a more forearm thinking president.

      • Jeff says

        “desire to teach a variety of theological positions rather than just one” – well, the BOT basically thought Hemphill allowed several moderates to linger too long, which was not what they hired him to do. When I was there from 1996-1998, moderate professors would bully conservative professors and students. Egalitarians were cramming their egalitarianism down our throats and ridiculing and caricaturing complementarianism. Substitutionary atonement was often denied by professors and by many of the Ph.D. students who were teaching many of the classes. When I started SWBTS, it was still more conservative than Southern, but by the time I graduated, Southern was clearly the more conservative seminary.

  2. Jeff says

    Also, until the mid-1990s, SWBTS was regarded as the most conservative SBC seminary and attracted students from all over the SBC. But since then, the other seminaries have become more conservative and students in the mid-south and southeast have preferred to stay closer to home.

    Also, the leadership of the Baptist General Convention of Texas has been very hostile to SWBTS, and the BGCT has founded new seminaries at Baylor and Hardin Simmons to compete with SWBTS, and they defunded SBC seminaries to give more money to their own seminaries. Professors, pastors, and student ministry leaders among Baptists in Texas are recommending these seminaries over SWBTS.

  3. Rick Patrick says

    I think Geography plays an even bigger role than Theology. When I was at SWBTS, we had lots of guys from Georgia and Florida. Now, they may study online, go to New Orleans or choose from the many additional divinity schools associated with colleges. These other options have siphoned away some of Southwestern’s students…the moderates certainly go elsewhere.

    Still, Southwestern remains inerrant, evangelistic and challenging. The neighborhood surrounding the campus has changed significantly–it is now 75% Hispanic, which has opened doors to local missions work. The gospel is being shared–door to door–in every home within a two mile radius.

    I’m encouraged by some of the numbers. The Big Three in 2003 had 1506 grads. In 2012 that number was 1628. Southwestern’s drop of 200 may simply mean that more of the Deep South full time students are staying closer to home rather than moving to Fort Worth for three years–a hundred more each for SBTS and NOBTS.

    By far, the oddest item in the report, to me, is SEBTS graduating the identical number, 333, in both 2003 and 2012. Not a typo?

  4. William Thornton says

    Coincidence on the 333.

    The history of SWBTS in the 1990s is interesting but the decline in the last decade cannot be attributed to any of that.

    I’m a genuine outsider on this but do you think I am wrong to muse that SBTS is a magnet for Calvinistic students whereas SWBTS is a repellant to such students. Also, the high visibility and profile of Mohler and Calvinism is important to a considerable pool of referrals from the growing numbers of Calvinistic pastors?

    Prior to the CR seminaries were classified, fairly or not, theologically. I was advised that SWBTS and NOBTS were acceptable, SBTS, SEBTS, and MBTS were not and GGBTS was off the radar. Now I hear pastors frequently classifying seminaries and their presidents according to C/non-C.

    • Jeff says

      “The history of SWBTS in the 1990s is interesting but the decline in the last decade cannot be attributed to any of that.”

      If you look at the numbers, most of the decline in SWBTS enrollment happened from 1998-2005 (last 5 years of Hemphill and first 2 of Patterson).

      • William Thornton says

        Here’s where you may be right but not about the most important factor.

        Since 2005, SWBTS has declined in their FTEs almost 30%. They may have declined more prior to that but the fact that the seminary without any leadership controversy or change and alone among the six SBC seminaries, has continued a significant slide downward in grads and FTEs is quite significant.

        The economic meltdown of 2008 reduced enrollment at all the seminaries (except GGBTS). SWBTS is the only one that has not recovered and which has continued to decline in FTEs. In fact, since 2007 there hasn’t been a year (I don’t have 2014 figures) that SWBTS’ FTEs haven’d declined by at least 100 per year. In the eight years since 2005, SWBTS has lost more FTEs than either GGBTS or MBTS has in FTE students.

        I don’t recall hearing anyone say anything much about this.

        • Jeff says

          2008 would have also been about the time that online programs like the one at Liberty really began to take off. Of course, the recession may have increased the popularity of online programs, which don’t require somebody to sell their house and move hundreds of miles.

  5. Jeff Johnson says

    I wonder if my seminary decision-making process was different than most. I went straight from undergrad to Southeastern in 1998. I knew I wanted to go to an SBC seminary, but I honestly knew nothing about any differences among the six. I just picked the one closest to home.

    I’d guess that seminary students today are more savvy about the differences, thanks largely to the Internet — especially blogs and social media. Maybe today’s students are more likely to enter seminary with an affinity for a certain school, leader, or theological tribe. The expansion of Calvinism among younger Southern Baptists is almost certainly responsible for part of Southern’s growth, along with Dr. Mohler’s presence online and in the media. A previous commenter makes a good point about New Orleans’s satellite campus in the Atlanta area. As to Southwestern, I know that Dr. Patterson was no fan of distance learning when he was at SE. He thought students should have the experience of being together on campus, in chapel, etc. (If I recall correctly, we had no online courses and very limited off-campus courses at the time.) If that approach has carried over to SW, maybe that has hurt their numerical growth in terms of graduates.

    • says

      Southwestern does offer distance learning.
      It also has multiple campuses in addition to their main Fort Worth, TX campus.

      I’m a graduate of SWBTS (please don’t use that against them) and I’d highly recommend it to any student today.
      I visited there again last month and am very impressed with their ministry, missions, evangelism.

      As already mentioned, they have committed to personally witness to every home in a two mile radius of their Ft. Worth campus. People in the neighborhood walk through the campus. Southwestern has bronze Scripture plaques throughout the grounds. I noted one that was John 3:16 in Spanish.
      Every year they send student evangelists all over the country to preach revivals, and of course sponsor many international mission trips.
      Dr. Paige Patterson is a scholar and evangelist, and both are evident at SWBTS.
      David R. Brumbelow

      • Jeff Johnson says

        I should note that I’m not criticizing Dr. Patterson. I had the privilege of taking him for the Atonement and Doctrine of the Church at SE. Both were amazing classes. (By the way, the required reading for Doctrine of the Church included Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. Although Patterson is clearly not a Calvinist, he had a healthy respect for his Calvinist brethren and was always ready to engage in friendly dialogue.) I was just curious whether he was taking a hard line against distance learning. Apparently not.

  6. andy says

    I think any explanation of swbts decline and sbts growth that ignores the Calvinism issue is missing an important piece of the puzzle.

    However, my own personal story had more to do with Al mohler ‘s wider evangelical reputation, and geography…I had heard of his advancement of conservative theology there, and lived only a few hours from Louisville, so it made a lot of sense. Being the naive youngster that I was in 2006, I didn’t even know mohler was a Calvinist, or that it was an issue at all…

  7. Jim Hedrick says

    Thanks for the scoop. As a former trustee at Southeastern 94-01 I was a small wheel in the campus cog of revival during the Patterson yrs. Thanks be to God for all our 2014 seminary trustees, staff, administrators and students. Let us analyze and examine our growth or lack thereof with grateful hearts always continuing to pray that our seminarians would academics on fire and in line with The Lord Jesus Christ. God bless the graduates now with diplomas in hand who seek to bless the churcheswith their wholehearted service. God bless us all save sinners and sanctify saints. Amen

  8. Louis Cook says

    As someone who has just begun the process of applying to the SBC Seminaries I can tell you from my experience that SBTS is far more aggressive than either SEBTS, NOBTS or SWBTS in contacting you. I do not say that in a negative tone at all. I have gotten multiple calls and get regular email and info via mail from SBTS and not the others. This certainly helps keep them on your mind as you try to decide where to go. Their outreach makes you feel wanted and who doesn’t like that feeling ?
    I live less than an hour from GGBTS but need to finish my undergraduate work first and they do not have an undergraduate program. They are also relocating the main campus from NorCal to SoCal in the next two years.

    • says


      Bart would have the most current stats. I’m sure you are right regarding that being the explaination why he was citing an uptick in enrollment. Thanks for that perspective on the dates possibly explaining the apparent differences in figures.

    • Bob Browning says

      Sorry to disagree Louis, but while SBTS is my favorite in terms of theology, SWBTS and SEBTS have been more responsive to me from a recruiting standpoint than SBTS. I turned my name into each of their booths at the SBC meeting in Houston last summer, and SWBTS sent me stuff so fast it almost arrived before I got home. And SEBTS wasn’t far behind. Both of them also sent lots of information on the seminary. SBTS didn’t send me anything for a month or so and when it finally came it was such a basic pamphlet that I already knew more from the website. So I think a lot of that depends on who you’re dealing with and what time of year it is and how busy they are. I think there are good folks at all of them and am very thankful we have them.

      • says

        Well it is not a scientific survey, just my personal observation on the interaction that I have received. I am not making a judgment on any of them either. As a prospective student it has certainly drawn me closer to SBTS because of the personal calls I received and the information sent my way as well.
        Growing up in SC, every pastor that I came across was either a SEBTS or NOBTS graduate. SBTS was a bit of a dirt word back then and might be again to some.
        With the same finite time as others I find myself drawn to watching/listening and taking notes of past SEBTS Chapel services. David Platt spoke there recently and I have listened to it twice so far. I’ll be back.

  9. says

    I distinctly recall Bart Barber either tweeting, commenting, or having referenced in some context, that I can’t recall at the moment, an upward tick in enrollment at SWBTS. I got the impression that things were radically different than this report indicates. If the numbers are as Bart intimated, perhaps the seminary would verify the numbers. There seems to be a conflict in Bart’s report and these numbers. Maybe someone can reconcile the conflicting reports, or check with the seminary to verify the statistics mentioned here.

    • Dave Miller says

      These figures go thru 2012. It is possible that he has 2013 figures that show this uptick. And he is headed to Africa today and won’t be available.

  10. Dean Stewart says

    There are far more qualified to determine what these numbers mean in general and specifically to SWBTS. However, that has never stopped me before. I will add my two cents.

    1) It means very little to nothing. Add all the numbers up and you will see that 2099 SBC students graduated in 2003 and 2351 graduated in 2012. Those numbers are similar. All the seminaries except SWBTS show an increase. Southern Baptist produce so many seminarians and the other seminaries are getting some students that used to go to SWBTS.

    2) Dr. Patterson has been a lighting rod for decades now. He has been attacked constantly over 30 years now. He has become one of the faces in the convention that rejects Calvinism and its growth. These attacks will sour some students to SWBTS. You can rest assured there will be a push back in our convention concerning Calvinism. Pendulums constantly swing. Dr. Mohler has been and will come under more and more attacks. I will not be surprised in the future if this does not impact Southern. Southern Baptist owe a debt to Dr. Patterson. Some young seminarians do not know this yet but I hope they learn it in our schools.

    3) I believe that SWBTS was slow to embrace distance learning, especially online learning. Traditional professors for the most part despise distance learning. Southwestern and Southern were slow in embracing online degrees. SWBTS has caught up, now even offering a full MDiv online.

    4) Students are important. Money is too. Southwestern and Southern lead the way with endowment money in our convention. 455 graduates plus the endowment they have makes Southwestern a seminary of great standing.

    5) What we know and have experienced as seminary education is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The SBC funding to our seminaries needs to be revised. We give most of our monies for on campus graduate students. We give less money to extension center graduate students. We give 0 money for online graduate students. Online is where we are going and soon our convention needs to help our seminaries out by changing our funding per student.

    Thanks for the article, Plodder.

    • William Thornton says

      I would like to know more about what qualifies for Cooperative Program funding. Do online students count in the FTEs and aren’t FTEs the figure for funding?

      I think the numbers matter to SWBTS, since theirs are declining, even if the overall numbers for the six together are about the same. More on that later.

      • Wade Phillips says

        I’m an online student at NOBTS. There is no SBC discount for online classes. It’s the same for everyone. Fortunately, I have a scholarship. I assume that means there would be no funding for those students. But you know about assumptions.

        • Bob Browning says

          Wade, you might want to take a look at SEBTS’s pricing structure. They have reworked it so that online and on-campus are the same. And my understanding was always that the SBC discount did apply for online courses, including New Orleans, but since you’re taking classes there you’d know better than me.

      • Dean Stewart says

        Willaim, sorry for the delay in responding. I had pastoral duties and if I am going to claim that pastoral housing allowance I better be about pastoring. :) Online students do not count in the SBC FTE funding. There has been a push for that to change. I understand that the seminaries with the larger on-campus student populations have been opposed to this. The reason is simple, the size of the pie from the SBC will not be increased, the size of the slice will be decreased to those seminaries with the larger on campus student population in order to give more funding for the seminaries with more online students. Now that Southern and Southwestern are growing their online programs, it stands to reason that the funding for FTE’s may be changed in the future to include online students.

        • William Thornton says

          Actually, you could be an ordained floor sweeper at any of our seminaries and probably qualify for the housing allowance…but I digress.

          I need a short course on the CP seminary funding formula and would love to see it discussed later when I know more of the intricacies of it. Any way you slice it, (a) there is a declining sum of CP money to be distributed, (b) the six seminaries compete with each other for the head count and therefore the money, (c) there is likely little chance of increasing the seminaries percentage.

    • Bob Browning says

      Very good points Dean, especially about the direction of online learning. I don’t know how SWBTS is handling this, but I think SEBTS is doing a great job through their EQUIP program that partners with local churches. We should not see online learning as a worse option but rather a better one when it is done in a way that allows the student to incur less debt and to stay at his local church and be mentored by his own pastor. In the past, very few people that attended our SBC seminaries were able to also remain at their local church and regularly serve there, so this is a HUGE benefit. This is why I think SBTS is being a little short-sited in not offering a completely online MDiv yet – if they want to remain at the top and also have as much influence as possible I hope they reconsider their posture.

    • says

      I attend Boyce online. At 34 years old, I sense a call to pastor and am pursuing education while also being mentored by my Pastor. I can’t move, but I think this works out well. I server in the local church, learn directly from my Pastor, do visitation, preach, etc. I would love to be on campus and complete my education far sooner, but online is a godsend for me.

      After I’m done at Boyce I’ll likely either do SEBTS’s online MDIV or a Hybrid program at SBTS.

  11. Max says

    As a young Southern Baptist 40+ years ago, I asked an elderly member of our church why Southern Baptists seemed to be fighting about something all the time. I still remember her reply “Young man, things started getting bad when those seminary graduates in 3-piece suits started showing up in our pulpits.” Well, they don’t wear 3-piece suits any more, but I wonder if she had a point in there somewhere. I don’t have a problem with education (I even have some), but I’ve learned that education does not produce one ounce of revelation. Jesus builds His church on revealed truth, not teachings and traditions of men.

  12. Andrew Green says

    I would like to way in on this as a 31 year old seminary grad from Southern. I was not raised Southern Baptist neither did I go to a Southern Baptist College. I attended Southern out of convenience and it was recommended as a school with high academics. I went there also not even knowing there was a debate over Calvinism; by the way I have come to despise the whole Calvinism debate I do not see it as useful. But anyway Southern professors didn’t just stuff into me a bunch of facts instead they sought to show me how to take the bible and put it into the ministry of the church. My Greek professor was very good about instructing me in how to take Greek and put it into your preaching. My preaching professor taught me how to clearly present the word. By the way all of my professors there were either pastors themselves or worked on staff at a local church. Education is important and I advise every person who they feel is called by God to pastor or be in ministry of any kind to educate themselves through a seminary. To cut funding to the seminaries would be hurtful to the convention at large. Imagine students having to already carry a larger burden on tuition costs than they already do. It would take longer for pastors and missionaries to move into a permanent place of ministry. While the seminary is not the answer to every problem within the convention we need to support them whole heartily even if you disagree with some of there theology. Seminary change my life and I am so thankful the Lord took me to seminary and sustained me through the five years while I was there

  13. Jim G. says

    Hi all,

    Since all of the SBC seminaries are ATS accredited, you can go to the ATS website (www.ats.edu), go to the drop down under “resources”, then “institutional data” then “data tables” to retrieve lots of info on the seminaries. It is public information, annually reported, that lists enrollment (head count and FTE) and lots of other info. It might be helpful if anyone is interested.

    Jim G.

  14. Jeff says

    Here are some numbers on FTE at SWBTS that I got from this blog:


    1995-1996 3,024
    1996-1997 3,052
    1997-1998 3,099
    1998-1999 2,784
    1999-2000 2,441
    2000-2001 2,371
    2001-2002 2,381
    2002-2003 2,209
    2003-2004 2,202
    2004-2005 1,991

    Hemphill left in 2003 and Patterson arrived that year. A lot of decline happened under Hemphill, but decline continued under Patterson.

  15. says

    SWBTS did indeed have an enrollment increase this semester. I have copied a paragraph from the website news release below. The campus is alive with excitement and with the Spirit of the Lord (my personal opinion). The spirit of evangelism toward the city is incredible. And yes, that mean old Dr. Patterson is still loving God’s Word, pouring himself deeply into the students, and speaking well of all the sister seminaries.

    Blessings to all. May God do a great work in all of our seminaries.



    Trustees heard a report from Steven Smith, vice president for student services & communications, noting a 12 percent increase in enrollment for spring 2014 over spring 2013. Additionally, the school experienced a 19 percent increase in enrollment in its School of Theology for spring 2014, which does not include online students.
    Copied from http://swbts.edu/campus-news/news-releases/trustees-approve-apologetics-degree-elect-faculty/

    • Dave Miller says

      There is also the fact that two different things are being measured. One is enrollment. The other is graduations. Obviously, a change in enrollment rates would not change the graduation rate for a few years.

      • William Thornton says

        I don’t think I have a stat on “enrollment”. The FTEs are the comparable data, but I’d guess that FTEs would be up if enrollment is up.

  16. John Wylie says

    I personally think that one main reason why SWBTS has shown a small decline while SE and Southern show an uptick is that there is more competition in Baptist seminaries that are decidedly Non Cal. You have 3 of the 6 basically Non Cal and then you have the competition of Mid America, Luther Rice, and of course Liberty. Let’s face it if you are seriously Reformed in theology you are not likely choose SW.

    • William Thornton says

      John, 30% is a major decline, not minor, which is why this is interesting. I draw no qualitative conclusion as a result, SWBTS is still a very good seminary. It is interesting to hear the young guys talk about their seminary choices.

      • John Wylie says

        Ok I agree with your assessment that it is major. What did you think about the rest of my comment?

        • William Thornton says

          On target, John, but I am a contrarian and it’s tough to train my fingers to type words of agreement.