The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is a professional organization of religious seminaries and graduate schools of theology. Their Commission on Accrediting is in charge of overseeing the 270 plus member institutions. The ATS has been located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since it was founded in 1918. Their mission is to advocate for the enhancement and improvement of theological programs and schools. The Commission’s mission is formally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
The landscape of theological programs has rapidly changed through the years. Whatever occurs inside theological schools is interconnected with what occurs on the outside. That is, there are many external factors that drive pervasive changes in the content, curriculum and direction of theological schools. For example, religious attendance, behavioral adherence, denomination membership and even trust in religious institutions has been on the decline for many years. One method of tackling this problem is through increasing the quality of work performance. Academic assessments are a key component of ensuring a high quality educational program in theological schools.
To combat this, ministry leaders across the country now favor congregational practices that are more engaging and worship styles that are more expressive. The attitude and focus on theological programs now focus on building welcoming and flexible programming for diverse audiences. Ministry administration even incorporates principles of accounting transparency and social media marketing to promote congregational participation. The accreditation commission ensures that theological school content meets the changing needs of people everywhere. Today, there are almost 250 accredited ATS schools that offer over 240 different types of professional graduate degrees.
Today’s ministry leaders and theological experts face new challenges. These include changing congregational demographics that continually drive the accreditation commission to review curriculum content and messages in order to be more racially sensitive and historically accurate. The traditional congregation of many Christian churches is made up of upper class Caucasian families. This was historically true for mainline Protestants, but they are now in the minority among North American Christians. The Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. is expected to become mostly Hispanic and Asian during the next 20 years.
Many years ago, the majority of all students in ATS accredited schools were white males who were taking weekday classes for predictable degrees. Today, women and ethnic students now each constitute about 25 percent of students at ATS member schools. However, the majority of students are either under 30 or over 50. This is surprising, but older adult students over 50 are the fastest growing demographic. Fewer students now actually attend a campus because they are most likely working adults pursing their theological education through distance education. Today, there are over 23,000 students enrolled in at least one distance education course. Over 130 ATS institutions now offer complete distance education programs.
Some of the most popular accredited degrees include the Master of Divinity, which prepares graduates for ordained ministry and pastoral leadership, and the Master of Religious Education (MRE), which prepares graduates to become teachers in AST accredited schools. The Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools ensures that theological and ministry students receive a quality education that will help them meet the needs of their parishioners and community.