Theological Renewal, The AFTE Effect

By Elizabeth Glass-Turner and Steve Beard

Richard B. Hays, Dean of Duke Divinity School and George Washington Ivey professor of New Testament. Scott Jones, United Methodist Bishop of the Kansas Area. Wade Paschal, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Tulsa with 9000 members. Tom Albin, Dean of the Upper Room Chapel. Rebekah Miles, associate professor of ethics at Perkins School of Theology. L. Gregory Jones, vice president and vice provost for global strategy at Duke University and professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. Ben Witherington, Amos professor of New Testament for doctoral studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of over 40 books. Steve Rankin, chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Ted Campbell, past president of Garrett-Evangelical Seminary and present associate professor of Church History at Perkins School of Theology. Wendy J. Deichmann, president of United Theological Seminary.

What do they all have in common? They have all been instrumental in the renewal of the United Methodist Church. They all possess a Ph.D. And all of their doctoral studies were made possible by annual grants from A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE).

Founded in 1977, AFTE is the creation of two regal figures within United Methodism who could hardly have been more different—Dr. Albert Outler, the erudite seminary professor who at the time was the world’s foremost authority on all things Wesleyan, and Dr. Ed Robb Jr., traveling evangelist and the day’s best known critic and reformer of the UM Church.

Ironically, this oddest of couples discovered that they had much in common. They both loved the church, treasured our Wesleyan heritage, and were greatly concerned about the state of theological education within the denomination. And they both felt that true renewal would never be possible or lasting if UM pastors were not trained in the great tradition of classical Wesleyan theology.

In the late 1970s, theological education within the United Methodist Church promoted old-school liberalism, process theology, and liberation theology in all its forms. About the only flavor missing from this Baskin-Robbins approach to theological education was orthodoxy—the classical teachings of the church proclaimed by the apostles and the early church fathers and accepted by believers all around the world for the past 2000 years.

Many UM seminaries at the time had few if any true champions of classic Wesleyanism. And students often left the ivory towers of religious education confused about what to proclaim, ill-prepared for the pastorate, and out of touch with the needs and the beliefs of the church members they were to shepherd.

Albert Outler and Ed Robb were vexed over the theological trends in the seminaries preparing United Methodist preachers and professors. They wanted something substantial and transformative that would provide long-term change. What they agreed upon was AFTE, a program designed to raise up a new generation of leaders.

The basic motivation came from John Wesley. “The Wesleyan tradition affirms both sound learning and vital piety,” explains Dr. Steve G.W. Moore, the senior program scholar of AFTE. “The idea behind AFTE, which Albert Outler and Ed Robb had together, was that those two things had to be held together; one of the key contributing factors was preparing faculty members and leaders for the United Methodist Church who would hold those two together, who wouldn’t let theological education or higher learning be separated from the vital life of the church.

“The circuit riders were given the Wesley library and were expected to read it. There was the belief that when you love the Lord God, the mind is a part of spiritual vitality and spiritual renewal,” Moore continues. “In the Wesleyan context, renewal is not just a matter of either intellectual development or sophisticated theological development—it’s really shaping the whole person and understanding that mind, spirit, body, worship, community, and theological education are not separate from the church, but are an integral part of the church. The vitality of one is directly tied to the vitality of the other.”

The mainstay of the organization is the John Wesley Fellows program, dedicated to aiding United Methodists pursuing doctorates by annually awarding up to five fellowships worth $10,000 each.

“When I first expressed interest in pursuing a Ph.D., a fellow student told me about AFTE and its mission,” explains Christine Johnson, a doctoral student at the University of Manchester. “She knew several professors who were Wesley Fellows and suggested that I look into the application process. What attracted me to AFTE was their obvious commitment to support evangelical theological education within the United Methodist Church. The more I learned about AFTE’s mission and theological commitments, the more excited I became about the potential of being a part of their work. I resounded with their desire to revitalize theological education with a greater emphasis on the classical Wesleyan tradition and was eager to network with other scholars who share similar faith commitments and interests.”

The total output of church resources from John Wesley Fellows is astonishing: in addition to teaching, preaching, and leading in a variety of capacities, an ever-expanding library of resources reflects the fruits of the investment AFTE makes in up-and-coming church leaders. For example, 21 scholarly contributors to the recent Wesley Study Bible were John Wesley Fellows—including the co-editor, Dr. Joel Green, Associate Dean for the Center for Advanced Theological Studies and Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Liberal seminary deans and presidents were skeptical at best when AFTE began its work. In fact, many were belligerent. One dean was quoted as saying that a John Wesley Fellow would become a member of his faculty only over his dead body. He has since passed on. Three of the Fellows are now professors at the seminary he once headed.

Over time, the credentials and the work of the AFTE students simply could not be dismissed. With degrees from schools like Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Chicago, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, their academic pedigrees were beyond question.

Presently, John Wesley Fellows hold positions at eight UM seminaries: Candler School of Theology, Claremont School of Theology, The Theological School at Drew University, The Divinity School at Duke University, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Perkins School of Theology, United Theological Seminary, and Wesley Theological Seminary. Outside official UM seminaries, they also serve as professors at Asbury Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary,  the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University, Luther Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, Seminario Evangelical Unido de Teologia, as well as numerous colleges and universities.

These scholars can be found teaching Christian Education, Christian Ethics, Evangelism, Higher Education/Administration, History, New Testament, Old Testament, Philosophy of Religion, Sociology of Religion, Spiritual Formation, Theology, Wesley Studies, and Worship/Liturgics.

“There is nothing harder to accomplish than systemic change,” reports Dr. David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. “I work in a seminary because I believe it is the best place to affect the future of the church and to profess the distinctive syntheses of the Wesleyan movement: personal and social holiness; knowledge and vital piety. But we depend upon a stream of new faculty to accomplish this kind of steady, sustained renewal. The John Wesley Fellows program has made an extraordinary difference by providing an ever-freshening pool of candidates I look to first for almost every open faculty position. This is change on a generational scale which is respectful of the processes and standards of graduate education but determined in its Wesleyan identity.”

Although John Wesley Senior Fellows—the alumni of the program—find classic Wesleyan theology in common, they represent culturally diverse viewpoints ranging from United Methodist renewal group partners to Sojourners leadership.

While AFTE has been instrumental in supporting emerging leaders in the United Methodist Church for several decades, its appeal continues to broaden as the pathways to ministry are reshaped. Moore notes the changes to traditional ministry preparation: “We’re in the midst of the development of multiple paths through which people can pursue a calling to serve the church in pastoral or an extension ministry of the church. I think the church has not completely adapted to the multiple ways that people may need to take to get there. One of our currently funded fellows started the process to seek ordination and it has taken him seven years, from the moment he started the candidacy process to the moment last summer he was ordained as an elder. So much of it was bureaucratic paperwork. The church has not yet adapted—it’s built on kind of an old, professional, corporate model, rather than on a leadership development model. So I think that the truth is the church is always going to be in need of people who are called to leadership.”

Behind the scenes influence. The long-lasting impact that AFTE brings to the United Methodist Church isn’t limited to academic resources or seminary contexts. Surprisingly, the organization that quietly provides scholarships to so many noted pastors, scholars, and leaders has a relatively low profile. Rather, it is content to let its voice be heard through the endeavors of men and women such as Dr. Amy Laura Hall, Dr. Khiok-Khng Yeo, Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison, Dr. Jerry Walls, Dr. Joy Moore, and Dr. Lester Ruth, to name just a few.

Executive Director Paul Ervin notes that he became familiar with the organization through the late Bishop Earl Hunt, a founding trustee of AFTE. “The thing that most surprised me was how effective it is and how little known it is,” says Ervin. “We’ve just always been very quiet, and have seen that as an asset—that John Wesley Fellows were focused on their mission, not attention. But it did surprise me, how effective AFTE is and how many places these scholars are at work.”

Ervin shares that one of the most gratifying things to watch is the John Wesley Fellows’ quiet but deep involvement in the local church. “As a layperson, I’m interested in a theological education that will primarily look to train people who will be pastors in our local churches and teachers in seminaries. Because of that, I think that it’s important that the training they get gives them roots so they can lead their flock to the Lord. The thing that really impressed me about AFTE is that I’ve seen where they’re all involved in their local church, which is not always the case with professors in seminaries.”

The quiet effects of AFTE’s mission constantly emerge in unexpected places. Moore relates the story of visiting in his office with the head of a seminary in Africa. As they talked, Moore learned that two John Wesley Fellows had recently been to the seminary to teach, as guest professors, without pay. “I continue to be amazed at the creativity of our young, emerging fellows,” said Moore. “They’re creative, thoughtful, very deeply committed, and I marvel at it.”

Despite its low profile, AFTE has awarded over $2.5 million in grants since its inception in 1977. The organization does have a small endowment, but most of its resources dedicated to funding scholarships come from individual donors, many of whom have benefited from AFTE over the years. And it is this very camaraderie that draws students to AFTE in the first place.

Theological fellowship. Every winter, current and former John Wesley Fellows gather for their popular Christmas Conference. Part alumni reunion, part theological colloquium, part networking opportunities, the Christmas Conference provides fellowship, training, and brainstorming. This year’s Christmas Conference included plenary addresses on subjects like “The Future of Theological Education” as well as papers presented by, and responded to by, current and Senior Fellows.

Moore, himself a John Wesley Senior Fellow, describes the passionate exchanges that occur at the Christmas Conference and other gatherings. “To see our senior fellows mentoring and advising the funded fellows is really exciting to watch. It is the best of what the ‘community of scholars’ is about. It is also fun to see ideas that are launched at a Christmas Conference later become articles, books, presentations at national conferences, and especially completed dissertations!”

Moore continues, “it amazes me that when we ask the fellows, ‘what’s the most valuable thing that you’ve gained from being a John Wesley fellow?’ they all are appreciative of the scholarship—it helps them get through and complete their work. But they all talk about the fellowship—they’re part of a community of learners who are committed to real, vital, spiritual life, very thoughtful, historical, biblical commitments, and to community.”

In your mailbox. While AFTE may keep a relatively low profile, it should be familiar to seminary students: every United Methodist seminary student, regardless of the school they attend, receives a free subscription to Catalyst, AFTE’s quarterly publication dedicated to encouraging the academic and intellectual development of United Methodist students.

Ervin explains that Catalyst is “really to help encourage and push creative thinking, to think, ‘hey, I enjoy this deeper reading, I’d like to know more, maybe I’d like to consider getting a Ph.D.’ So it’s not just layperson reading, though a number of laypeople read it; it’s to support seminarians who are going through their education; it’s helpful for them to know that there are people out there who also are thinking creatively in the areas of Wesleyan theology.” Each issue of the Catalyst includes articles such as “Jesus in the Apocryphal Gospels” and “A Profile: Phoebe Palmer.”

Perhaps no other organization has influenced United Methodist theological training more than AFTE has in recent decades. The expected trickle-down of influence envisioned by Albert Outler and Ed Robb is now emerging all the clearer as students who were trained by the first John Wesley Fellows are now preparing mentees of their own. The AFTE family tree continues to grow new branches—and its fruit can be found in your own backyard.

“My father always believed it was better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” says Edmund Robb III, chairman of the AFTE Board of Directors and senior pastor of The Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. “Looking at his life, he lit many candles that have reformed and renewed the United Methodist Church, but I think he might be proudest of AFTE. Its present influence and its potential to impact theological education for decades to come is hard to overestimate.”

To inquire about becoming a John Wesley Fellow or to make a donation to AFTE, contact Mr. Paul Ervin, Executive Director, P.O. Box 238, Lake Junaluska, NC 28745 (paulervin@prodigy.net). Phone: 828-456-9901. Catalyst subscriptions are available to the public for $5 annually. For more information, visit www.johnwesleyfellows.org or www.catalystresources.org.

Elizabeth Glass Turner is a freelance writer who has contributed to multiple online and print publications. She has an essay in the forthcoming “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy.” Elizabeth currently resides in a multigenerational household with her husband and 11-month-old son.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

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