By Thomas Lambrecht –
In a ground-breaking development, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, this week announced the formation of a Wesley House of Studies at its Baptist-oriented Truett Theological Seminary.
Dr. William J. Abraham has been named the inaugural director to establish this new center of pastoral training at a Division-I university reaching students from 90 countries. It will be able to combine the resources of a school solidly committed to an orthodox, evangelical understanding of scriptural Christianity with the dynamic Wesleyan tradition.
“We are on the cusp of a new day for the future of the Wesleyan network of families across the world,” Abraham said. “In order to fulfill the promise in store for us, we urgently need fresh ways of providing the spiritual, practical, and intellectual resources that are essential for the work up ahead.
“Baylor University is a world-class institution, and the creation of a Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary is a landmark development,” he said. “I can think of no better place to be home to a vibrant Wesley House. I am thrilled to play my part in making it a stellar center of excellence that the Holy Spirit can use for reform, renewal, and awakening on a global scale.”
The significance of this development can hardly be overstated. It is in part a response to the acknowledgement that, in general, our United Methodist seminaries have failed the church. That is an overgeneralization, to which there are exceptions, but the truth remains that our seminaries as a whole have not formed a generation of clergy leaders who have led the church to growth and vitality.
In the words of leadership guru John Maxwell, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” The fact is that our denomination in the U.S. has experienced a consistent decline in membership since 1968 and a more recent drastic decline in participation. Membership in the U.S. is down over 37 percent. United Methodists in 1970 made up 5.8 percent of the U.S. population, but now it is less than half that percentage. Dozens of churches close every year. There are many factors that play into this decline, but one of the most significant is the leadership provided by the 30,000 clergy persons in our denomination. Some are highly effective, but many are not.
In my experience, a major reason for clergy ineffectiveness is the training that is offered to our pastors. Most United Methodist seminary preparation gives insufficient attention to United Methodist doctrine, biblical studies, preaching, and the practice of ministry. Although some steps have been taken to address the need, there is also insufficient mentoring and supervision for clergy in the first ten years of their active ministry after seminary.
Regarding theology and doctrine, nearly all of our UM seminaries take a pluralistic approach. Rather than teaching theology from the viewpoint of our UM doctrinal standards (the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith), seminaries are teaching a liberal/progressive theology that downplays or even contradicts our Wesleyan doctrinal foundation. The message that is often proclaimed in our pulpits is a nebulous theology that may be unobjectionable but is also uninspiring and undemanding. Too often, it seems as though the Wesleyan message of the need for personal salvation and the urgency to return to God through the crucified and risen Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit is replace by a message about how we can make our world a better place through living better lives personally and advocating for a particular kind of political change in our country.
Unfortunately, most of our UM seminaries have become inhospitable environments for students who believe in the primary authority of the Bible and in the validity of our Wesleyan doctrinal heritage. Teaching of the Bible is often destructive rather than constructive. One seminary leader once described the goal of the seminary to deconstruct the faith of its students before putting that faith back together in a new way.
In my experience, UM seminaries are often better at the former than the latter. Students are given many reasons to question the historical accuracy and divine inspiration of the Bible. They are taught that scholars can be the arbiters of what parts of the Bible should be accepted and what parts relegated to irrelevance. Certain key passages are lifted up as the parts of biblical teaching to emphasize, and the Bible is read in light of modern experience, rather than allowed to speak with its own voice — the voice of God. The ability to do proper exegesis and discern the validity of various interpretations of Scripture are often not emphasized. As a result, we have heard from people in the pews that their pastors seem unable to “correctly handle the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). Many sermons end up being the pastor’s opinion, perhaps quoting from some recent books they have read, rather than winsomely communicating the teaching of Scripture with passion and power.
There is no question that a prospective pastor cannot learn all they need to know about the practice of ministry in seminary. It takes years of experience and the input and guidance of more experienced pastors to learn how to do ministry. However, seminary can teach the basics and how to think through issues pastorally and theologically. Unfortunately, many seminaries seem unable to do even this, and many pastors make decisions based on “gut feelings” or what might be least offensive to others, rather than being informed by Scripture, theology, and the tradition and experience of the church.
The onset of Covid-19 has upended higher education in general and theological education and the practice of ministry in particular. Suddenly, pastors are being asked to do ministry in ways they were not taught in seminary. Seminaries are being forced to offer education in ways that they were not designed to offer, emphasizing online education and revamping the curriculum to deal with the new ways of doing church. Where previously seminaries have been dipping their toes in the water of online pastoral training, they are now being forced to bodily dive in. The whole model of pastoral training is up for reexamination, and the business model that supported seminary education may not survive the pandemic. In addition, seminaries have seen a drastic decline in the number of students interested in a traditional, three-year on-site seminary education.
In the midst of this ferment in pastoral training, a new Methodist denomination is being prepared. If the 2021 General Conference enacts a plan of separation such as the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, the need for trained pastors in the new denomination will be acute. I am encouraged by the directions that are being developed by those tasked with preparing the skeleton of a new paradigm for pastoral training.
As previously reported by the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the process of ordination may be dramatically shortened, so that nearly every local church will have an ordained clergy person to serve as its pastor. At the same time, there is a commitment to an educated clergy who may be prepared for effective ministry in a variety of ways. In addition to a traditional seminary education, provision would be made for a more comprehensive Course of Study leading to elder’s orders and a hybrid online/in-person program for obtaining a seminary degree. Some of these learning environments are more suitable for combining experiential learning, mentoring, and classroom learning that might lead to greater pastoral effectiveness.
Significantly, the commitment to an educated clergy is being backed up by the intention to provide denominational loans to prospective pastors attending seminary before and during their pastoral service. In return for serving as pastors in the new denomination, those loans would be forgiven over time. The goal is to both incentivize continued education and growth and to eliminate the problem of seminary student debt. Considerable financial resources from apportionments will be needed to ensure effective clergy leadership for the future. Such resources would not go toward blanket grants to schools, but be used to directly support individual students at whatever approved seminary they attend.
Not only will existing seminaries need to shift how they do pastoral training, but there may be a need for new training programs and seminaries that foster education that is biblically based and promotes our traditional Wesleyan understanding of the faith. The new Wesley House at Baylor is one example of this trend. In countries outside the United States, there will be a need to strengthen and further equip existing Methodist seminaries and start new ones where there are none, as well as offer the same support to students preparing for the ministry as that offered to U.S. students.
New developments like the Wesley House at Baylor and new models for pastoral training envisioned by the Wesleyan Covenant Association for a new Methodist denomination give me great hope that God will raise up and equip effective clergy leaders for the next generation to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and build his church across the globe. It will be gratifying to be part of a growing, dynamic church once again!
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.