John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)
United Methodists of all geographic regions and theological beliefs agree on the important of theological education for our clergy. But how much strategic leadership and faithful stewardship do we see where we pay for our clergy-in-training to go to seminary?
Despite denominational pressure and very powerful financial incentives, only about three fifths of American United Methodist ordained-ministers-to-be choose to attend one of the UMC’s 13 official seminaries in this country. These seminaries alone receive generous direct financial support through the apportioned offering-plate dollars sent to the denomination’s Ministerial Education Fund.
A relatively recent study confirmed that Asbury Theological Seminary—an independent, solidly evangelical seminary that stands firmly in the Wesleyan tradition and is dominated by evangelical United Methodists—remains the powerhouse among the non-UMC seminaries. Of the 417 United Methodists ordained in the United States in 2009, 61 completed their theological training at Asbury, more than any other single school. Put differently, among the most recent crop of new United Methodist ministers for which data is readily available, Asbury graduates constituted over 15 percent of the whole, over 40 percent of graduates of approved non-UMC schools, and more than seven of the official UMC seminaries (St. Paul School of Theology, the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, Boston University School of Theology, Drew University Theological School, Iliff School of Theology, Gammon Theological Seminary, and Claremont School of Theology) combined.
Revealingly, the same study found that all of the newly ordained UMC clergy in the Western Jurisdiction completed their theological training at one of the 13 official UMC seminaries, while the Southeastern Jurisdiction ranked last among the five jurisdictions in the percentage of its new clergy who attended one of the denomination’s own seminaries. On a related note, of the five jurisdictions, the tiny Western Jurisdiction is uniquely theologically radicalized and is the most rapidly declining in membership, while the Southeastern Jurisdiction is the most orthodox-leaning and is at least losing people at a much slower rate than the others.
And how have our general-level denominational leaders responded thus far? Rather than any widespread, systematic effort to address the serious problems with UMC seminaries that drive our denomination’s own seminarians elsewhere for their ministerial training, most of what we have instead seen is stubborn turf-protection. Since at least the 1990s, the University Senate has increasingly pared down the number of non-UMC seminaries approved for educating United Methodist seminarians, and been repeatedly accused of disproportionately targeting evangelical seminaries. Bishop Will Willimon, as a member of the University Senate and its Commission on Theological Education, at one point admitted that the then-recent round of abrupt, without-consultation cuts was about more than just the official rhetoric about such concerns as non-UMC schools being insufficiently equipped to train clergy in the United Methodist tradition. This move, Willimon indicated, was also designed to coerce more seminarians towards those official UMC seminaries that are struggling to otherwise attract students. Such thinking amounts to treating the church as having the purpose of serving the seminaries rather than the other way around.
To be fair, there are positive trends in some official UMC seminaries. For example, the two that provided the next-highest number of new UMC ordinands after Asbury, Duke Divinity School and Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, both have a number of notable orthodox faculty members.
But the fact of the matter is that official UMC seminarians drive away faithful Christian ministers-to-be who are interested and gifted in effective ministry when these schools do such things as hosting a “Queering the Church” conference, forcing out a president in large part for being “too theologically conservative or moderate,” hosting a United Methodist bishop denouncing the very Christian faith he was charged with upholding, have faculty who abuse their classroom power to promote the sex-outside-of-marriage cause, or even restructure themselves into a “multi-faith” seminary committed to the promotion of multiple religions while denouncing Christian evangelism.
Ordinarily, when a systematic pattern of poor leadership drives away potential students (and dollars), to the point that certain seminaries are, in Bishop Willimon’s words, “really struggling,” then its leaders would be all but forced to take responsibility for poor decisions, acknowledge that they way they have run things is not working, and take serious corrective actions, like hiring more evangelical faculty members and otherwise looking beyond the stiflingly narrow-minded, liberal-mainline myopia that is too often prevalent in official UMC seminaries.
But the University Senate’s general pattern in recent years of increasingly limiting the number of competitors to United Methodist seminaries amounts to shielding our church-funded ministerial training grounds from much-needed accountability.
If the members of the University Senate and its Theological Education commission for the 2013-2016 quadrennium are serious about strengthening our official United Methodist seminaries for the long run, they should not needlessly remove natural incentives for introspection and improvement in these seminaries.
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