Theological Education is not just about Doctrine #CallToAction

UMC Proposals threaten Academic Relevance post-2012

I am a product of the United Methodist education system. I attended a United Methodist undergrad and a United Methodist theological school. I received MEF funds from the Conference and the Denomination. I have been shaped and owe a great deal to the UM education and ministry-preparation system and I oppose anything that would water it down or narrow its focus to irrelevant ends. So, that disclaimer given, here’s what’s up:

I received the prepared remarks given by retired Bishop Neil Irons to the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools earlier this month, which is composed of the presidents/deans of the thirteen US-based UM schools of theology. The remarks pertain directly to theological education in the UMC after 2012 if the proposals from the Call To Action-affiliated entities pass.

This gives a clear understanding of exactly what these proposals address in Theological Education. It is threefold:

  • Seminarians are required to take three courses in UM-specific classes (up from two classes previously) and the syllabi and the instructors of the classes required for ordination (mission, worship, and evangelism in addition to the UM-specific classes) be subject to approval by the UM bureaucracy.
  • Seminaries in the Central Conferences will have their own designated apportionment to increase theological education outside the USA. It does not indicate where the $5m starting amount will be taken from or if it is an increase in apportionments.
  • The University Senate would become only the submitting body for the Seminaries, while scrutiny of syllabi, instructors, and approval for seminaries would lie with the Commission on Theological Education. Currently the University Senate (a much larger body than the CTE) makes those decisions.

The Bishop’s comments at the end indicate the following (these are my words)

  • An uneasiness with the about-face of seminary goals from training many avenues of ministry to becoming focused mainly on ordained ministry. It is an insult to the varieties of ministry and a viewing of non-ordination-track seminarians as even more second-class than they already feel. Not all of ministry happens behind the pulpit but for a cash-strapped denomination looking for more apportionments, I can cynically see why they’d want to focus theological education on a narrower slice of kingdom-building.
  • Theological Education ought to mean more than a focus on one’s own tradition but a greater appreciation for both (a) the diversity of theology, mission, and church history and (b) academic freedom to engage issues on a theological plane not uniformly shared across Methodism. By subjecting that to harsher guidelines, we risk a myopic approach to theology that will stunt future leaders as they engage a changed world from the 1970s that the approving bodies probably took seminary in (Boom!).
  • Central Conferences absolutely need theological education. Showing my own preference, given that the more UM-approved education one receives, the more progressive and contextual seminarians tend to be, I’m all about it. But I hope we are not taking money from UM seminaries and putting it overseas without similar (not identical by any means!) thumbscrews of doctrinal concern that we are putting on the US-based seminaries.

So below are the quoted remarks from Bishop Neil Irons (retired), the Executive Secretary of the Council of Bishops. The only changes are readability ones: “” to indicate different sections and bolded lines that I thought important:

Report to AUMTS, October 13, 2011
My report to you is comprised of two sections. The first section consists of sharing with you the legislative recommendations going to the General Conference from the Council of Bishops’ Task Force on Theological Education. The recommendations are substantive and reflect a rather sharp turn in the road between the Council of Bishops and AUMTS should General Conference pass them without alteration.
The first proposed change would alter paragraph 335 in the Book of Discipline in the following ways. Educational requirements for those seeking admission to full connection and ordination SHALL INCLUDE A MINIMUM OF THREE (not two) SEMESTER OR FIVE QUARTER HOURS IN EACH OF THE FIELDS OF UNITED METHODIST HISTORY, DOCTRINE, AND POLITY …).
The rationale for the above reads: “The United Methodist Church should have a stronger voice in determining the adequacy of the United Methodist ethos present in the theological education of its leaders and should have more input into the curriculum at United Methodist seminaries and approved seminaries.”
The second proposed legislative change would be a new paragraph following paragraph 816 in the Discipline. In short, this proposal would create a Central Conference Theological Education Fund apportioned to the annual conferences. This fund would be used for several purposes, including development of theological schools, a course of study, libraries and contextually developed resources, scholarships and faculty and innovative pedagogical approaches in the Central Conferences.
Per the legislation, the policies and procedures for this fund shall be determined by a Commission on Central Conference Theological Education, the membership to be elected by the Council of Bishops. Said Commission shall approve disbursements from this fund. The Commission will include at least one person from each Episcopal area outside the United States, as well as members of the Council of Bishops, members of Boards of Ordained Ministry, representatives of theological schools, and representatives from GBHEM and GBGM.
It is recommended that this fund be established at five million dollars for the 2013-2016 quadrennium, and that the fund be administered by GBHEM.
The final major recommendation going to General Conference from the TFTE has as its intent severing the disciplinary ties between the Commission on Theological Education and the University Senate. Under this change, the University Senate will only determine which schools, colleges and universities will meet the criteria for listing as institutions affiliated with the United Methodist Church.
The new Commission on Theological Education in the United States would be composed of up to 12 members elected by the Council of Bishops, and would include three persons with expertise in theological education nominated by AUMTS, three persons nominated by GBHEM and three bishops. Up to three additional persons may be elected by the COB for inclusivity or expertise. Funds for the Commission shall be provided by the World Service Fund and administered by GBHEM which shall also provide staff support. Their task would be to have authority to approve schools of theology for educating persons for ordination as elders and deacons and election as members in full connection for annual conferences in the United States. The Commission would also work with GBHEM to develop processes for reviewing faculty, curriculum and syllabi for courses in UMC history, doctrine and polity, worship, evangelism and mission.
The rationale for the establishment of a separate Commission on Theological Education in the United States is based on the assumption that the essential role of theological education in the formation of principled Christian leaders requires greater focus. A Commission separate from the University Senate would strengthen the Church’s voice in theological education.
Let me share with you a few reflections on the above legislative proposals. First, I am not convinced that United Methodist polity requires three semester hours of study or its equivalent. And, I am convinced that courses in history and doctrine, if this is approved, should be taught contextually within a broader historical and theological framework than just Wesleyan study. Perhaps this is done already. The requirement that the Commission would establish a process for approving instructors, faculty and syllabi in mission, worship, evangelism and HDP seems to suggest that our schools are only educating students for UMC ordination and full connection, whereas I think there is a broader focus in the theological schools on learning and learners beyond ordination tracks.
Personally, I want to be certain that our UMC students are not just introduced to but are being grounded and formed in the classical disciplines of biblical studies, theology, and history. If we are serious about making disciples for the transformation of the world, then focus, also, on those anthropological, sociological and ecological insights into what is shaping the world for the future has to be a part of theological purpose as well. After all, God’s love is focused on the whole world and not just the organized church. And I have some angst about the UMC approving faculty and altering curricula when the UMC is paying less than 20 per cent of the seminary costs.
On a more positive note, attention to theological education outside the United States does deserve more attention from the General Conference. As you know, this is more complicated than the U.S. situation, and it may be past time to begin this commitment to theological education outside the U.S. My only hope is that it is not done with a Robbing Peter to Pay Paul mentality.
Of course, one of these recommendations increases the role of bishops in theological education. If this is done, then bishops who are trustees of UMC theological schools should be required to be in attendance at all Boards of Trustees’ meetings. As the Council of Bishops takes on a larger role in the governance of seminaries, then perhaps bishops who are trustees should be trained in their expanded duties, and conversely the seminaries should provide training as to their expectations of episcopal trustees. One final thought: If the UMC is going to take a major role in faculty and course approval, then should not we, the COB, be lobbying for increasing the MEF significantly.

I wonder what my seminary experience would have been like if I had taken it in a bubble, focusing only on United Methodist-related stuff, engaging only UM classmates, learning only what some old white guys at a UM bureacracy office wanted me to learn, and ignoring all the other classes and perspectives as irrelevant to my needs…and then became a pastor who sent more apportionments to the UMC. If I had, then I suspect that’s what the proposed changes in the United Methodist Church have in mind as an ideal seminary situation.

In short, I see this as an extension of our cautionary blog post back in May “Call to Action: Executive Authority as Crisis Management” as the scrutiny of seminary studies are placed under fewer people with a narrower focus of training pastors rather than the entirety of ministry and mission. Ironically one of the changes is for seminary classes to study the UM Mission Statement of paragraphs 120-122, which include:

¶ 122. The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission—We make disciples as we:

  • proclaim the gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ;
  • lead persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ;
  • nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley’s Christian conferencing;
  • send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel; and
  • continue the mission of seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the community of the body of Christ.

Tell me how the above can be accomplished only by pastors of churches and without the breadth of ministry that we undertake now. Tell me how we can address the changing world with relevant theologies not stuck in the Middle Ages.

I predict we will be under-equipped to respond to a diverse world past 2012 if these proposals pass. I encourage delegates (not representatives) to discern whether a smaller disciplinary group and a smaller focus is appropriate for a bigger world than any of our forebears had to experience.


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  1. Kirt Moelling says

    Very much agreed, Jeremy. Moving more and more toward a corporate model with a “Methodism alone” (as interpreted by a select few) mantra gives me grave concern. Absent seeing something else that persuades otherwise, I’m going to encourage defeat of the proposals. But it is still early…

  2. says

    I’m confused by the cry of “Methodism alone.” Out of a 70 to 90 hour MDiv the requirement will now be 9 hours instead of 6. That sounds like there is still lots of room for other stuff.

    At a non-UM, but Senate approved, seminary in Indiana, the UMC has had years of trouble because the UM courses were not good. The then-chair of the BOM told me that the BOM had significant problems because graduates from that seminary were coming out unable to articulate Wesleyan theology in any meaningful way or connect it in practical ways to the church.

    Maybe this is not a problem at Duke, but these proposals appear to be aimed at more than just the 13 UM-affiliated seminaries if I read your post properly.

    I certainly don’t see a bubble being constructed.

    Review of courses, syllabi, and instructors could raise some concerns, but only if you assume sinister or myopic motives by the denomination. The proposal appears to call for a process of review to be set up. The devil will be in the details. I can’t imagine the CTE would impose a “Methodist” only approach on courses that are designed for students from various denominations. If the requirements get too high, seminaries will stop taking UM students to be free of the requirements. Real world give-and-take will moderate any bad motives you suspect.

    Accreditation and review are a fact of life and a regular part of academic life. I’m not sure why the UMC wanting a deeper involvement with the formation of its future clergy is necessarily a bad thing.

  3. says

    We’re wicked Methodist. We took UM-specific classes from UM professors at a UM seminary – and this proposal doesn’t sound very United Methodist at all!

    Come on, Council of Bishops’ Task Force on Theological Education! Y’all should know better. The world is our parish! If we don’t train our future leaders – ordained *and* lay – how diverse people understand themselves and the world around them, then our ministers will be ill-equipped to reach new disciples. No use preaching the Good News if no one can understand a word you’re saying.

  4. says

    I am not as concerned with the slight, and potentially valuable, increase of courses in the fundamentals of Methodist thoughts and practices. I do have a problem with enormous amount of responsibility the council of bishops again wants to remove from a larger legislative body and hand over to a smaller chosen group, in this case the CTE.

  5. says

    Having graduated from seminary a short six months ago, I can attest that my worship, evangelism, mission, and UMC classes were *already* taken “in a bubble.” I went to a UM seminary with decent diversity — 25% U.S. students of color, 10% international, 50% UM, 60% pan-Methodist —- and those stats benefited all of the classes in the regular curriculum.

    However, most of the international students and students of color were in non-UM denominations. This meant that for our denominational classes we retreated into a white male heterosexual bubble.

    For example, no one took evangelism unless we were UM-ordination-track and it was required. For that reason, it was the only seminary course I took in three years where the students were 100% white, majority male, and mind-numbingly insular.

    The professor, to his credit, was engaging, competent, and offered an international perspective.

    I’m sure that the student experience will get even better when even the professor is denied academic freedom in designing the class.

  6. says

    And John, mandating an extra three hours out of the seminary curriculum does take away quite a lot from the seminary curriculum! I hardly had any electives because I was so weighed down with curricular and denominational requirements — if I hadn’t been able to double up some of those requirements (e.g., taking a sociology of religion course that also fulfilled a race/ethnicity requirement), then I would not have been able to graduate in three years.

    I wish the denomination would stop mandating extra courses and instead work WITH seminaries to evaluate how we are best training people for the pastorate (if that is, in fact, where students are headed).

    The sexual ethics proposal (coming from the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women) is much closer to a model I think we should pursue in each of these areas:

    This is one of the conclusions of the petition: “Seminaries have a great deal of flexibility to contextualize the ways in which these learning goals are reached. Each seminary has the freedom to shape its curricula and courses in ways that best suit the structures of the particular seminary. These guidelines do not specify an additional three-semester-hour course for ordination (although this is one possible way to meet the objectives listed above) but rather that the objectives be achieved throughout the entire professional degree (MDiv) or five-year Course of Study. It is intended that seminary administrators will coordinate how these topics will be covered across different academic courses and how each of these competencies and goals will be achieved throughout either track.”

    This entire document was developed by GCSRW through conversation with seminary faculty & administrators, seminary consultants, and GBHEM.

    Somehow I doubt that the proposal listed above was developed in consultation with the affected groups…


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