UMC Proposals threaten Academic Relevance post-2012I 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:
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 other proposed change in paragraph 335 is an addition which currently reads: AND FURTHER, THAT INSTRUCTORS, FACULTY AND SYLLABI IN MISSION, WORSHIP, EVANGELISM, UNITED METHODIST HISTORY, UNITED METHODIST DOCTRINE AND UNITED METHODIST POLITY SHALL BE APPROVED BY A PROCESS SET UP AND ADMINISTERED BY THE COMMISSION ON THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION AND THE GENERAL BOARD OF HIGHER EDUCATION AND MINISTRY. THE COURSE IN UNITED METHODIST POLITY WILL INCLUDE A LEADERSHIP COMPONENT AND A FOCUS ON THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH’S MISSION STATEMENT IN PARAGRAPHS 120-122.
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.”
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 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.
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.