A New Church and A New Seminary

Faultlines is a collection of resources intended to inform conversations around human sexuality within the United Methodist Church as the denomination prepares for the 2019 General Conference. The collection represents diverse perspectives and attempts to fill knowledge gaps around the debate, biblical foundations, theological arguments and the impact on The United Methodist Church and her people. Visit www.AbingdonPress.com/Faultlines for more information. The following is an excerpt from A New Church and A New Seminary: Theological Education Is the Solution.

It used to be said that there were more Methodist congregations in the United States than there were post offices—at least one in every zip code. Regardless of whether that was literally the case, United Methodists were, and still are, one of the most ubiquitous denominations in the United States. Like the postal system, these congregations are the result of a complex system of training and rapid deployment of personnel, an ability to move capital resources wherever needed, and a shared vision of mission and service. It’s a pity to see all of that withering on the vine. The denomination is worth saving, though not because of what it once was or because it’s too big to fail.

The United Methodist Church is worth saving if it can serve the present age guided by a vision of the kingdom of God, led by the example of Jesus, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit to make disciples of Jesus Christ who strive to make the earth more like heaven.

This is why I work in a United Methodist theological school. I believe our theological schools are critical to the renewal of our church. And, this is why I have written this book. It’s rooted in the aspirations of my seminary community—Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. The title, A New Church and a New Seminary, is taken from a case statement we developed at Wesley to envision our future as a new kind of seminary to help renew the church.

In my first year as a seminarian, working in the development office, I was seated at a banquet next to a woman who was thought able to make a substantial contribution to Wesley Seminary: Dr. Margaret Pittman, one of the first female researchers at what became the National Institutes of Health. I spent most of the evening trying to impress her with what a great place Wesley was. She finally, politely, interrupted me: “That’s fine, young man, but what are you doing about my church?” Her church, the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, was a shell of its former self, as were all the formerly large downtown churches. I ended up teaching her Sunday school class for fifteen years, and now, in that church, Wesley has a satellite location and student housing. It’s also where we have established our Institute for Community Engagement.

Her question became one of the three defining moments in my career. The other two were 9/11, which occurred as I was transitioning to lead Wesley Seminary, and the Great Recession, which came in the seventh year of my presidency and continued for another seven—the same time arc as in the dream Joseph interpreted for Pharaoh. These events instilled in me a sense of the dramatic urgency of this moment of crisis and the determination to act decisively.

After decades of failing to grasp the magnitude of our decline, United Methodists, including our theological schools, have finally and fully awakened to the crisis we face. This book is about how the church and its seminaries must work together to respond to this challenge.

Betty Beene, former head of the United Way and one of my mentors, once said about both of us, “We are frequently wrong but never in doubt.” She was only partially right, at least about me. I am often in doubt. But I find more is accomplished by proposing, then debating than by tentativeness. So I say some things bluntly, hoping to provoke strategic thinking and honest discussion.

This book is addressed primarily to United Methodists within the US because we have a set of issues we must resolve or we will never be the global church we aspire to be. I hope it will also be thought-provoking for those in the extended family of mainline Protestant denominations, as we are all experiencing similar challenges.

I don’t speak for all thirteen United Methodist seminaries. However, all of our seminaries are part of a broad consensus within The United Methodist Church that believes we are better together than apart. I cite many examples from my seminary because I know them. But each of our seminaries has exciting and inspiring initiatives to explore.

I refer to all graduate schools of theology by the generic word seminaries. Similarly, since those charged with leading free-standing seminaries are called “president” and “dean” if the school is related to a university, I will use the term CEO (Chief Executive Officer) for all of us. I alternate between the words pastor and clergy. While I understand the importance of the difference between those terms in our denomination, my intention is to speak mostly about the identified leader of congregations. Also, when I say “church” I often mean the denomination as a whole; when I say “congregation” it means a local church. But, as in the title of this book, “the church” often applies to both.

Finally, this book must address the presenting issue in my denomination, which is our bar to ordaining those people we legalistically refer to as “avowed, practicing homosexuals” and our ban on our clergy performing same-sex marriages. On the surface, our issue is homosexual practice. But I think this ignores the basic identity of millions of people. And so, I will use the acronym LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) to describe the people we are excluding. As United Methodist seminary CEO, I am asked two questions that I will address here in the beginning, aiming to set them aside for at least a while.

First, what is the view of the seminaries on the church’s position on LGBTQ rights? Seminary faculty differ, but I think there is some consensus. By law and the standards of academic communities, a seminary is required to practice nondiscrimination. We have spent many years trying to be inclusive communities, and we greatly value and protect all our students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification. But more to the point, I believe there is agreement that this focus involves a very selective use of scripture, while other issues of fidelity in sexual relationships are mentioned far more often in the Bible yet have not been raised as essential. To say nothing of the things we do or don’t do, contrary to scripture, which never get discussed at General Conference.

Why have LGBTQ people become the issue—our Battle of Gettysburg? It’s an important assumption of this book that this struggle is actually a symptom of frustration with years of membership decline, the feeling by conservatives that their values are being pushed to the margins of American culture, and the belief by both sides that this is an example of the way the church has departed from what God intends.

My view of the way forward is we require an unhappy compromise, what I would call the “annual conference option,” which recognizes matters of ordination and discipline of clergy are the responsibility of the clergy in each annual conference, not the general church. To be clear, if one of my children was in a same-gender relationship and asked me to perform the wedding, I would do so. Then I would turn in my clergy credentials. The reason I have not done this for anyone else is a mixture of cowardice and hope that we will come up with a different way to live together in this denomination.

The second question, Are there too many seminaries? Yes. And there are too many local churches and too many elders in full connection. We have too much capital tied up in our surplus of  congregations while forcing new and growing churches to bear most of the cost of their mortgages or maintenance. It’s just bad business and bad stewardship. But I don’t have a list of which seminaries should close. In this book, I offer instead a vision for what our seminaries offer and what we must change to address the fundamental cause of the church’s decline.

There’s nothing as deceptive as a problem wrongly stated. Our problem in The United Methodist Church isn’t the issue of LGBTQ people. Our problem isn’t even the decline in membership. Our problem isn’t what we do or say as a denomination. Our problem is this: Few people outside of the clergy and lay delegates to the annual conferences care what we do or say. I want the church to matter to people in the neighborhoods of our churches across the country, to my neighborhood (Washington, DC), and to the world. And I think seminaries are a key to solving that problem.

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