What a great day we had!
I spent a day hanging out with one of our Seminary students (who also happens to be our Director of Admissions!), one of my favorite people in the world: Nathan Lamb. We spent time together in Indianapolis as well as on our way to and from there.
There, through the gracious invitation of Rev. Deborah Lightfoot, we participated in the Indiana Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. While serving as a pastor in Grand Rapids my life was greatly enriched through African American ministry colleagues as we spent time together in fellowship and worship, and so I had been looking forward to this possibility with brothers and sisters in the AME.
With our Seminary being connected to The Wesleyan Church we have something in common with the AME. We are very similar doctrinally, both having our roots in Methodism. We also have some similarities historically, in that both denominations were born out of issues related more to social justice than to theological issues (though good theology informs social concerns). The AME was born in 1816 when its founders were denied the opportunity to worship in predominantly white congregations, and the Wesleyan Methodist Connection came to be in 1843 as Wesleyan abolitionists took a stance against slavery. So the AME has a special place in our hearts.
We arrived for roll call. As each name was called, the delegate would stand and enthusiastically quote a Scripture verse. We’d heard dozens of verses from Old and New Testament shared by the time attendance was taken. We loved how they integrated Scripture into the most procedural of matters!
Then we sang…hymns and songs familiar to us, yet with a passion that made it clear that it was the heart, not the vocal cords, that were the origin. There is something powerful about the familiar being experienced with a whole new expression of emotion.
We heard a message from God’s Word by the Reverend Pamela Horn…wow! An appropriate text from Nehemiah was chosen, and her content-rich, carefully crafted message was delivered with every ounce of her being. The rhythmic structure of the message and the responsiveness of the audience combined to cause the truth to settle deep into my soul.
At lunch we were invited to sit at the “Bishop’s Table.” There is something almost majestic about the sense of propriety and respect given to leadership in the AME. Bishop John Richard Bryant was a gracious host, and was intensely interested in our approach to Seminary education. Most AME pastors are bi-vocational, and the idea of “going away to Seminary” is a virtual impossibility. When he heard that our Seminary education was delivered in one-week intensives and online format he saw how the value the AME places on ministerial education (they now require a M.Div. degree for ordination as an Itinerant Elder) could connect to the realities of the ministry contexts in which most of their leaders labor so energetically.
I love it when there is a collision and congruence of values! Their value on ministerial preparation while staying engaged in their local churches as a ministry laboratory beautifully merges with our value to serve a wider diversity of students (in gender, ethnicity and denominations) nationally and internationally as we seek to be a premier practice-oriented Seminary.
Nathan and I talked on the drive home about the effectiveness of the Bishop’s leadership. He was so affirming of pastors and lay leaders while stretching their vision of how they can prepare and who they can become in ministry. The Bishop exhibited strong administrative governance while fully infusing it with a spiritual fervor that challenged even those of us not part of their business deliberations to be more fully devoted to Christ.
And the fellowship was rich. Being the only Anglos in the room reminded us of what it means to be part of a gathering that is overwhelmingly another ethnicity (a very good experience for those in the “dominant culture” to have on a regular basis), and yet we felt at home among believers who went out of their way to make us feel included.
Bishop Bryant must have appreciated our time with them as well. He publicly affirmed Wesley Seminary and recommended it to those present, and invited us to attend their next gathering in Chicago.
So we left looking forward to another great day…