A New Year Begins

For those of you who were not able to be on campus yesterday for the opening convocation of the 2014-15 seminary year, it was a special launch to our sixth year as a seminary together. Dr. Wayne Schmidt cast a wonderful vision as we look forward to the next five years and Joanne Solis-Walker delivered a stirring sermon calling us to think of the service as a “holy convocation” where God calls his people at a specific time and a specific place and sets his people apart. She urged us to see our studies this year as a holy task to which God has called us.

This year we have so many English and Spanish classes going that, for the first time, we are not able to have all of them under the seminary roof. My Bible class, nevertheless, is fully willing to make the trek from Maxwell over to the seminary building for refreshments!

Most of you will know by this time that the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) granted us full seminary accreditation last month. This has been a long process that was completed in just about the shortest possible time. We have always been accredited with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the regional accreditor of the university at large. But this added layer is the most respected accreditation in the theological world.

We give God thanks for such a wonderful report. It has personally brought moments of reflection to ask, what are the key factors in bringing us this far. Certainly the seminary has been bathed in prayer and prayerful leadership. No one can doubt that the regular prayer that goes on in Dr. Schmidt’s office and all over the church for the seminary are an important part of the blessing we have experienced.

At the same time, there are many prayerful, spiritual groups that do not experience growth perhaps in part because they do not have some of the important organizational features that usually accompany growth. I would just like to mention five features of these last five years that I believe have contributed in a very mundane way to the seminary’s growth. These are features that, I believe, often transfer to the growth of a church or other organization as well.

1. Enthusiasm
It can be hard to generate momentum and you have to keep feeding it for it to keep going. But once there is momentum, it is contagious. The seminary started with enthusiasm and that enthusiasm has never left.

Do you have people in your church who generate enthusiasm? People want to go to places where they sense things are happening.

2. Meets a Need
The seminary is blessed to offer its degrees at fairly inexpensive cost and it does so in a format that you can take all over the world. Meanwhile, its content focuses on what will most help you do the work of the ministry. There are vast numbers of ministers in the world who want added tools for ministry in a faith-friendly context. However, in my opinion, the majority of seminaries have catered to a kind of intellectual crowd while having little appeal to the vast majority of ministers in America.

Would someone outside your church find anything about it that they at least perceive themselves to want or need? True, sometimes people don’t know what they really need. But you can’t help them if they’re not there either.

3. Servant Attitude
Sometimes organizations make it hard to connect with them–or to stay with them. Some suicidal businesses make their customers work hard to get their products. Academic institutions can especially have a tendency to treat students like they are privileged to be able to give them their money. “If you are worthy,” is the feel, “we will let you come here.”

Such a demeanor may work for a Harvard, but it scarcely is working for the vast majority of seminaries right now. “The customer is always right” isn’t true, but a successful business had better make it as easy as possible for its customers to get its product if they want it.

These statements may sound crass and unspiritual, but I believe this is just the way it is. Does your church make it easy for people to come and stay? Do you make those who come within your church’s sphere of influence feel served?

4. Invested People
Some people do only the bare minimum and what is required. They may want to be rewarded for every last thing they do. Obviously an organization isn’t going to have many good people around for long if it takes advantage of its people. But, on the other side, a thriving organization will have the kind of people who are so enthused about what is going on that they have a spirit of volunteerism. A thriving organization has people who love what they are doing so much that they would almost do it even if you didn’t pay them.

Does your church have some people who are wired to do volunteer and pitch in? A good leader can model this in a way that it becomes contagious.

5. Spirit of Outreach
A crucial part of the seminary’s growth is its connection-making leader, Dr. Wayne Schmidt. He doesn’t wait for people to show up at the seminary’s door. He is constantly networking with churches to see if Wesley Seminary can meet their needs. Similarly, our admissions team embodies all the qualities I mentioned above–enthusiasm and an over-and-above servant spirit.

In the same way, a growing church is going to be a church that is making connections with people in its community. Who in your community needs something that your church can offer?

6. A Great Team
A friend once told me that an organization without a functioning infrastructure is like a statue whose feet are crumbling–no matter how solid the top part is, it is going to come crashing down. From another standpoint, you can only survive by the heroic efforts of a few for so long. Eventually they burn out.

One of the dynamics of the first five years of the seminary has been a gradual but steady increase in the kind of team that is necessary for things to function smoothly. We have come an incredibly long way in strengthening our infrastructure this last year especially–again, largely thanks to the leadership of Dr. Schmidt.

Years ago, this insight was applied to the growth of churches. A pastor who feels compelled to do everything (or who cannot find anyone willing to do anything) will never see his or her church grow much beyond the 100s. As the church grows–and in order for the church to grow–there has to be a corresponding growth in the support staff and the team.

We are again so thankful to the Lord for his blessing these first five years. We are thankful for our sacrificial faculty and team, for the support of the broader university, and for the support of the denomination. We do not take the future for granted. I hope that every student knows how privileged we feel to serve you!