June has been a month filled with “church councils” where decisions were made that impact the future of The Wesleyan Church and theological education. While I’ve entitled this post “Decisions, Decisions…” I was tempted to name it “Discussions, Discussions…” While there at times seemed to be more of the latter, both are necessary as decision-makers gather to shape what is to come.
From June 2-6 I attended the quadrennial General Conference of The Wesleyan Church (GC-TWC) in Lexington, KY. On June 20-21 I attended the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) biennial conference in Minneapolis, MN. In between I spent a bit of time digging around in Acts 15, where the first recorded “conference” was held –and noted some parallels.
The Acts 15 Council took place around A.D. 49 (nearly 20 years after the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The precipitating cause for meeting? The Church in Jerusalem had accepted that Gentiles could be saved (11:18), but some believed the “Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (15:5) in order to be saved (15:1).
Now the conferences I attended were scheduled (GC-TWC every four years, ATS every two years), but they also faced some “precipitating cause” decisions generating plenty of discussion. For TWC, the desire for greater missional accountability led to a proposal to have one General Superintendent (vs. three) that reported to the General Board, and one executive team that reported to the General Superintendent – believing this streamlined organization would bring greater clarity of responsibility and opportunity for accountability. The delegates believed the same, and Dr. Joanne Lyon was voted in to that role and the executive team she recommended was elected.
For ATS, the members were seeking to update their standards to accommodate the innovation taking place in theological education. What we do here at Wesley Seminary at IWU would be an example – distance education, cohorts communicating online, intensives taking place in various places in the U.S. (Atlanta and Grand Rapids this past year) and globally (Auckland, New Zealand this past year). They wrestled, as accreditation bodies do, with how to ensure quality in the midst of increasing variety. And since Wesley Seminary at IWU was approved as an Associate Member (an important step in the overall accreditation process) we’re grateful their concern for quality was accompanied by the recognition of a need for greater flexibility.
Decisions were to be made with a great diversity of voices being heard than ever before. In Acts 15, the concerns of Gentiles as well as Jews were voiced. For GC-TWC, 51% were first-time delegates, and a younger crowd was in attendance, likely due in part to active pre-conference discussions such as those hosted by Groundswell on facebook. For ATS, their membership is more diverse ethnically and theologically than ever before.
All of them faced making critical missional decisions in the context of increasingly diverse constituencies. Like Acts 15, this month’s conferences included “much discussion” (7) and even some “sharp dispute…debate” (2). Like Acts 15, key influencers shaped the discussion (Peter, Barnabas, Paul, James) and drew upon their perceptions of how the Spirit was working (7-12) and what Scripture was saying (13-21) to make their points.
The Acts 15 Council decided to affirm the Gentiles genuine salvation and not to burden them (22-29). At the same time, there is a call for Gentiles to be sensitive to the convictions of the Jews, particularly when they are together in “table fellowship” settings (28-29). The GC-TWC affirmed important moral convictions (i.e. marriage is between one man and one woman), wrestled with the best way to approach membership, and committed to a “seven-pack” (Christian leaders living authentic Christian lives, believers filled with the Holy Spirit, ethnic diversity, urban urgency, church health, church planting, prayer) of theme for the years ahead. ATS approved standards that will permit Seminaries greater flexibility in seeking to equip leaders for ministry.
All faced a common challenge – determining what is “essential” and what is cultural or traditional. It’s a challenge we all face as we form personal convictions and join in community with other believers.
By the way, the conferences (General Conference and ATS, but I’d like to think the Acts 15 conference as well!) were very affirming of Wesley Seminary at IWU and the ways we innovatively seek to serve all ministry leaders with quality theological education that’s affordable, accessible and practical. I love it when that reality is part of both discussions and decisions.