Pre-history of Wesley Seminary

The first meeting of the seminary board started last night and Stan Hoover, the board chair, invited Keith Drury, Russ Gunsalus, and myself to sketch out the story of how the seminary came together and, in particular, its curriculum.  After dinner, President Smith shared a little of the two previous task forces that explored such a creation.  He mentioned the exploration with Wesley Biblical Seminary of having a branch campus up here (2005) and Keith Drury’s memorable statement at the time, “Do we want to play our seminary card on a branch campus of another seminary?”  He spoke of the informal meetings he convened in the summer of 2006 for coffee talk at his and Dr. Bud Bence’s house.  He spoke of a meeting he had for dinner with the then General Superintendents of The Wesleyan Church.

Then Keith, Russ, and I told the rest of the pre-history in a conversational, stream of consciousness way, moving from historical markers to current design and practice.  Why did we design it the way we did?  But here I want to give a sketch of the more historical sequence.

In the summer and Fall of 2006 there was a plethora of emails exchanged among us at IWU.  I remember one statement I made at the time, “Real denominations have seminaries.  Either let’s found one or go join a real denomination.” Russ Gunsalus was then Chair of the Department of Graduate Religion within the College of Graduate Studies.  He convened some informal groups to do some research and thinking.  In the Fall, David Smith, chair of the undergraduate Division of Religion and Philosophy convened the division and he and Russ led the division to a unanimous affirmation of core values for a seminary (missional/kingdom focused, accessible, application focused, spiritually formative, innovative, value adding, high quality teaching and learning, global).  Bob Whitesel, the sole Grad Min faculty at the time, also approved the values. 

President Smith also brought in Bill Miller of the Association of Theological Schools to discuss our dreams.  We found out very helpful information on trends.  For example, TATS had accredited a 72 hour MDIV.  Since then, a number of schools (Princeton, NTS) have moved to a 75 hour MDIV.  An informal research agenda was in process, with Russ investigating some of the things being discussed by the Association of Theological Schools (e.g., their Alelon conference).  He initiated surveys at youth conventions (the FUEL survey), and eventually among alumni.  These surveys provided a sense of what practicing ministers were looking for in ministerial education or alternatively, what they had not found very helpful in their seminary education (e.g., Greek).

In the Summer of 2007, the President appointed me as chair of an MDIV Task Force, whose members were myself, Russ Gunsalus, Keith Drury, David Smith, and Norman Wilson.  That summer we met several times to design the curriculum.  Initially, President Smith did not want the investigation housed in CGS so that there was no assumption of where the seminary would be housed in the structure of the university.   I also met informally with the then General Superintendents of The Wesleyan Church for dinner. 

We looked at benchmark institutions, of which Bethel in Minnesota and Asbury were probably our two closest benchmarks, although Northwest Nazarene also was of interest.  Asbury at the time was one of the leading edge institutions in the Association of Theological Schools.  It was pushing the requirements for residency to 1 year out of 3 (most TATS schools were only allowed 1 online year at the time).  Bethel had a program where you came to campus for intensive classes as your residency requirement.  Their “in ministry” program may have been one of the sparks for one of the key features of our design–not only to allow for students to be in ministry but to require and leverage it!

So the genius of this group went to work.  We wanted to address the kinds of things people say about seminary: “I didn’t learn in seminary the things I actually needed to know in ministry,” “I had a vibrant faith before I went to seminary, then it went flat,” “I’d like to go to seminary but who has three years to take off and move somewhere,” “I had so much debt after training to be a minister that I couldn’t afford to take a church,” “My courses in seminary didn’t connect to each other–my Bible profs never talked to my preaching profs.”

We wanted it to be local church focued–we were sick of the Barna trend away from the local church.  Our focus would not be training professors or para-church leaders, at least not in the MDIV.  (These would eventually become the new focus of the old MA program)  The MDIV was to train pastors and we would require our students to be connected to a local church.  They would have to be at least 20 hours a week in local church ministry to get into our program.  We have of course recognized since program start that there are individuals we must serve who are hospital and military chaplains.  We have expanded the basic requirement to a local body of worshipping believers recognizing your ministry as an extension of their identity and being able to do the local church assignments of the course.  So they would bring their church to seminary and the seminary would come to their church.

Probably the most distinctive idea was to weave Bible, theology, and church history into the practical subjects rather than to have stand alone courses in topics.  We gathered all the topics of the practice of ministry into six headings: Mission (including evangelism, service, church planting, and classical missions), Leadership (including administration and management), Worship, Proclamation, Congregational Spiritual Formation (including CE), and Congregational Relationships (including pastoral care).  I believe it was Keith that had the biggest “aha” moment in the whole process when he suggested we might fold the foundational courses into the practical courses and have 6 big “praxis” courses.  That was the Copernican moment, with four of us sitting downstairs in student chairs in a classroom in the abandoned campus of summer in May. 

I early on suggested team teaching–bringing a Bible, theology, etc. person into the practical course.  We didn’t think it would work practically at first.   Later Russ and I would make a decision just before the first classes in August 2009 to reverse our initial conclusion.  We dug around in the budget and actually brought Bud Bence (church history), Chris Bounds (theology), and myself into the praxis courses to teach the Bible, theology, and church history segments.  This has become a very important piece in our design.  As a matter of principle, those who teach these segments are to be different from the lead teacher.  Even though the practical professor may have some knowledge of the biblical, theological, etc. topic, the cross-fertilization of different minds, as well as the doctoral level expertise, is the goal.  We developed the titles Church Historian in Residence and Theologian in Residence for Bud and Chris.

In late summer 2007… (more to come)