The following commentary is by Riley B. Case, associate executive director of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church.
Dr. Case served many years as a pastor and district superintendent in the UMC’s North Indiana Conference (now the Indiana Conference).
He is the author of Evangelical and Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon Press) and has served as a delegate to five UM General Conferences.
This commentary was published in a slightly different form in the Confessing Movement publication, “Happenings Around the Church.” Links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com. — Ed.
In 2009 Boston School of Theology received $863,235 from the Ministerial Education Fund (MEF). For this investment a grand total of seven students in 2008 received United Methodist ordination at the cost of $123,319 per student.
The School of Theology at Claremont did a bit better; 10 students from Claremont were in the newly ordained elders and deacons 2008 class in the various conferences. The church’s investment per Claremont ordained student totaled $84,967.
This situation with the Ministerial Education Fund funds points to what many of us consider a serious problem in the church: namely, the seminaries (and the colleges).
The church is presently excited about the Call to Action Report (PDF) that speaks of widespread church reforms to address decades-long membership losses. Based on two independent studies (here and here — PDF) and adopted unanimously by the Council of Bishops, the report calls for the building of vital congregations, the consolidating and eliminating of church agencies, the reforming of clergy leadership development, and for holding bishops accountable for church vitality.
However, the report and the studies preceding the report say nothing about United Methodist seminaries or the way the present seminary situation addresses the need for clergy leadership development.
Part of the problem is that the seminaries (and the colleges) are basically independent entities that go their own ways quite apart from the stated mission of the United Methodist Church, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (UM Book of Discipline ¶120).
A bit of background
At Methodism’s organizing conference in 1784, preachers were advised never to let study interfere with soul-saving: “If you can do but one let your studies alone. We would throw by all the libraries of the world rather than be guilty of the loss of one soul” (Discipline of 1784).
John Wesley himself was highly educated and valued education, but he understood that there is not a direct link between educated clergy and church vitality.
Between 1780 and 1829, during the period of Methodism’s most rapid growth, 40 colleges and universities were founded in the United States, mostly by Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists. Few were Methodist.
While Presbyterians and Congregationalists were steeping themselves in classical studies so that they could serve the cultured elite of the nation, Methodist preachers were organizing camp meetings, preaching revivals, and winning the hearts of the masses.
The Methodist message that all could be saved (i.e., unlimited atonement), that each person had value, and that — in God’s sight — the experience of the heart was more to be desired than the trained mind, made it attractive to all people, rich and poor, black and white, sophisticated and unsophisticated. Methodism was a “bottom-up” religion rather than a “top-down” religion ruled by mediating elites.
In 1832 Congregational seminaries enrolled 234 students, Presbyterians seminaries 257, Episcopalians 47, Baptists 107, and Methodists none. The first Methodist seminary opened in 1847.
By 1859 the other denominations enrolled more than 1,200 students to the Methodists’ 51. Yet Methodism, in its several bodies, claimed the allegiance of one-third of all the religious adherents in America.
In the last half of the 19th century Methodism began to establish colleges and seminaries with abandon. These were not the cause but the result of Methodism’s evangelistic success.
As Methodism grew more sophisticated, Methodists became more and more enamored with education. Education was thought to be the new means by which the world could be civilized and thus Christianized.
While many of these newly minted educational institutions sought a close relationship with the church, many others were increasingly drawn into the values of an increasingly secularized society that worshipped at the altars of academic freedom, new knowledge, and the scientific method.
The coming kingdom began to look more and more like a secular utopia and less and less like the biblical millennium. Creedalism, sectarianism, and all forms of “dogmatism” were to be resisted on the way to this earthly kingdom. Educational institutions began to believe that they were the change agents and that the church existed to serve them, not they the church.
The 20th century
In 1901 Bishop Warren A. Candler, a Methodist bishop on the Vanderbilt University board, presented a resolution that that the university should give preference to hiring Methodists, all other things being equal. The school reacted by disaffiliating itself from the M.E. Church South.
In 1908 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, under the influence of its educational institutions, passed legislation removing bishops (who were instructed by the Discipline to guard the faith) from the responsibility of guarding the faith in regard to university or seminary teaching, thus effectively removing the church from intervening in university or seminary affairs.
From this point on, seminaries and colleges would be free from all church constraints. Religious tests for teaching were discarded. The only “heresy” the church now allowed was the belief that heresy could exist.
By 1925 (according to a study done by Ministers’ Monthly), of 91 seminaries in the U.S., only 33 seminaries identified themselves as “orthodox” in orientation. None of these was Methodist (four United Brethren and Evangelical Association seminaries claimed to be “orthodox”).
“Fundamentalism” (which in the modernist mind included all forms of evangelicalism) was pronounced as dead. Modernism was considered the wave of the future for Methodist schools and for the future of the church.
Fortunately, nearly 60% of the ministerial students at the time (of both the North and South Methodist churches) were trained through the Course of Study and weren’t required to attend seminary. These were the pastors who did the work in the trenches and helped to keep some kind of theological balance in the church.
By the 1960s and 70s, ministerial candidates who wanted full ordination were required to be seminary graduates. But the seminaries, at least the mainline seminaries, wanting to be sensitive to all the cultural shifts, were missing what was really happening in the Christian world.
Theological modernism and its successors were spiritually bankrupt. The evangelical renaissance was taking place. Pentecostalism was breaking out worldwide. And, not least of all, many theological students preferred to attend growing and thriving evangelical seminaries. The mainline seminaries, wanting to be relevant, were becoming irrelevant.
This would mark the beginning of United Methodism’s 43-year decline — a decline which must be placed, in part, at the feet of the official church seminaries.
The seminaries (and their friends) never admitted to their own complicity in the church’s problems. Their enrollment declines and financial problems were not of their own making. What they needed was more money.
And so, in 1968, the General Conference established the Ministerial Education Fund (MEF) — effectively a “bail out” fund that began being apportioned to the annual conferences in 1970 as one of the church’s general funds.
In recent times this fund has channeled $15 million a year to the general budgets of the seminaries with no strings attached so that the seminaries might continue to do all the things they had always done in the way they had always done them.
There is no indication that the millions of dollars that have been poured into seminaries since 1970 have in any significant way increased the quality of seminary education.
To be sure, there are hopeful signs in UM seminary education, but despite these signs the question remains: If the United Methodist Church is genuinely interested in renewal and reform, what shall be done with the seminaries?
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Ministerial Education Fund was created in 1972. The MEF was authorized by the 1968 General Conference and became an official apportionment item in 1970.