In this post, North Park Seminary professor Jay Phelan responds to Gary Walter’s and David Kersten’s articles, published in the most recent issue of the Covenant Quarterly. Do you agree with his sentiments? Dialog with Phelan, Walter, and Kersten in the comments section (link located below article title).
I deeply appreciate the commitment that both President Walter and Dean Kersten have made to the Seminary. Since I have spent more than twenty-five years of my life and ministry serving North Park, I have a vested interest in the school not only surviving but thriving. As President Walter makes clear, these are challenging days for American seminaries. I know these challenges intimately not only because of my years at the seminary, fourteen of them as president and dean, but because of eight years on the board of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Over those eight years I was privileged to work with and learn from some of the brightest minds in theological education leadership.
For the board of ATS, the future of seminaries, and of theological education in general, is closely tied to the future of the church. Many seminaries are in crisis because the churches they serve are in crisis. The tide of Christendom is receding. And while mainline churches have struggled for years with declining membership and dwindling resources, in recent years it has become clear that evangelical churches are facing some of the same challenges.
Recent statistics indicate that evangelical churches are losing their young people at an even greater rate than mainline churches. This is not a problem that will be solved by outreach and evangelism alone, as important as both are. As the seminary needs to rethink what it means to prepare women and men for ministry, so the church needs to rethink what it means to worship, serve, witness, and teach in a post-Christian era. The Evangelical Covenant Church is historically well-placed to explore new ways of being church. Pietism has always stressed life over theological correctness, and for many people young and old this has a great deal of appeal at a time of deeply divisive theological conversations. Both the seminary and the church have stressed the deepening of the spiritual life, focusing on the spiritual formation of both pastors and “lay” leaders. And both the seminary and the church have focused on the importance of issues of justice—on poverty, racism, domestic violence, and social justice generally. The churches and the schools that are able to focus on mission and witness, that are rooted in actions as well as words, in compassion instead of condemnation, will have a future. I think North Park Theological Seminary and the Evangelical Covenant Church can be such a school and such a church. To that end, I would observe and recommend the following:
- In an era of biblical illiteracy and theological ignorance, it will not serve us well to lessen our emphasis on the Bible, theology, and history. These must remain at the core of preparation for ministry. We still need a learned clergy and learned lay leaders.
- Theological education must be a partnership not only between the denomination and the school, but also between the local church and the school. Many of our current students are online students serving in local churches already. In my opinion, local church leaders and seminary personnel need to work more closely together to assure the online student or other already-serving student is getting the greatest benefit possible from their theological educations. Churches also need to take the initiative to recognize, cultivate, and call out talent within their own congregations.
- The denominational leadership and leadership of the school must work to preserve the distinctiveness of the Covenant. I recommend this not simply to be parochial but to suggest that our biblically centered, theologically diverse, and spiritually committed form of witness and worship are powerful and needed by the wider church. To this end both church and school need to be confident in the gifts they have to offer. For too long we have lived as if we are just a little people with no gifts to bring to the larger community. We need no more “poormeism.”
- Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, I believe the seminary needs to be resourced sufficiently to accomplish its tasks. The seminary, like every American seminary, even the largest ones, has faced financial difficulties in recent years. Some severe belt tightening and fiscal discipline have righted the ship. But there comes a time when a more aggressive stance is necessary. If we are going to accomplish the wide-ranging plans recommended by Dean Kersten, we are going to need more resources, especially for technology, student financial scholarships, and for increased spending in our recruitment office. With a growing seminary we will be able to add additional voices at the faculty table.
I am retiring this year and am very thankful and humbled to have spent my career at North Park. I am confident in its future and its leadership. But all associated with the school will need courage, flexibility, and imagination to enable it to succeed in its mission.
John E. Phelan, Jr. is senior professor of theological studies at North Park Theological Seminary. He previously served as the seminary’s president and dean, as well as on the board of the Association of Theological Schools.