Seminary of the future?

The seminary of the future must create an educational opportunity that can be pursued simultaneous to ministry responsibilities.

By Wayne Schmidt

I arrived in Kentwood, a first-ring suburb of Grand Rapids, MI, in 1979 to be involved in founding the Kentwood Community Church (KCC) in response to God’s answer to my prayer “God, call me to a community where I could spend a lifetime.” I served on the pastoral team, the last 28 years as senior pastor, and saw that church grow to 2,500 in weekend attendance while becoming increasingly multiethnic and planting 10 other churches.

We developed goals that took the church to 2020 and beyond, but then God surprised me.  Unexpectedly, I was released from the “lifetime” call after just 30 years, and after a bit of time God took me through what I call the “Abrahamic Adventure” (leaving “though he did not know where he was going”). I was contacted about the possibility of giving leadership to a new seminary being launched, Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.

From the perspective of a local church pastor passionate about multiplying missional churches, I asked the question “What does the seminary of the future look like?”

Living laboratory

I was a freshly minted college graduate when I helped found KCC in 1979. Just 21 years of age, I knew I needed to invest in myself educationally to have a vital, enduring ministry. Thankfully, I lived just 15 minutes from a seminary, and over the next decade completed my Master’s degree while serving the church on a full-time basis.

Even though the seminary didn’t intentionally connect assignments to the local church, I benefitted from the rhythm of theological reflection and practical implementation in ministry.

The seminary of the future must take it a step further: While creating an educational opportunity that can be pursued simultaneous to ministry responsibilities (full-time or bi-vocational), what if the church was actually the “living laboratory”?  Assignments would not relate to a fabricated or imagined ministry context, but the one in which the student actually serves.  If periodic visits to campus were complemented by online education, the student could have the best of both worlds of theory and practice.

Church in the community

In the early stages of KCC I sought meetings with leaders in the community. That’s when I first met the mayor of Kentwood, Jerry DeRuiter, and benefitted from his advice for the price of a lunch. What I did not know then was that God would lead this mayor to become part of KCC, and eventually to serve as our Executive Pastor.

As Jerry describes it, “When God calls someone from the marketplace into ministry he is providing the resources – skills, abilities and experiences – that the church needs from the marketplace. Secondly, the marketplace person needs to learn the roles of being a shepherd and steward of God’s church. I valued the educational training I received during this transition that equipped me to transfer my marketplace experiences into the context of the church culture and environment. The educational ordination track also helped me to better understand the depth of the call God had placed on my life.”

A significant percentage of our KCC pastoral team was “homegrown,” which in part developed my conviction that a substantial portion of the Kingdom firepower God wants to provide will make a transition to ministry from some other setting. From “success to significance” is one way to describe the pursuit of a purposeful life.

Regardless of one’s phase in life, a person likely won’t be able to drop everything to set apart a few years for education. But if they could engage in that education while anticipating or initiating that transition, they’d have a bridge. And if their classes helped them to understand the transition they would be equipped for increased influence for Christ through personal growth and the development of practical ministry skills.

Relevance defined

A revolutionary seminary would empower ministers to respond to where the culture is going, not where it has been. For instance, pastors and scholars like Soong-Chan Rah powerfully point out the reality: “The American church needs to face the inevitable and prepare for the next stage of her history: We are looking at a nonwhite majority, multiethnic American Christianity in the immediate future.” The seminary of the future must be multiethnic and prepare leaders for ethnic and multiethnic ministry if it is to be relevant and missional in North America.

In my own experience I missed a transition in our community that went from 98 percent Anglo (mostly Dutch) to a local school system in which 58 different languages were spoken in their homes. By God’s grace I was awakened to the mismatch between KCC and the community it sought to serve, but was challenged to find resources to fully equip me to connect to the wonderful diversity our community had developed. Seminaries should provide the resources that help pastors learn and lead in response to coming cultural realities.

Dr. Wayne Schmidt is vice president, Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, IN. [ www.indwes.edu ]

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