What to do?

LeAnn Snow Flesher, Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

This post is a follow-up to my previous post entitled It’s time for seminary renewal.  Decline is a natural and expected phase in institutional life; and, consequently, a phase that should be predicted and included as part of one’s strategic plan.  When institutions begin to decline there are basically two options:  renew or plan the funeral.    

How can we make theological education accessible to today's students?

Gone are the days when one would pack up all possessions and family members, leave one’s place of residence and move to a seminary community committing 100% of his/her time to theological studies and dialogue—in fact those days are long gone.  For years now our seminaries have been servicing students in our local communities—the majority of seminaries in America have become commuter schools or distance education specialists.

Also gone are the days of the academic/intellectual pastor to whom all came for answers to life’s most difficult questions—some theological in nature, but many about life’s ever day realities.  Today with the internet at our finger tips can literally do the walking; we no longer need access to a local guru who can help us find a path through the murky waters of everyday existence.

The seminaries in the North America have been nimble enough to shift and adapt to these cultural changes without overhauling the institutional structure—and so we have continued to hike along (fairly successfully I might add) providing seminary education in the manner that we have been highly trained to do.  Along the way we have noticed, and even discussed at times, the ensuing inequities within various culture groups related to the accessibility (or inaccessibility) of theological education.  As result, many tried to create new and creative programs on the side (by necessity due to accreditation standards) that would somewhat fill the gap.    

But now we have entered a very different era—a time when the growing majority of prospective theological students are not of European decent and, consequently, not euro-centric;  a time when many who desire theological education do not have BAs, but have a tremendous amount of pastoral/ministerial experience; a time when women make up nearly 50% of the theological student population, yet find their professional ministry options severely limited upon graduation; a time when inductive experiential learning holds more weight than the highly deductive academic lectures of yesteryear; a time when the increasing levels of plurality in society necessitate contextual learning and theologies; a time when denominations are on the decline, but spirituality is on the rise; a time when ministries that have become too cloistered are, by necessity, busting out of their sacred edifices  taking ministry to the streets; a time when students are older, dollars are scarce, and incomes are low.       

What do we need to do? 

First, we need to seriously revise the ATS standards for the MDiv program, or create a new accredited pastoral training program.  If the growing majority of students desiring an MDiv today come from non-euro-centric communities, have not completed a BA, are looking for shorter—less expensive programs, and have several years of pastoral experience, then we need to redesign the degree to fit this market—or create something entirely different.   The traditional MDiv has run its course—it’s time for something new.

Second, we need to create highly interactive, integrated (theoretical and practical; academic and spiritual), inductive, contextualized curriculums with immediate practical applications.  Today’s students are looking for practical programs that will provide them a skill set immediately transferable into the marketplace.  Today’s graduates must be trained to navigate the complexities of gender, class, cultural, political, and religious differences.  Today’s seminary alums must have the ability to work within the church as well as the dexterity to serve as community leaders and innovators.  Today’s seminaries must train for today’s world—it’s time for something new.

It’s time for seminary renewal

What makes a seminary?
LeAnn Snow Flesher, Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

We are living in a tumultuous time.  One need only turn on the news or open the paper to read the many stories related to the economic down turn in our nation, the presidential debates, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, unrest in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In the midst of these very significant and hot topics we are also frequently reminded of the rising costs of education, the huge student loan debt that straps many of our young people just completing college, and the continued inequities related to education in the US.  Finally, when we turn to the church front we hear of ever declining congregations and denominations, outrageous ethical scandals around religious leaders of “successful” ministries, and declining commitments to seminary training.  What a time to be in theological education!

Since the 1960s the mainline Seminary has seen several shifts in theological emphasis, from heavy emphasis on the political during and after the Civil Rights Movement, to the God is Dead Movement of the late 60s, to an emphasis on Pastoral Care in the 70s and 80s and now a shift toward multi-cultural and inter-faith conversations.  However, institutionally (i.e., structurally) we have remained pretty much the same.  Seminaries are in a mode of decline, and according to institutional theory, it’s time for a renewal—not just a new theological emphasis, but a renewal of structure.  When institutions enter the decline phase it is generally due to several factors operating at once:  too much debt, not enough revenue, inadequate leadership, inexperienced management, lack of planning for times of plateau and decline, and failure to change.  While in decline, the worst thing an organization can do is “the same thing—while expecting different results.”  Institutions in decline either need to renew or plan their funeral. 

What does this mean for theological education (i.e., the seminary) in America today?  ATS statistics have shown that overall the numbers of students attending MDiv programs is on the decline, while the number of students entering MA programs is on the rise.  Simultaneously, the numbers of Caucasians entering MDiv programs is declining while the numbers of African-Americans, Asians and Latinos are on the rise.  Finally, the fastest growing ethnic group in the US is Latino.  Yet, our seminary structures, curriculums, and accreditation standards continue to be primarily euro-centric and prohibitive for many coming from these culture groups.   While individual course content in any given institution might reflect considerable awareness of ethnic and cultural diversity, the institutional, curricular and accreditation structures themselves are still quite euro-centric. 

If seminaries are to become relevant to contemporary culture(s) we must be open to new structures and standards as well as new course content.  At the last gathering of Academic Deans from ATS accredited schools Dan Alshire, the director of ATS, gave a presentation in which he surfaced much of this data.  At the close of his presentation he challenged us to get moving—to begin thinking about seminary in new ways.  I for one have taken that challenge to heart, but one person, one school, cannot change the tenor of theological education in America.  It’s time to make some drastic changes—it’s time for a renewal—lest we end up attending our own funeral.

Moving with Ease Between Church and Community

We are living in some interesting days.   Every morning CNN gives us an update on the progress of the health care reform initiative in the senate; we are in an extreme recession that, according to some experts, is surpassed only by the ‘Great Depression’ of 1933; in the last month we have witnessed the devastation caused by two severe earthquakes one in Haiti and one in Chile; and we still have not finished cleaning up the mess from hurricane Katrina.  Our dollars are being stretched, and stretched and stretched.  Yet, at every turn, when devastation strikes and the appeals go out, millions of dollars are collected from private pockets, agencies and institutions.  How is this possible?  How does it happen that in a time of severe financial downturn the giving to special problems and needs continues to flow?

I believe this question was answered for us in a recent course taught at ABSW entitled “How to Create and Sustain Your Own Non-profit.”  In this course, taught by Rev. Robert Wilkins*, President and CEO of the East Bay YMCAs and a member of the ABSW Board of Trustees, students caught a vision for the necessity of the non-profit sector in a capitalist society.  Wilkins’ analysis showed the glaring gaps created by the capitalistic structure, e.g., the inaccessibility of health care and education for all.  As the capitalistic structure does its work to create competition in the market place thus producing more and more, and better and better goods and services, it will by its very nature leave behind a certain percentage of the population who simply cannot keep up.  I believe Darwin called this the survival of the fittest.  As a result, our society is left with individuals, groups and sometimes entire communities for whom the fulfillment of basic needs becomes increasingly more difficult.  This is where the non-profit finds its place.

Without the work of our churches & schools (both non-profits), as well as organizations like the YMCA, the Red Cross, PICO, and many others, our capitalistic structure would not be sustainable.  A society cannot exist solely on competition in the market place.  Who will educate?  Who will nurture?  Who will see that basic needs are met for all?  The old adage, ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ comes to mind.  If we as a nation and culture are not caring for our aged, our ill, our handicapped, our underprivileged, and our youth (thought by many to be our greatest resource), then we will be crippled as a society and culture.  In fact, in every instance where this does not take place we are already crippled.  While we live in a great and wealthy nation it has by no means achieved its absolute potential.  But, I digress.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to this mission.  We have been mandated to give a cup of water to the thirsty, to provide food for the poor, to heal the sick, and visit the prisoner (Matthew 25:34 ff).  For those of us who live and work in the community of faith this command has touched our hearts.  We believe in it, at times due to our faith, at times due to our altruistic nature, and perhaps most often due to our personal experience of God at work in our own lives bringing healing and sustenance through the faith community.  But, today I want to suggest to you that the gospel message is more than a nice platitude, or pie in the sky thinking, it calls us to the basic work of creating and sustaining human development and dignity.  It is the core from which great cultures and societies are built.  In the Gospel message we have not simply been given a mandate to be kind to one another (i.e., love one another) as if this were an end in and of itself, but we have been given a blueprint for living; a strategic plan, if you will, that if fully implemented will lead to a healthy, vital society/culture that exemplifies the best God has called us to be.

Last Friday night, Rev Trudy Read made a presentation in another of our MDiv/MACL courses entitled “How to Create and Sustain Social Ministries”  [We have a “How To . . .” series going for the Master of Arts in Community Leadership (MACL)].  Rev. Read works for City Team San Francisco.  Through her presentation we learned that there are 6000 SROs (Single Room Occupancies) in the neighborhood in which she works.  We were shocked!  Six thousand people are living in small single rooms, 8 x11 ft, that consume the majority of their monthly social security checks.  The remainder of their needs (food, clothing, medical, etc) are met by non-profits in the neighborhood.   Unbelievable!  Yet true.   There is a system/structure in place in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco that sustains this population and by so doing strengthens the city of San Francisco.  If these nonprofits were to cease to exist San Francisco would have a huge problem on its hands causing many functions to come to a screeching halt.  Similarly, the YMCA of the East Bay provides child care, nutrition and family support services to some 300 migrant farm workers families in Yolo and West Contra Costa Counties; comprehensive mental health services for crime victims and crime victimized communities throughout the East Bay; and diabetes and obesity-prevention programs and activities to children at high risk.

Why do people give liberally to relief efforts and nonprofits in their own economic crisis?  Because they have an implicit knowledge of the truths described above.  We all know these needs will not be met by our capitalistic structure and, thanks be to God, we still have enough ‘heart’ as a nation to care for those in need.  Why do we have ‘heart’?  Why have we not been totally consumed by our capitalistic ideals?  I would suggest because of the work of our faith communities and our non-profits.  This is why we are training our students at ABSW to be ambidextrous, enabling them to move with ease between church and community, empowering them to create faith based institutions that fill the gap(s) left by capitalism, and educating them for relevancy in the 21st century.

Rev. LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament
American Baptist Seminary of the West

*Special thanks to Rev Wilkins for his assistance in writing this blog

ABSW Goes to Africa! (Part 2)

Last week’s blog contained an introduction and some testimonies around the recent trip to Africa made by 7 ABSW faculty, students, board member, and friends.  This week, we continue that conversation with some more testimonies from the trip.

Testimony #1

“Our journey began with a five-day Women’s Conference held at the Christian Life Church in Uganda.  There is so much that I could say about our missionary trip to Africa but wish to concentrate on this conference, because it meant so much to the women who attended.  About 2,000 women assembled from five war-torn countries: The Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania.  Many of these women had never travelled outside of their own countries before and were very happy to be here. Pastor Mark, from one of the churches in Uganda, said that this is the first time he had ever seen all of these countries come together. We all lived in college dormitories together, ate, prayed, and learned together.  Our mornings were spent in worship.  Each morning a different country was featured, with worship leaders from that country sharing their culture as part of the program.  Our afternoons were devoted to education and led by the missionaries.  At the conclusion of the day’s events, there was much crying, cheering, praise, thanksgiving, and hugs.  It was a great privilege to witness the movement of grace and African reconciliation in process.  By the end of the conference, many of the women said that their coming together was a miracle. This first-time conference was such a success that next year another one will be held in Rwanda.   Praise the Lord!”

Ms. Choong ‘Sil’ Choi-Jung
Retired Business Woman
ABSW Senior MDiv Student

Testimony #2

Africa Trip“The first several days were a struggle for personal and physical needs . . .no, wants! Jet lag, little sleep, food and caffeine, interesting bathroom/shower facilities, and, where was dessert? Suffering for the Kingdom – it’s a good thing, right? Then, interacting with the women of Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, Tanzania and Burundi at the conference and University housing, it was clear that the inconvenience and discomfort we experienced is their life – each and every day.

During our workshops in Bukavu (DR Congo) with women church leaders, another truth was apparent.  Corporate worship and ministry require us to be in relationship – and relationships can be challenging. These women, not unlike us, are ministering in their communities, sharing hope for today and for the future in Jesus Christ, struggling to find meaningful, relevant ways to show God’s love to others. They ached for encouragement, and the revelation of God’s Word in their efforts – we were blessed with the privilege of sharing what God inspired us to teach.

To speak with Missionary Paul Kim is to discover his amazing visionary leadership and incredible heart for the people of East Africa. He and his family are devoting their lives to provide educational opportunities for pastors, trade workers (sewing centers), and children. The seminary outside of Kampala is both beautiful and functional, and will provide theological curriculum that will enable pastors to grow their ministries exponentially.”

Ms. Jenny Clark
Administrative National Account Manager
Xerox Corporation
Friend of ABSW

Testimony #3

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I put my hope.

My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen wait for the morning,

more than the watchmen wait for the morning.

This word from Psalm 130 God placed in our hearts as a theme to guide us as we shared fellowship together with our brothers and sisters in East Africa.  As our experience unfolded, we came to appreciate that this word of encouragement would be nourishing bread for our journey.

We had the opportunity to meet many with whom we ministered in Congo at the women’s conference in Kampala.  They, along with women from Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda made the long journey from their homes to share the joy of communion, a blessed communion in which we were privileged to take part.  It was there we first met Belade Wali Bobo, wife of the Governor of South Kivu, Congo. She freely shared her heart for the women of her province and their desperate circumstances as victims of sexual violence and war.  She described the problem as “epidemic.”  So hopeless are these women, she explained, that they will not even risk investing in friendships with one another.  Wali was preparing us to understand the conditions in which the women leaders of churches in South Kivu, Congo, are called to minister.

Conducting workshops for these women leaders in Bukavu, South Kivu, we were privileged to hear their stories, to share their struggles and joys, to pray together, and to encourage them in ministry, even as they encouraged us with their generous spirits.   We were inspired by the intensity of their faith, their hunger for the Word, the joy in their fellowship, and their determination to share life-giving ministry with women in their churches and communities for who all hope seems lost.  The Spirit was at work in our communion as, together, we waited on the Lord.”

Rev. Kristen Preston
Attorney at Law
ABSW Trustee


These voices, along with my own, constitute the ABSW mission team (minus one) that traveled together through the worn torn countries of Uganda, Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, and Kenya. Also a part of the team was JJ Jung, husband of our student ‘Sil,’ who was our videographer.   This team of 7 was in Africa for nearly three weeks under the leadership of Missionary Paul Kim and Christian Frontier Mission.  We were challenged well beyond our expectations—to minister to women and pastors who are victims of war.  We ministered to women who have been raped, widowed, and their homes pillaged by foreign and domestic armies.  We ministered to pastors who have almost no training and even fewer resources.  We taught, we prayed, we preached, we worshiped; we encouraged, we supported, we spoke words of hope; we envisioned with them life beyond war.  Now, not even three months later, we continue to pray for those we ministered to, we continue to hope on their behalf; and we know that we will never be the same.

Rev. LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament
American Baptist Seminary of the West

ABSW Goes to Africa! (Part 1)

On Sunday, July 5, 2009 seven ABSW faculty, students and friends left the Bay Area for a trip to Central Africa.  The purpose of our trip was three-fold: to attend and participate in a two week, two part, women’s conference throughout the Lake Victoria region; to visit the site of a new protestant partner seminary near Kampala, Uganda; and to build relationships with Christian Frontier Mission and its director Rev. Paul Kim.  This trip represents a return to a historic emphasis on world mission here at ABSW.

Over the generations we have been known as a missionary training school.  In the 40s and 50s ABSW saw many of its students graduate and leave for the mission fields of the world, many of whom made it their life-long ministry.  In fact, ABSW was founded in 1871 as a home mission outpost in the West—providing theological education for those who were opening missions and churches on the West coast to meet the spiritual needs of new and recent immigrants.

As many of us are aware, American Baptist International Ministries, organized in 1814, is the oldest Baptist mission agency formed in North America. As a denomination we serve more than 2,500 short-term and long-term missionaries annually, bringing U.S. and Puerto Rico churches together with partners in 76 countries in cutting-edge ministries. I, personally, became intimately acquainted with this emphasis while spending three months in Costa Rica on one of my first sabbaticals from my teaching post at ABSW.  During that three month period I met and befriended several ABC missionaries, and left, at the close of my sabbatical, duly impressed by the work they were doing in Latin America.  Since then I have revisited these same sites numerous times (as well as other Latin American countries) teaching as a visiting professor in the theological training centers of Limon, Costa Rica and Northern Panama.

Uganda seminaryToday, due to an ever increasing sense of globalization, our US churches think about the world and missions in new ways.  As a seminary involved with churches and students on the West coast, we have experienced numerous shifts in perspectives on cultural diversity and globalization.  In order to be relevant to these changing perspectives we have created a curricular emphasis on multiculturalism; striving to prepare pastors and ministers who have not only experienced a diverse set of cultures throughout their theological training, but have also become comfortable ministering across these lines.  Seminary training can no longer afford to remain within the confines of four walls, but must create ways for students to gain a tremendous breadth of cross cultural experiences.  Our trip to Africa in summer 2009 is but one of these opportunities—and there will be many more.

Here are some testimonies from those who participated in the trip:

“Having grown up in a poor country after a war, I thought I knew what it meant to be poor. But I was wrong. The people I met in the month of July in Africa were far worse off than I was 40 some years ago in Korea. Four words may be appropriate to describe what I saw there: dust, lack of water, mosquitoes, and lack of food. The problem is too overwhelming; kids can’t go to school; husbands don’t have jobs; churches have no resources to help the poor. We just didn’t know where we could start to help them.  Although we have our own problems here in the United States, they have something we do not have; a growing church. Pastors were hungry for theological education and they were willing to give their lives, even if three out of four pastors did not receive salaries. I will never forget those one hundred and twenty ministers of Bukavu, Congo who, even after my three-day preaching class had concluded, did not want to go home. They said they wanted to learn more and begged me to come back soon . . .”

Sangyil (Sam) Park, PhD
Associate Professor of Preaching and
Director of the DMin Program
American Baptist Seminary of the West

“The memories are strong in my heart.  They hold the whispers of the women in Bukavu, Congo.  They hold the soul tearing truth of their circumstance.  I have not forgotten.  After giving a word to the women, I moved to the back of the church.  I set up shop there in a single wooden chair.  My dear sister who came with me to the back sat next to me. She interpreted their misery, their fears and their disappointments so that I would understand.  The women made a long curving line as they waited to come to our humble space.  As they came to us we sat very close to one another.  I looked into her eyes as she whispered her name to me.  I said, “Karibu”, (you are welcome, in Swahili, and I lowered my eyes and began to listen.  I heard measured beautiful Congolese French in response to my welcome.  The words were a soft description of a heavy life.  They fell heavily in my lap and into my heart.    I hear English heavily colored by a Congolese accent next explaining to me the need at hand.

The women were arrestingly beautiful, and their hearts so tender.  They hung their head and they told me the stories in their life.  They told me that they did not eat each day, and they were hungry.    It was a quiet telling of a shameful condition.  They were ashamed of the plaque of poverty and loathsome conditions which made up the context of their lives.  The three of us sat knee to knee and heart to heart.   We climbed onto the refuge of God’s unfailing love as one as a sea of impossible conditions raged around us.”

Minister Cheryl Dawson
Director of Alternative Women’s Programs
San Francisco County Jails
ABSW Senior MDiv Student

This is part 1 of a two part blog.  Next week’s blog will contain more testimonies and some conclusions.

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean & Professor of Old Testament