Passion for the Past, Excitement for the Future

Dr. Paul M. Martin, President and Professor of Pastoral Theology

“Where there is no vision, the people perish, but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

(Proverbs 29:18 KJV)


My good friend and partner in ministry while pastoring years ago in Los Angeles, the late Dr. Edward Victor Hill  Sr., pastor of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church of South Los Angeles used to say with great reflection “My, My, My!”

As I approach the end of my first term of service as President of the American Baptist Seminary of the West I can only say about the journey thus far, “My, My, My! What a ride!”   We have experienced the passion and pervasive presence of the great past of our seminary with the joy that God is leading us into a very exciting and progressive future.

Three years ago as a part of my introduction to campus and community life and the responsibility of administration of the seminary I used as a theme the Scripture listed above from Proverbs 29:18 as I defined the process we would undertake in our administration as we looked at our seminaries future.  

We envisioned the need for our seminary staff and faculty to work together in a collegial way; to seek ways to increase the student body numbers, to extend our services beyond the walls of the campus into church and community; to refurbish and develop our donor base; to develop new and exciting streams of financial support; to work with the Board of Trustees in enhancing their governance skills; to develop a greater appreciation for diversity; connect with the regions of our denomination in a different way; to find ways to secure the future of our seminary financially; and to change the culture of the seminary in order that people would have a greater appreciation for our seminary as a theological institution.

I can say that we have just begun the journey and commend the members of our faculty, staff, alumni and trustees for joining me in this vision and journey into the future.

What lies ahead for us is as precious and promising as the great legacy of the past.

  • We have defined our future in the very exciting 2012-2017 Strategic Plan approved by our Board of Trustees in their February, 2012 meeting.
  • We are moving in the direction of increasing our student body numbers. 
  • We are strengthening the ties that bind us to our alumni, churches and regions.
  • We are working hard to be inclusive as we reach out to our supporting denominational connections with the Pacific Coast Baptist Association (PCBA), Progressive Baptist Church, the National Baptist Churches USA, African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ), Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME). We are committed totally to increasing the number of students from our American Baptist family as we reach out more and more to our ABC Churches.
  • We are working hard in helping the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) to vision her future.
  • We are pursuing with great energy the extension of our services through our “Seminary without Walls” Proposal in Los Angeles California, Denver Colorado and Portland Oregon.

I realize that the above bulleted items reflect only the tip of the iceberg for our seminary. We have so much more to do to make sure that our seminary is the place where men and women desire to invest their future in theological education.

The challenges for the future are great but in no way overwhelming. We’ve overcome greater obstacles and still we are here. We can never forget our past and if we do we are doomed to repeat it. We are called upon to seize the future that God has for us.

I believe in the power of a praying community and solicit your prayers and support in the efforts needed to make sure that the American Baptist Seminary is secure in the future.

Thank you for your prayers and financial support. Thank you for being that committee of one, speaking a good word for the seminary. Thank you for being that one who told another one that ABSW is a good place to study in preparation for their ministry.

Our future calls for our community: alumni, churches and regions to find ways to increase financial support to the seminary. This is critical and this is my closing challenge to all of us.

May God bless all of us and especially the future of the American Baptist Seminary of the West.


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.

Hymns? In Berkeley??

In my previous posting (November 2009) I noted that hymn-singing is very much alive and well, not only at American Baptist Seminary of the West, but across the land. Nevertheless, at times I become concerned that hymns as a form of congregational music might be edging toward the endangered species list, if we are not careful to preserve them, as well as continue to create them.

The three hats I currently wear give me an interesting perspective for surveying the landscape of hymnody. First, I am an associate professor at our seminary and teach elective courses in congregational music. (Note: we welcome students to my 2010 summer course, June 14-18, “Planning Congregational Music.” It will meet from 6:00 to 9:30 pm, for five nights.) In addition to my elective courses, I am deeply involved in our ABSW Middler Colloquium, during which our MDiv students have a nine-month internship assignment in a church or other ministry setting. So, I do get some good insights about what the congregations served by our students are singing.

My second hat is as pastor of First Baptist Church of Berkeley, a 120-year-old congregation just four blocks from the ABSW campus. I was first called to FBCB in 1984, as minister of music, and have remained actively involved with the congregation for over twenty-six years, becoming pastor in June of 2009. More on my “pastor hat” in a moment!

The third hat I wear is as editor of THE HYMN, the quarterly journal of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada ( Through reading and editing potential articles for the journal and, particularly, by attending The Hymn Society’s marvelous annual conference each July (we’re meeting in Birmingham, Alabama this summer) I am privileged to have a window into congregational music across the continent, as well as to meet and become friends with many of the excellent hymn writers and composers of our day.

Still, I am quite aware that as the major form of sacred song, hymns have fallen out of fashion in many, many churches over the last two or three decades. Truly, “congregational song” is the more accurate term for the music we share together in worship, and the hymn is but one style and form. There is a wide range of music being played, sung, and listened to in weekly worship services in North America. We are blessed to have so much sacred music in our midst, which is truly a gift from God.

Nevertheless, I am unapologetically a lover of and evangelist for hymns. And I do worry that too many churches are not teaching and sharing hymns with their congregations, nor putting any form of printed music in front of their worshipers (let us not forget that the church has been the center of music education for at least 1,500 years!). Words on a screen do not teach us how to read music. But I’ll save that rant for another time… <grin>

As not only the pastor of FBC Berkeley, but as our church musician, I am constantly engaged in planning worship and choosing the music we will sing at 10:00 am on Sunday mornings. This past Sunday we gathered for a beautiful service that had no sermon but shared the Word of God through songs and hymns. Our focus was twofold and complimentary: congregational song to honor God’s creation (a nod toward the recently observed Earth Day, across our land) and several versions, spoken and sung, of Psalm 23 (which was the lectionary psalm for Sunday, April 25). I’d like to share a few highlights from our time of worship.

Following the Call to Worship, Psalm 100, we sang William Kethe’s 1561 paraphrase of that psalm, “All people that on earth do dwell,” to the familiar tune OLD HUNDREDTH, followed by ”From all that dwell below the skies” (Isaac Watts, 1719; to the tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN). After the Invocation, Psalm 117, we sang the doxology to the latter tune. Then, Psalm 8 was spoken responsively and underlined by singing together “Creating God, Your Fingers Trace” (text: Jeffrey Rowthorn, 1974 ; tune: TALLIS’ CANON).

Next we turned to Psalm 148, read in three sections, with a hymn following each part: “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (text: Rusty Edwards, 1993; tune: ST. COLUMBA), “God of the sparrow, God of the whale” (text: Jaroslav Vajda, 1983; tune: ROEDER, by Carl Schalk), and “For the fruit of all creation” (text: Fred Pratt Green, 1970; tune: AR HYD Y NOS, a Welsh melody).

In the middle section of the service, titled “God Is Our Shepherd,” we heard read three different translations or paraphrases of the beloved Psalm 23, and sang two hymns based on the text: “The Lord’s my shepherd; I’ll not want” and “My shepherd, you supply my need.” We also had a time of meditation during which we listened to Bobbie McFerrin’s stunning composition and four-part vocalization, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Two very new hymns brought our mini-festival to a joyous conclusion: “O beautiful Gaia” (text and tune: Carolyn McDade, 2006), and “Earth is full of wit and wisdom,” with a 2007 text by my young friend and Hymn Society colleague, Adam Tice (sung to the tune HOLY MANNA). What a glorious assembly of God’s creation Adam includes in his four stanzas: “the tiny roly poly,” “the tree-top-tall giraffe,” “gecko, monkey, chicken,” “sea slug, oak, and algae.” One cannot sing this hymn without smiling and chuckling every few moments.

No matter what you are singing in worship on Sunday morning or Saturday night, I hope you are making a joyful sound to God: the Creator, Sustainer, and Lover of all things!

Rev. Dr. Nancy E. Hall
Director of Contextual Education and Associate Professor of Ministry
American Baptist Seminary of the West