NTS: Luxury or Necessity?
During a recent meeting of the NTS Board of Trustees, we were discussing future strategies for the Seminary. During the conversation, I raised the question: “Is Nazarene Theological Seminary a luxury or a necessity?” Said in another way: “Does the Church of the Nazarene really believe in the absolute necessity of the education and preparation of all of our clergy? Or is it the benefit of a select few who can afford it and have access to it?”
These are important questions.
I believe that most people would affirm the importance of the Seminary, but I am not so confident that the majority would be able to articulate why, nor am I sure that they would be willing to fight for its existence. But I know of someone who would–because he did.
In 1928 a young theologically-minded pastor–turned professor, turned editor– wrote an editorial for the Herald of Holiness, the denominational magazine of the fledgling but rapidly growing Church of the Nazarene. His name was James Blaine Chapman. Chapman was appreciative of the foundational groundwork that was being laid by several undergraduate and Bible-training schools, but he also had serious concerns that far too many Nazarene pastors were being insufficiently prepared theologically, professionally, and spiritually. He believed that being trained in a folksy, haphazard manner was inconsistent at best and damaging at worst, and desperately wanted an uneducated clergy to be the exception. He wrote:
“Whatever may be our comparative position in these matters, we do not hesitate to say that we need more preachers and better preachers. Saying that we need better preachers reminds us that in order to have better preachers we must have a certain percentage who have had college training and seminary advantages. We must give our young preachers the advantage of the very best there is in seminary training, and yet we must place the Nazarene stamp indelibly upon them while the process is going on. Now I do not mean simply a Bible school or a Christian worker’s training school; I mean a real theological seminary. Let’s go to work soon to establish a full-fledged Nazarene Theological Seminary …This thing ought to be done and therefore it can be done.” (March 14, 1928, Herald of Holiness)
Several years later, Chapman was elected a General Superintendent in the Church of the Nazarene. He continued to promote the necessity of a “real theological seminary” for the future viability of the church. In 1944 his vision became a reality. The General Assembly, meeting in Minneapolis, voted to establish Nazarene Theological Seminary. The following year Chapman was the speaker for the first NTS convocation chapel. His carefully chosen words still sound like a cannon shot in my ear:
“It is the obligation of any church to provide for the expert training of its ministers, and the Seminary is the Nazarene answer to this obligation for us … We have founded this Seminary in the hope that it will help us secure the type and caliber of preachers called for.” (“What We Expect of Our Seminary,” NTS convocation address, September 28, 1945)
I would be the first to admit that within the larger context of higher education in North America, seminaries are very small educational institutions. So why are they so important and how can they be so influential?
First, seminaries are a primary theological resource to the Church, sustaining and interpreting the historic faith in contemporary contexts. This has to do with theological and ecclesial identity. Second, seminaries are the core educational resource for preparing pastoral leaders for the churches of this continent. This has to do with missional effectiveness.
I heard someone say that seminaries have a tremendous multiplier effect. By a conservative estimate, a pastor who spends thirty years in congregational ministry will likely touch and variously influence multiplied thousands of individuals and numerous community groups. Can you think of any other channel that has such a direct impact on the religious life of cultures and nations?
How can you put a price on theological coherency and ecclesial identity? How can you measure the importance of missional effectiveness? Programs in the Church come and go. Methodologies change. but when we choose, intentionally or unintentionally, not to prioritize theological and missional identity, everyone loses.
Nearly 70 years ago, the people called Nazarenes placed a stake in the ground and declared that an educated clergy would no longer be an exception. It will be who we are. We chose to say yes to an educated clergy to the same degree we say yes to educated doctors, lawyers, and school teachers.
What would have happened if the Church of the Nazarene had not made that decision? When I consider the exponential impact on our denomination, and more importantly for the kingdom of God, of the thousands of NTS graduates who have been pastors, missionaries, chaplains, teachers, scholars, District Superintendents, and General Superintendents, it takes my breath away. I am thankful that the Church chose to say yes.
NAZARENE THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY IS MORE THAN A LUXURY. THE FUTURE OF OUR CHURCH DEPENDS ON IT.