Tuesday, March 16, 2021

While Seminaries Close or Consolidate, a Church of Christ School Has Opened a Baptist Studies Center

via Library of Congress
While the Southern Baptist Convention is failing to baptize people and suffering one controversy after another because of sexual abuse, racism, and misogyny, the rest of the Baptist world trundles on. It's easy to forget, with the SBC sucking all the air out of the room, that there are millions of other Baptists in different conventions or entirely independent churches in North America and around the world. One piece of news from that past year in that alternate Baptist reality was the closing of Logsdon Seminary and the opening of a Baptist Studies Center at Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology. Both were big news in their own right, but the fact that ACU GST is affiliated with the Church of Christ made it a little more interesting to me. It is also another example of how tradition-specific graduate theological education is adapting to survive.

Seminaries are finding ways carry on their missions, even as enrollment declines and revenue dries up. One of the more common strategies I've encountered is essentially one seminary shacking up with another.  Some examples:
  • In 2016 board of trustees of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA decided that the school would cease granting degrees after the end of the 2016–2017 academic year. Ultimately, they decided to affiliate EDS with Union Theological Seminary in New York City and sell its Cambridge campus. It seems important to note that General Theological Seminary was already long-established in NYC, and so the move to Union would seem to indicate that the board saw the EDS mission as distinct from that of GTS. It's been noted that This between Union and EDS allow the latter to continue their work in social justice and dismantling systemic racism. 
As I indicated above, the ACU GST Baptist Studies center came about after the closure of Logsdon Seminary. This was a smart move for ACU, in my opinion, as it involved only hiring one new professor, Myles Werntz, to direct the program from an office on campus. All the graduate courses continue to be taught by the existing faculty, with the exception of two Baptist-specific courses taught by Dr. Werntz. This positions them well to provide graduate theological education to Baptists preparing for ministry, or who are already in ministry and are looking to improve their knowledge and skill set. 

The program has drawn interest from a variety of Baptists, including American Baptists, Missionary Baptists, independent Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist General Convention of Texas. From my own experience as a Unitarian Universalist enrolled at ACU GST I can say I've been pleasantly surprised by the denominational variety represented among my fellow students, including Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Baptists, a Roman Catholic or two, and others. It's not exactly what you'd think of as an ecumenical seminary, but the emphasis is on serious study and professional development, and not promoting a single denomination's agenda. 

Although I'm not Baptist, I certainly hope to see this program succeed. It's one of the more logical and efficient ways I've seen so far of carrying on higher education in ministry for a specific faith tradition.

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