Michael Wilburn - "Church Based Theological Education"
3:06PM Jul 9, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today we're really thankful to be speaking with Dr. Michael Wilburn. Dr. Wilburn is the pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, and in 2018 completed his PhD dissertation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The dissertation had the title educational philosophy, church proximity and academic standards and church based theological education. phenomenological study Dr. Wilburn. We're extremely grateful to be speaking with you today.
Dr. Armstrong, thank you. I've benefited from the other videos and publications of unit toss today. And so I'm grateful to hopefully make some contribution back to the things I've received. I appreciate your work.
We're really delighted to be speaking with you. If I can plunge straight in in the second chapter of your dissertation, you perform a literature review, which is a pretty traditional part of a dissertation as you set up over the whole study, and in your literature review, you document repeated calls over the past several decades to reform, theological education. From your perspective, what has been the core agenda or the overarching agenda of these repeated calls for reform, the core
of the call returning the seminary or theological education to the church is to, to return the work of the theological education to the church itself. I kind of laid that out in theological, historical missional and cultural calls, and so they come from different places and different backgrounds. I think personally, if I could go back to my personal story, how I become aware of this is just through really my own experience. When I became a seminary student, I went to Virginia Beach Theological Seminary, which today is has been around for about 23 years. It's an accredited institution and a beautiful facility with established faculty. But back in that day, It was a humble start, you know, they were working towards accreditation. They were there were two classrooms, classroom, a and classroom be in a modest library and just a handful of students. And what I didn't realize was happening to me is that I was in the midst of this, this new model of theological education that was inherently tied to the local church. Now, even in those early days, there was high academic standards there, the M div was 96 hours completely a third of our education was in the primary language, heavy work in theology, so don't get the misunderstanding that this is somehow a Bible Institute hiding under the label of a seminary. But what I received as I was pastoring, as I was involved in education at the same time, myself is this hidden curriculum that takes place and it's hard to qualify when you're seeking accreditation, they don't ask these questions. It doesn't appear in the institutional objectives necessarily. It doesn't find it Every syllabi, but there's a hidden curriculum involved in church based theological education because we're influenced not just from what's taught in the classroom, and required of us in reading and writing, but we are we are shaped as whole individuals. And I remember talking to one administrator, lifelong administrator who said, the seminary just has a church leanness about it. And that's sort of the way the best way to describe CBT institutions. They have a church leanness, that's informing the student, educating the student inside and outside the classroom, from what they're doing in classes through the week to what they see publicly in the life of ministry of the church on the weekends. So, that really is where my eyes were opened, I became aware of church based theological education. Now, when my I began to study it, and in my research interviews, I discovered that it's really a model and movement of theological education. So as a model, church based theological education is an educational institution tied to a single local church. That's how someone listening to this can distinguish what's a CBT institution versus an established seminary. This is tied to a single local church, where it's functioning on a Church's property and under Church's authority. And when you go with that criteria on the graduate level, where the institution is offering m div classes, there are probably just north of two dozen of these institutions in the United States right now. There are a lot of great other examples like Bible Institute's and undergrad programs and consortiums. And lots of churches now have Extension Centers and branch campuses and teaching sites from all sorts of institutions and when we have the opportunity to extend ourselves with greater technology This has gone global even. But when we're talking about CBT institutions, it has to be on the churches campus and under the church's authority.
Dr. Wilburn, you're you are not only a PhD in educational philosophy, but you're also a practicing minister, with these relationships between educational institutions and churches, what are the values that the educational institutions must present to the church to make this a working long term relationship?
Yeah, that's an excellent question. I think churches should should desire to be connected to the seminaries as much as the seminaries connected to connect it to the church. I know if you go back, there was a article from James Montgomery boys and Christianity Today in the late 70s. In fact, I would really point the late 70s 1980s as a time in which the movement of CBT kind of began in its fresh bud this new form as we see it today. And in that article, Jane Martin Boys called the church in seminary, a reciprocal relationship. And he was trying to describe exactly the question just asked how do we relate to one another? Because I think in his own denomination and his own experience, he found a lot of tension between the institutions and the churches. One key component is the significant leader in the CBT institutions, they typically are connected to larger churches, where there has been a historic leader that in the last 40 years since 1980, has founded the institution. And that presents both the benefit that has a lot of name recognition to a significant leader, but it also presents challenges as these institutions mature, and these leaders pass off the scene. How do they work through succession planning. These are big questions for CBT institutions, some, some have already navigated it well or poorly and others have yet to navigate it at all. And are kind of looking What do we do when that that first wave of leadership, either the pastor of the church, or the dean of the school? switches places? Is it able to sustain itself like it used to? Because it's so predicated on maybe a strong leader or strong personality to Wilburn?
What's your view is theological education in the States today in crisis?
If you're an administrator of any theological school, you're probably always feel like you're in a crisis, whether it's student numbers or revenues or donors or an accreditation renewal, whatever the case is, you always felt you're perpetually on the edge of some type of catastrophic danger. I think it's a it's a broad question to ask about theological education. I'll say that, as your broad questions, get sort of broad answers, I think. I think it we're in a slow moving identity crisis. I think we're struggling. This has come out in some of the literature in the last couple decades. We're in this slow progression of going back. We're asking questions like what is theological about theological education? We're asking questions. Who does the seminary serve? And I think David Kelsey would be one book is his writing of between Athens and Berlin. I think it's kind of an accurate view to two models of ethical philosophy and says all theological education is struggling between these and can't separate itself from either one. You know, we could read that book and we could push David Kelson so I, you know, I'm not totally on board, but he has a point that there is this struggle which leads to this feeling of crisis as to what's the purpose? What are we actually trying to accomplish? We look at our graduates and we read a TPS reports and we see so many of them not actually ended up doing what we trained them to do. Or we see the number of in div students in mass declining significant With ETS reports, I think we do have to say there is some crisis, we need to have ability to talk about it within our institutions, but also collaborate on it.
As a matter of educational philosophy, I think we're having to ask the question, are we going to educate for character formation or professional formation? And that creates a sense of crisis within the institution, because faculty members may not agree on this and administration's may not agree on this. Are we trying to create a person who is being what the Scriptures tell them to be as a spiritual leader? Or are they able to function actually do the role of the leader and if we think we have to do both? How do we accomplish both when when they're so diverse in and what the what the classroom experience would be like to accomplish that? I think established seminaries find themselves beholden to academic accreditation standards. They also find themselves in crisis in denominational constituencies because If the constituency that they have doesn't agree on, say theology, they're going to wrestle with how to produce graduates who are going to serve the denomination as a whole that doesn't has internal struggles itself. Established enemies also are going to struggle with an endless struggle for students and donors to have enough to sustain them. And that's constant among administration's is wrestling with that. So I'm not saying that CBT institutions are, are free from those. I think all of those struggles are inherent to them as well. But while they faced the same challenges, I think they're just simply accountable to one local church, which does simplify things so they can walk across the campus or across the office, and they can be directly relating to the constituency that they serve. So one administrator in a school said to me, Listen, we're accountable every Sunday, the churches evaluating our seminary every single week when they're watching our graduates teach Sunday school classes or they see our professors sitting with their families in the local assembly. So, so church based institutions have the same same struggle. Now I know others have spoken well beyond me in calling alarm and crisis. In my in my work the writings of Ted Ward, he strongly alluded to the need for non formal and informal education that's separate from the Academy. JOHN frame also has spoken a great deal to this and also Linda canal is another one I recently worked through her book theological education matters. She published it in 2006. And she wrote in that book as church based efforts continue to mature and as their leaders discover criterion principles that will guide their practice, they could effectively replace existing seminary models. Now Dr. canal was super helpful with me on this project. I think maybe that's a little that's a step maybe too far to say. But she's she's saying that there is there's something going on. There's something happening in which theological education is migrating back to its moorings in the local church. So is there a crisis? Yes. What kind of crisis is it? It's probably a slow moving identity crisis. It's not new. We do need to have new voices and new institutions speaking to it. Hopefully, we can find solutions that are blessing and helps everyone involved in theological education.
Dr. Wilburn, what do you see as the most promising prototypes for a new model for theological education?
It is a fun question because it's been neat just to surf the web a little bit, see who's out there. You can do a Google search and find a lot of these institutions and you're not going to recognize them because inherently church based institutions are small, they're regional. They don't have the name identity that the big schools do. So they love just getting their name out there for student recruitment and to be on college campuses for recruiting. When I look at them, and I spend time with their administrators, I love the creativity and the innovation that they bring. And it comes from their own background. It comes from their experiences, but a lot from their location since they're not trying to be national, in their scope. They are they're willing to try things that the established schools are not going to try. Because there's too much downside for them. So I tried to give some examples of things I think I look at I think these are great models of what schools are doing, and I'll name them and then these are things that can be reproduced in other places. One is a cohort based in diff program. I saw this clearly at Bethlehem College in seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and this cohort based MD program. I mean, they're not only do they require the MD students the first two years to be members and attending Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. But they they're only accepting I think the number is 18. Maybe it's gone up or down the last year or two, I'm not sure they have probably three times that many people applying to the program. But by design and intention, they're keeping it small. So that through the entirety of that program for three years, perhaps for these men that are in this program, they're not just forming theological understandings from the curriculum. They're forming deep, long lasting relationships with their fellow students. And any anybody who's been out in ministry, you know, I've been pastoring for 17 years, those, those relationships matter significantly when you're out in in your church, and maybe you're a solo pastor, or maybe you have hit a roadblock or point of discouragement and you need advice wise counsel, help to fall back on those brothers that you spent so many hours within the classroom is a great, great blessing. And so I think they're doing a great job with that. Method plus it creates a feeling of elitism. And I don't mean that in a bad way, I just mean that they feel like they're, they don't feel like they're infantry. They feel like they're special forces, you know that they've been trained and they know their professors directly. Five years later, they can call back a professor, they would know them by name, remember them be able to counsel help preach for them, whatever the case may be. And that cohort model, it really creates that type of strong lasting bond that may in the end result in these brother staying in ministry longer term. So that's great. I think that's rep can be replicated other institutions. Where I attended school, Virginia Beach Theological Seminary is another excellent example. They have focused on a regional identity. So they actually went through a name change from Central Baptist seminary to Virginia Beach to speak specifically that they were trying to reach, not the whole country. The likelihood of somebody from the west coast moon Virginia Beach just for their school is unlikely But to be a blessing to churches in their area, so so instead of pulling from every Bible college and university in America, they were more intentional about getting graduates from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia that that maybe was called to full time ministry and train or maybe someone from the military unique to them having this incredible presence of the Navy, and Marines they're in Virginia Beach has drawn a lot of into the chaplaincy ship program. So they focus on their regional identity. And again, if you're a CBT institution, you're not worried about being competing with hundreds of students against every other established school. And you need to them also as a grace philosophy of ministry, I found this to be helpful as a student myself and encouraging of how to carry yourself as a pastor how to shepherd the flock, by using grace as your philosophy of ministry. And they work extremely hard. Both the teach that and the classroom but then you get to see it modeled in the church at Colonial Baptist Church. So you that philosophy of ministry can be stated in any seminary classroom. But you have to have that model, there has to be that hidden curriculum to say, Okay, I see what that means, when the pastor struggles, you know, with a conflict where someone leaves the church, or, you know, there's a case of church discipline, I now see how grace handles those issues, because I've been close enough to the process and leaders to see it born out. So when the student graduates he's able to handle it on his own. I give you a third example of faith Bible Seminary in Lafayette, Indiana. They have an internship model, and it's just incredible and they've not been around very long. But again, the cohorts are small, and you must be a full time intern at a church within right driving distance of Lafayette for your classes in order to be in their in depth program. And so their whole goal is for you to graduate with three years of ministry experience and graduate debt free. They have the partnership between faith Bible seminar or faith bible church or Faith Church rather. And whatever church you're an internship in, to work out the financial arrangements. So you're also compensated, you're getting
through walk with
at the end, which is incredible gift to those who are going to turn around and go into ministries, where they may not be paid well enough to carry that type of debt load. I'll give you one more example. The education of mentorship is pretty big metro Atlanta seminary, as I work through my and also Metro Baltimore seminary. Those are new institutions that are doing an incredible job of requiring mentorship as a healthy portion of the degree program. And I think That's a phenomenal way of getting younger guys personally connected to someone who can oversee and Shepherd their own soul. And then help them once they launch into ministry. So there's a lot of prototypes, like anything when you try new things, you're creative, you're innovative, some things fly really well, and some things don't. And there's a volatile nature to that. But I think there's a lot to be learned and a lot to to commend in these models.
That's an amazing survey. Thank you so much for for sharing that Dr. Wilburn. Dr. Wilburn, a number of the models that you just mentioned, there are regional and that was part of their particular existence and ethos. What happens now that telecommunication and rich forms of telecommunication like zoom like we're experiencing now sort of enters the scene. I've been an avid zoom user only for the last couple of years previous to that solutions were still a bit more sticky and difficult. Zoom works pretty well anywhere across the United States and is beginning to work now. Global As well, you could set up classrooms with people in Indonesia quite nicely. What happens now at this stage in the game that telecommunication becomes so simple and easy to access?
Yeah. And my research study, they were sharp opinions of this. Among administrators, I'll say that with the seminary that's tied to a specific local church. There is this idea of presence, which probably adds a complicating factor to using online technological ways of communicating. So I think I'll put it this way. What happens in the church? What happens in the church directly affects what happens in the seminary, and there must be a responsible use of technology in CBT institutions for it to be successful. Now when I say responsible, again, it's like any local church, it depends on your circumstances. pins where you are. It depends on the buy in from the administration of faculty faculty need to have not be coerced into that, but actually be on board with it to be accomplished. And there are some good examples of this working successfully amongst CBT institutions so it can be done. Even though there's very diverse opinions. So rock bridge Seminary in Springfield, Missouri is entirely online. Okay, and they serve maybe more than anywhere else. They serve Saddleback Community Church, I think they've trained over 100 over the years 100 of the leaders at Saddleback Community Church, but again, they're based in Missouri, and they're training leaders in Southern California. And they're very specific about, you know, models of mentorship as well being connected it but it is totally online. So we may debate whether that even crosses the line for being church based. They're not, but they're they're clearly connected to local churches and functioning under their authority and on their property. But this dynamic of online education is a model they've given themselves to another example. And this is great with an idea of innovation, the expositor Seminary in Jupiter, Florida. So that's their main campus in Jupiter, Florida. But they have 11 church based campuses in nine states. So now they are committed to a synchronous real time classroom, across campuses. But think about this. You've got campuses in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, you go to the west, as far as I believe, Arizona, they got two campuses in Arizona. So nine states 11 campuses, and yet, when they have class, they're using the platform we're using right now and zoom, bring everybody in at the same time, even though they're living in different time zones, and they're extremely committed to that. And it's working. I mean, they're seeing great success, even, even among their alumni and graduates, they have scheppers for eternity, where they have regular meetings among their alumni association online just like this, you can log in. If somebody was really curious about how a sponsor is doing that, well, you can go to expositors dot o RG. And they have a tab actually how we teach classroom technology. And so they have these committed, you know, this is how we're going to do this. And then they're implementing it, and they're, they're having success. So while I personally may be a little hesitant to go to that, that model or that method, again, these these are connected to local churches, they make any decision that they want to, in accomplishing this, I think you need to be careful with the limits in danger of any type of technology. So at some point, this came out in my dissertation findings at some point, online education will undermine the educational philosophy of a CBT institution. So you need to have really clear values on what you're going to do and what you're not going to do. So exposure says, Listen, we'll do synchronous, but we will not do a synchronous, it has to be real time. Because if they know or in their opinion, their conviction is if we, we don't do this in real time, we're going to lose the relational value that is inherent to a CBT institution. And so every school is going to have to think through that strategically. So online education is kinda like a prescription drug for CBT institution. You need to take it as prescribed maybe to stay alive, but if you od it might kill you. And that's a lot like what you're fine What we're finding with online education and technology. Because so much is hidden. So much is predicated on you being present. In the classroom in the church and the relational mentoring that goes on some of that, yes can happen online, but not all of it. And so it's a it's a strategic decision every institution will have to make. And there's a wide variety of what they'll do among these institutions from those who are completely online. And I others that I've found that are absolutely committed to never being online. And there's a wide diversity.
There's quite a warning there for us. There's a hidden curriculum you mentioned earlier, the interview in this embedded in the curriculum, and online forms of communication may not be able to get that hidden curriculum out and exercised among the community. Dr. Wilburn, you've been involved in theological education from a number of different vantage points as a an active pastor, as a PhD student, as a trustee at a church based Theological Seminary. In your view, is there an ideal model for theological education and what is that and what are values, please.
Yes, that's that's a great question. I really have benefited from the writings and encouragement of dr. john frame who himself taught in a an established seminary for his whole career now retire still writing, you know, he's published so much. But he addressed these things in the in the 70s. Actually 1972 he tried to publish an article entitled, a model for a new seminary, and he couldn't get it published. It was so radical in those days, it wasn't till 1979 I believe that he finally Jay Adams finally published the article for him, or excuse me, it's called a proposal for a new seminary. When I did these interviews and asked these administrators, many of the administrators had read john frames article and it had opened their thinking to models of church based theological education. So he's revised that journal articles a couple of times since the latest 70s and he's written many more things that there's a series of three books by frame on selected shorter writings. And I think in Volume Two or three writes a number of articles about the academic activity of theology and, and he would very much be in the same position that I'm in, I still believe there's a place for the Academy. I still believe there's a place for scholarship in writing and publishing. It's important that we do not lose that. But I also think that those who are going to be pastors, those who are going to shepherd flocks, I'm not sure how important publishing academic journals are going to benefit them and helping them to accomplish sermon prep, counseling, shepherding the flock, leading the church overseeing spiritual care. So I think there's a there's a niche, there's a window where CBT institutions will be this dynamic, small, intentional strategic institution. That's an Not at odds with established seminaries. But I think very much they're feeling the same poll and the same longing that's been going on for 40 years that all of theological education would be tied more strategically to the church itself. So all efforts to reconnect the church in seminary in that type of complimentary relationship.
I think the
most theological institutions that I am aware of, they're already extending themselves to the local church. And it's some part survival some part convictional. But they have teaching sites in churches, they have Extension Centers, internationally, and branch campuses and other places of the world. And as you mentioned earlier, and rightfully so technology has opened the door for that. I think all of those efforts, both from the established churches and CBT institutions, they are all going in the same direction. So I really don't think this is a contest of who's right and who's wrong. I just think there's room for everyone to draw themselves closer to the local church, particularly on the M div level. I think the Academy is really helpful th M's, PhDs EDS, those types of research doctorates. But on the indiv level, a church based seminary connects, I think what's absolutely necessary to shepherd the church. And that's the students head, heart and hands. You think about the head, we do want to educate them that there needs to be academic rigor. There needs to be academic accreditation and the the vast majority of CBT institutions in the states already have accreditation, maybe not regional accreditation, but ACS accreditation, and national accreditation just as the other seminaries do. So there has to be this accountability that we're they're actually getting a really robust education on the effective level. But there also has to be the highest Like it can, this is not just our head. It's not just our, the formation of our professional development. This is also the issue of our character, that the affective domain of spiritual formation is absolutely essential. And so we're seeing not just in theological education, but in every paradigm of pedagogy. How do we hit the affective domain? I think CBT institutions come by in the most natural of ways that you might be in the classroom with your professor standing at the front, but you walk into the church and he's sitting next to you singing Amazing Grace. So there's this affective domain in which the student is growing and maturing. And that's what's necessary and and easily lacking. Before we send them out to shepherd God's flock so the head has to be there, the heart has to be there. And also the hands. I've also attended large denominational schools and you kind of get lost in the numbers. If you don't stand out you it's hard All your papers are being read and graded by a grading assistant. They need to have opportunity for literal hands on training, an M div student needs to have some outlet switch they can can work this through and to go back to my own experience. You know, I was a solo pastor during those years of my MDF training and so it slowed me down I took five years not three to get my degree. I had a lot of responsibilities in addition to to seminary, but always a good for my heart in my hands to be actively involved in the local church when I was trying to learn Greek Hebrew systematic theology, hermeneutics and work all these things out I was, I had an outlet for all of those things, smaller institutions, and churches that can give you an opportunity to visit the nursing home or teach a Sunday school class or have a Sunday night service to preach in or you you're in the internship and you're practicing the full gamut of pastoral responsibilities. That gives the outlet to the hands that's necessary. So the whole person is formed when they're a graduate ready to take on the responsibilities of shepherding and leading a local church themselves. So I think there's a place for both. And I think there's a clear place and opportunity for CBT institutions to grow and develop.
Hector Wilburn, one of the purposes of the interview program is as we reflect on these changes that are affecting the academy and also the church to figure out what can be done to foster Christian unity between individual congregations and denominations. If I can close with a question that we've been asking all of the interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recognize this unity and what is it that we can produce? What is it that we can do as individuals to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17?
Yeah, thank you for drawing us all to this type of concluding point. Well, I'll first say our Unity is not found in our diploma, or our alumni association or our even our denominational identity. I know these things kind of mark us and a bit separate us from one another. But Christian Unity has to be gospel Unity has to be, you know, go back to john 17, a Reddit in preparation, thinking through this great thought Jesus clear and praying repeatedly, at least three times that we would have a similar mark to unity as he had with the Father. And our unity together really has to come with our unity around the gospel in a relationship with God the Father and with God the Son. So I actually think a local church is where the Gospels proclaimed clearly, and really should be, I think, where it's where believers of the gospel gather and it's where the Great Commission is advanced. So I think it's the gospel that's drawing us together. The best way to hold coherence with theological education is to push it back under the auspices of local church itself. So you know, a seminary has no biblical authority outside of the church. It all of its authority to train is delegated from, from the local church. So theological changes just becomes part of the Great Commission, Matthew 2820, teaching them to exert all that I've commanded you. What I've heard repeatedly from those who lead these institutions and feel conviction about it, every one of them reference Second Timothy Two, two, that is the church's responsibility to, to educate for generations, because Paul writes, to Timothy there, and he wants him to know that he needs to teach and what I have. You've heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, and trusted faithful men who will be able to teach others also. So the fourth generation Paul's right, Timothy, he says, Timothy Hughes teaches others. And then there are others that Timothy has taught who are teaching a generation below them. And that's kind of the mantra of theological education within the church. And I think that drives Back to unity that's found not in our institutions, but in the in the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself. And so May we all participate in that and participate with one another in this form itself is a great opportunity to demonstrate it.
Then are likely to be speaking with Dr. Michael Wilburn, senior pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, and also author of the PhD dissertation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, educational philosophy, church proximity and academic standards in church based theological education, a phenomenological study, Dr. Wilburn, thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you, Dr. Armstrong. It's been a real pleasure. Thank you very much.