The fall meeting of the Committee on Theological Education (COTE)—hosted here Sept. 21–23 by McCormick Theological Seminary and its president and COTE member, the Rev. Dr. Frank Yamada—undertook a full agenda, highlighted by a dialogue with PC(USA) Moderator Heath Rada.
Rada, a ruling elder who, as a president of the former Presbyterian School of Christian Education, now part of Union Presbyterian Seminary, in Richmond, Va., once served on COTE, was genuine in his affirmation of its mission.
“Having served on this committee for 12 years, this is more home to me than any other dimension of the church other than my local congregation,” Rada said addressing COTE’s members with a report on what he has been hearing across the church about theological education.
“I think that we in this room understand the historical relevance and current relevance of our theological institutions in terms of how much of the core of who we are as a denomination comes from these institutions,” he said. “I know that you are also interested not only in where you are going because we are at a time of great transition, but also where the church is headed.”
After expressing sadness that “more people don’t invoke the names and the roles of our theological institutions more frequently,” Rada outlined the questions he was hearing that need to be addressed. Those questions included:
- Are there too many seminaries?
- How do the seminaries relate to one another? Are there differences the church should know about?
- Is there enough emphasis on polity and loyalty to the denomination?
- Does the trend to recruit non-PC(USA) students dilute the effectiveness of our PC(USA) institutions as training centers for PC(USA) ministers?
- Do the institutions compete too much for the same students for the same degree programs? Why aren’t they seeking new specialties that would be unique areas for them?
- Is anyone taking an interest in educating the laity, not just Commissioned Ruling Elders (CREs)? “In a denomination of 1.7 million people, many would like more theological education to become better church members,” Rada observed.
- Should seminaries do the education of all CREs?
- Do we look for ways to utilize the extraordinary gifts that the seminary presidents bring?
“The church is always saying we need leaders,” Rada said. “Could COTE provide that leadership? We’re in a reformation time, a time when our church is trying to understand anew who we are. The presidents could have a great impact on that.”
Rada said that the PC(USA)’s theological institutions could encourage their alumni to support and participate in defining what the PC(USA) needs to be as a denomination.
During the question and answer session that followed, the Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary and a corresponding member of COTE, asked for Rada’s response to a new initiative that COTE would be undertaking as a result of research conducted by COTE member, Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, a ruling elder at First Spanish Presbyterian Church in Miami.
Primarily in response to a General Assembly referral from the Racial Ethnic & New Immigrant Church Growth Consultation Committee, Cintrón-Olivieri has been taking a careful look at all of the seminaries—their programming and curriculum— in terms of how they are preparing church leaders of all ethnicities.
“We will be organizing some of our work around issues of race and white privilege as to how we form leaders for the future,” Henderson said, “to bring a theological grounding for the church.”
Said Rada, “I think that’s wonderful.”
Earlier that morning, in discussing its proposed response to the specific GA referral, Henderson said she was interested in what the committee’s research would reveal about the formation of leadership.
“What does this research tell us about what we in the PC(USA) think leaders will need to create the conditions in the church broadly to understand white privilege and racism and to actually bring about change,” she said. “That’s a deeper level of research. There are some questions that need to be asked of our deans. That’s a second stage. That’s the leadership that COTE can bring. We think this kind of formation is so critical.”
In other business, COTE heard a report from the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director, and the Rev. Nancy Benson-Nicol, associate director for Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation. On Jan. 1, 2015 the Theological Education Fund was moved from the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) to the Presbyterian Foundation as a result of the recommendation of the Special Committee on Funding Theological Institutions at the 221st General Assembly (2014). COTE is in the process of reexamining and realigning its mission—and relationships—in the light of that transfer.
“A decision was made by COTE that a move needed to be made from passive fundraising to active fundraising,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeffrey F. Bullock, president of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and COTE’s chair, in introducing the presentation by Hinson-Hasty and Benson-Nicol. “There are so many things that are happening culturally that the former pattern for receiving those funds is long gone. That’s the first point to keep in mind. We didn’t anticipate that this would be much more complex than anyone realized at the time. Moving it isn’t like packing a suitcase.”
The Rev. Dr. Tom Taylor, president of the Presbyterian Foundation, who attended the meeting, said that it has been a pleasure having Hinson-Hasty and Benson-Nicol—both former PMA staff members—at the Foundation.
“This is yet another example of some of the changing ways we’re seeing the denomination changing relationships,” Taylor said.
The Rev. Dr. Paul T. Roberts, president and dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, was showed a short video presentation on an August conference on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s unfinished agenda held at Montreat Conference Center in collaboration with Johnson C. Smith. Roberts noted that two members of the steering committee that planned the conference were from COTE, the Rev. Dr. Theodore J. “Ted” Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, whose family was present when King made his historic speech at Montreat fifty years ago, and the Rev. Dr. Dean Thompson, president and professor of ministry emeritus at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
“It was beyond our wildest dreams,” said Roberts. “We anticipated 500 people; twice as many came.”
The Rev. Michelle Bartel, coordinator of theological education and seminary relations and PMA staff for COTE, invited committee members to share what they hoped to gain through their participation in COTE.
“I see COTE as trying to connect the Presbyterian seminaries with the resources and the structures of the Presbyterian Church,” said the Rev. Dr. Leanne VanDyk, president of Columbia Theological Seminary. “I don’t think we need to be resourced in our jobs of providing accredited degree courses. What we do need is to stay connected with the church.”
Added the Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, “What I need from COTE is ‘what does it mean to be a Presbyterian seminary?’”