- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

The D.C. area's first Baptist theology school with a broad evangelical focus began its fifth year of classes yesterday, hoping that its new home and new accreditation will add to a winning formula for modern seminary education.
The John Leland Center for Theological Studies, which began classes at the 60,000-square-foot facility of First Baptist Church of Clarendon, was accredited in recent weeks by the Association of Theological Schools.
And with the support of Baptist churches in Northern Virginia and the District, there is talk of becoming an "East Coast Fuller Seminary," referring to the Pasadena, Calif., theology school that opened in a small building in 1947 and today has the largest seminary enrollment in the nation.
At a convocation Tuesday night, the Rev. Randel Everett, seminary president and former pastor of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, said forming a theology school in a church building at an urban crossroads fits the times.
"Are physicians trained in some ivory tower, or are they trained in the middle of a hospital where people are coming in and out?" he said. "We want to be involved in the totality of church life."
The move this week to the Clarendon church puts the seminary at the heart of Arlington, a block from the Clarendon station on the Metro's Orange Line, and will infuse new activity into the steepled church, which has dwindled to 80 members.
That part of Arlington, according to demographic studies by churches, is perhaps the lowest in church attendance in Northern Virginia.
That, too, is defining the work of the seminary, which bills itself "broadly evangelical with a Baptist heritage."
"Some of the churches I visited around here are almost empty," said James Lee Witt, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who is on the 19-member board of trustees for the school. "We have to get young people back into the church," he said. "We have to have something to bring them to."
The seminary classes are mostly in the evenings, and though this year's 56 master's degree students and 48 diploma in theology students have been connected by local churches and "word of mouth," the marketing has just begun.
"We think our appeal will be to the evangelical churches and the Baptists, but that does not have to be our only audience," said Sheila King Everett, dean of students and wife of the seminary president.
Amid two decades of theological and political controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the six historic seminaries have come under conservative leadership and the moderate Baptists have created splinter theology schools.
Although Leland officials are mindful of this dynamic, school officers said the center is not an attempt to an answer SBC disputes. "We were not born out of the controversy, we were born out of the need," administrator Karen McGuire said.
The school sees a need for a cosmopolitan, international-minded and culturally diverse training ground for evangelicals.
It is named for John Leland, the 18th-century Massachusetts Baptist pastor who preached in Virginia for 14 years and befriended Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, influencing their ideas about religious liberty.
The seminary idea occurred to five Baptist leaders who attended a Baptist World Alliance meeting in 1997. An exploratory committee of 50 Baptists convened later that year, and the first classes were held in 1998.
The local churches supporting the project are members of Northern Virginia's Mount Vernon Baptist Association and the District of Columbia Baptist Convention. The school cites the alliance, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and Prison Fellowship as cooperative resources in the area.
The school's $675,000 annual budget is raised by donors and tuition, and it has decided to avoid denominational support so it can be theologically independent.
The seminary's "major emphasis" statement outlines traditional Christian doctrines and says the Bible "is the inspired word of God, reveals the divine will for salvation of the world, and is totally truthful in all it intends to affirm."
By comparison, the updated Southern Baptist "Baptist Faith and Message" statement that all ministers and staff are required to sign says the Bible is "truth, without any mixture of error" and that "all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy."
Mrs. Everett said that with a highly educated population in the Washington area, the school has a natural constituency and can experiment with the evening courses and continuing education models that are popular in universities today.
"It does make community building more difficult," she said. "But we do things that build community." A fall retreat is planned, for example, for all master's of divinity students.
Mr. Everett, the seminary president, said training for ministry is different from his day. "I hope all our graduates don't have calls to be pastors," he said. "We have to go back to a volunteer system in the church. We really want to blur lines between clergy and laity."
Examples include Samuel L. Feemster, a supervisory agent with the FBI, whose master's of divinity study gives him ideas for training he provides agents in stress management in the field.
"They are both ministries," he said of law-enforcement and clergy work. Also, he said, "We can't expect to build relationships with the community if we offend their theology or don't know their theology."
Similarly, Carolyn Staley of the National Institute of Literacy is completing a master's of divinity degree and considering whether to seek a pulpit call or build a literacy network on the principle of faith-based social services.
"To deliver literacy services, the greatest trust factor is with the faith community," she said. As a lifelong soloist in churches and a pastor's daughter, she said, the preaching may also come naturally. "My kids tell me I've preached all my life."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide