The Importance of Being Endorsed

The Importance of Being Endorsed

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Published:
July 7, 2016

For religion teachers at Adventist colleges and universities, an official endorsement process by the General Conference is part of the plan spelled out in Handbook of  the International Board for Ministerial and Theological Education (IBMTE).  But many are resisting the idea, and the resistance includes the leadership of the North American Division.

Created by the General Conference during Robert Folkenberg’s administration, IBMTE ”focuses on ministry throughout its life cycle, from formation to hiring, to continuing education according to Lisa Bearsley-Hardy, director of the General Conference Department of Education. 

In 2015, a Taskforce led by General Conference Vice President Ben Schoun was created to review and rewrite, where necessary, the Handbook for the Board. The draft revisions have been shared widely within the academic community and July 5 marked the end of the public comment session on the document which is due to be voted at Annual Council in October. 

Maury Jackson launched a lively “Independence Weekend” conversation when he suggested that the IBMTE “scrap the whole project” of requiring regular General Conference/ Division endorsement of theology faculty upon hiring and every five years thereafter as outlined in a chapter of the Handbook. 

The preface to Jackson’s concluding statement about scrapping the whole project was a quotation from Ellen G. White’s Manuscript Releases Vol. 17, “Every Person Has God-Given Talents Which Should Bear Fruit; Church Leaders Not to Exercise Control Over Others,” (pages 196-201):

…To handle men as if they were machinery, binding their freedom by methods and terms, is an offense which God will not tolerate….Some have been very ready to pronounce judgment upon the work of their fellow men, because it did not exactly represent their ideas. But has God pronounced them infallible? The spirit they have manifested in pronouncing judgment upon God’s messengers shows their fallibility and their ignorance, both of the Scriptures and of the power of God. These men {and women} are counterworking the work of God. They have felt at liberty to make decisions and laws which would bring talent under their jurisdiction. They have placed themselves in the judgment seat, to control their fellow men. But has God appointed them to do this work? He would say of them, “What doest thou here? Who sent you on this journey? Who gave you this errand to perform? Who made you a critic and judge on matters of doctrine? Who appointed you to pick and to choose the words and expressions which My servants shall use?

Jackson hit “reply all” when sending his June 29 comment to Teresa Reeves,  associate dean of the Theological Seminary at Andrews University and president of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, as well as the person chosen by the General Conference Department of Education to assist with the documents in this latest IBMTE process.  So Jackson’s e-mail went to all the 350 people on the ASRS mailing list, and it struck a chord.  Soon others were chiming in to support Jackson’s statement and to elaborate.

Stanley Patterson, also of Andrews University, prefaced his comment with an affirmation for any and all initiatives that promote excellence and quality in teaching. “Most of the IBMTE Handbook does that with the exception of the endorsement chapter,” he wrote. “The endorsement chapter reflects a trend that can be tracked by actions over the last 37 years in the model constitution and bylaws embedded in the GC Working Policy. The gradual process since 1980 of marking sections in bold face type that are mandatory rather than recommendations reflects a move away from relational trust and cooperation to a legislated model that assumes control as an acceptable model for compliance and unity.”  He added that, "Every move that we make under control mandate is a confession that the relational trust that held our church together for the past century is no longer reliable."

In his six reasons why the church should not pursue an endorsement process, Skip Bell, Andrews University, noted that the practice would contradict biblical teaching of the nature of the church. “It is ironic that we as a church would seek to assure faithfulness in the teaching of our faculty through a means that contradicts biblical teaching regarding the church.” He noted the policy would “move us further to centralization of power in a single person or group. Where power narrows to committees or positional leaders the ministering body withdraws. Or worse, they become critical.”

Robert Johnston, retired professor of New Testament at AU Theological Seminary, evoked early Christian history comparing the endorsement process with what occurred at the “falling away” when a gradual process of ever increasing creedalism and hierarchicalism led to a ripened papacy.  “This ultimately weakened Christen- dom and prepared the way for the triumph of Islam,” he said. For his last reason he suggested that the theological faculties of our universities and seminaries are the nearest thing that we have today to a prophetic voice, and that they act as a balance of power within the church.  “The devil looks upon this endorsement procedure and laughs, because if it is approved and implemented he wins,” he said.

There was an occasional voice in support of IBMTE. Lester Merkil, Andrews University, wrote that there are good aspects to the committee. “Without an IBMTE committee which has a majority membership of theological educators, our field would not be properly represented in the education decisions of the church. It needs to be!” But even he said, “I think we are fairly unanimous in our understanding that a certification process is harmful. In fact, I find it hard to understand how it has remained this far in the new process.”

John Matthews asked Teresa “to present to the committee a process that is more biblical than what is presented in the current IBMTE draft.”

From Friedensau Adventist University in Germany, Stefan Hoschele wrote that his institution suggests any procedure of endorsement or other type of certification should be done in a different way, which builds on (1) trust in faculty, (2) trust in institutional boards, and (3) actual ministry (teaching, research, and ministry to the church and society). He said this related to observations previously made to the IBMTE Revision Committee that apparently had no impact on the final version. “We deplore that the suggested handbook sows seeds of distrust, and we desire to work for a church in which we can cooperate without casting doubt on each other’s true Adventist Christianity.”

Two dozen individual faculty members from several of the universities in North America joined the e-mail response conversation over the weekend. The faculty of the  School of Theology at Walla Walla University sent the unanimous position of their entire faculty: "We would also like to add our voices to the many who have grave concerns about IBMTE's proposed endorsement process and resonate with many of the specific critiques that have already been offered.  We hope IBMTE can be a resource and an encouragement rather than a centralized oversight committee.  We love our church and wish to continue to minister in a climate of mutual respect, trust and familial charity as we have done for many decades."

This latest outcry over the control element of the endorsement process is not new. It has been voiced at various times during the life of IBMTE. Asked why the provision remains in the Handbook, Bearsley-Hardy says, “Because the Seventh-day Adventist church is losing a large part of its young people.” 

Just as faculty objections to the proposed “endorsement process” were accumulating, North American Division leaders were themselves working on a proposal for an “alternative” to the process.  The Division’s college presidents, although aligned with IBMTE’s goal of accountability in the teaching of religion, objected earlier to the “endorsement” provision as compromising college-board responsibility and introducing risk with respect to institutional accreditation.  On Tuesday, July 5, NAD administrators and Ministerial Department leaders joined college presidents and academic deans in support of a proposal that would jettison that provision.

The group’s “alternative procedures” document begins with recognition of the church’s “obligation” to “provide guidance” with respect to ministerial training by Adventist institutions of higher education.  Although some Christian colleges require all employees to sign a “faith statement,” the document says our own church has “wisely refrained” from this, out of respect both for the idea of “present truth” and for the final authority Bible.  Compliance by faith statement, it suggests, would run counter to these convictions.  

Still, constituents can and do influence ministerial training.  One pathway for such influence is through institutional boards that include “conference and union church leaders.”  Another is through the NAD Ministerial Association, which “works closely with the Schools and Departments of religion to inform and influence” curricula related to the training of ministers.  Still another is through the hiring process by which local conferences effectively assess graduates of programs for ministerial training.

These pathways assume basic trust among those involved. The IBMTE’s “endorsement process” would require every religion teacher to receive (at five-year intervals) an “endorsement certificate” from a centralized authority outside of college or university structures of governance.  The NAD’s “alternative procedures document” objects not only to the accreditation risk this would entail but also to the implied “lack of trust of the institutions of higher education as well as of their administrators and the conference and union leaders who serve on their boards of trustees.”

The document at the same time embraces IBMTE determination to “foster dynamic theological unity,” “promote professional excellence,” and “energize” Adventist spiritual life ““through committed faculty.”  Although the “endorsement process” would be “counterproductive,” such purposes matter.  The document promises collaboration with the NAD Ministerial Association on development of a “process to assure the faithfulness of the NAD religion faculty,” one “appropriate to” all North American colleges and universities, including, as is pointedly said, both Loma Linda University and Andrews University.

Under the provisions of the draft IBMTE document, proposed “alternative procedures” must receive that IBMTE approval “before they are implemented.”  NAD leaders declare at the end of their proposal that the “best chance” for meeting agreed-upon goals for ministerial education will come through such “collaborative efforts” as they envision in their statement.

 

Bonnie Dwyer is Editor of Spectrum Magazine. Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

 

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