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Two schools lose United Methodist status


7:00 A.M. EST Oct. 1, 2010

Photo courtesy of Palmer Theological Seminary.
Photo courtesy of Palmer Theological Seminary.
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Two Pennsylvania seminaries have been removed from a list of schools approved to train United Methodist clergy, following a June ruling by a denominational sanctioning body.

Evangelical Theological Seminary in Myerstown and Palmer Theological School in Wynnewood received letters from the University Senate – the sanctioning body that determines which schools meet the criteria for listing as institutions affiliated with the denomination – informing them of the decision, but offering little information as to what led to it.

Michael W. Sigman, Evangelical’s president, said the letter cited a “lack of ethnic inclusiveness of faculty and staff” and that the seminary did not have enough full-time United Methodist professors on its faculty. The school has two part-time United Methodist professors.

Evangelical has been a United Methodist-approved school for 16 years. Schools must reapply for approval by the University Senate every four years, and Sigman said Evangelical’s 2006 approval notice mentioned nothing about diversity concerns.

Palmer received no explanation at all; it was simply told it is no longer approved.

“We don’t understand why this has been done,” Palmer dean Christopher Hall told Christianity Today. “We were completely caught off-guard.”

“This process has the feel of being punitive, especially after a positive 16-year relationship,” Sigman said.

Christ Hall at Evangelical Theological Seminary. Photo courtesy Evangelical Theological Seminary
Christ Hall at Evangelical Theological Seminary. Photo courtesy Evangelical Theological Seminary
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Both schools are pursuing the matter and plan to appeal the decision. The Senate meets again in January 2011.

“Just because these schools are off the list of institutions that meet United Methodist requirements doesn’t impugn their academic quality in the least,” said Gerald D. Lord, associate general secretary of the Division of Higher Education of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. “These concerns are solely about the formation of United Methodist clergy.”

Impact on Pennsylvania churches

The United Methodist Church will ordain only elders and deacons from schools or seminaries that are listed as meeting the guidelines for training students in Wesleyan-based theology and United Methodist polity.

The decision does not take effect immediately. Students enrolled by June 30, 2011, will still be eligible for ordination as United Methodists elders and deacons. Approximately 26 percent of Evangelical’s 175 students and about 16 percent of Palmer’s 325 students are United Methodist.

Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Eastern Pennsylvania (regional) Conference said, “For a lot of little churches, it was good to have a seminary nearby. It will certainly be an inconvenience and will color the availability of appointments for many of our churches.

“Evangelical has a great following of graduates and people in the area who have loved and supported them, and they are very disappointed. I have gotten many letters.”

Lord said he has also received a great deal of correspondence over the Senate decision.

“Being on the list of United Methodist schools is not only important to the seminaries, but (also to) the annual (regional) conferences in which they’re located. The University Senate doesn’t take these decisions lightly, and neither do I.”

Sigman said these decisions “impact the nature of ministry within the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and what that ministry will look like in the next 10-15 years.

“Many of the churches in this conference have pastors who are bi-vocational. They don’t have the ability to move or commute to a United Methodist seminary that’s located some distance from their home. We provide a seminary option that is close at hand for them.”

“I respect the process; I just know it is going to be a little harder now to do (pastoral) placements,” Johnson said. “But God is in everything, and God will work through this as well.”

*Butler is editor of young adult content for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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